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Tattoo quests

by Marilyn Tan. Posted on February 13, 2011, Sunday

PEOPLE have practised the art of tattooing since the dawn of time to enhance their looks and to serve as a symbol of spirituality, ranks, talismans and amulets.

LAST IBAN TATTOO ARTIST: Maung and his ‘magical’ tattoos. — Photos by Dr Lars Krutak)

In his quests to research and document these body arts, American cultural anthropologist, photographer and writer, Dr Lars Krutak, has travelled the world for more than 15 years, meeting indigenous peoples to learn more about their unique tattoos and the magical beliefs behind them as well as to document the vanishing traditions of tribal tattooing.

Fascinated by tattoos ever since he was a graduate student, he has studied the 2,000-year-old tradition of St Lawrence Island Yupiget tattoo among the last generation of practitioners for his Master’s thesis at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Krutak was in Kuching recently to make a presentation at the Gathering of the Tribes 2011 – a Tribal and Tattoo Expo on various tattooing traditions from countries such as Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia.

He also travelled to the outskirts of Sarawak with a small film crew, to interview Maung, the last Iban tattoo artist in Skrang, Sri Aman Division.

“When we arrived there, we learned Maung was really ill — and dying of cancer,” Krutak said of his trip that included two Iban tattoo artists.

“Surrounded by his female relatives, he had refused food for the past two weeks as he was ready to travel to the ‘longhouse’ of his ancestors — ultimately.”

Lying on his deathbed, Muang gave Krutak an incredible three-hour interview on the magical tattoos he created for ‘every man’ in Skrang.

According to Muang, of these men, 55 were Iban Rangers who fought heavily-armed Japanese soldiers during World War II with only mandau swords, blowguns and spears.

He said his tattoos protected him and the Rangers from harm.

“The Japanese bullets just went around and through me and I was never wounded.”

As related to Krutak, Muang credited this feat to his tattoos, saying his ‘protector spirit’ had led him to a meteorite in the jungle and he would later dip the object into every tattooing pigment he created to invoke magical powers for the tattoos.

Remarkably, of the 55 Rangers from the Skrang River who fought in the war, all but one returned home alive, Krutak recalled Muang telling him.

On his observations of the traditional tattoos of Sarawak, Krutak said the local body arts were one of the most beautiful in the world.

“The motifs and meanings of Sarawak tattoos are incredible and the elements and meanings are all connected.

“What I’ve learnt is that if you know how to read the tattoos, you can tell what they are about,” he said, adding that the tattoos also served as identification marks for the wearer.

Krutak suggested the traditional tattoos in Sarawak be preserved to perpetuate their values and true meanings.

“Maybe the indigenous people could do a research on local tattoos or start a foundation to preserve the history behind them. In the long run, I believe this will inspire the younger generation to document them as well.”

Today, Krutak works in the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of National History in Washington, DC.

In his continued effort to understand how tattoos and other forms of body modifications ‘make’ the people who wear them, he has acquired many traditional tattoos, including hand-tapped works from the Ibans, Kalinga of the Philippines and Mentawai of Indonesia; hand-poked art from Theravada Buddhist monks in Thailand and hand-pricked designs from the Kayabi of the Brazilian Amazon.

He also wears about 1,000 razor and knife-cut scars across his body which he received from other groups like the Kaningara of Papua New Guinea, the Betamarribe of Benin, the Mamar of Ethiopia and the Makonde of Mozambique.

Krutak’s books include the Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women, and the large format coffee table book Kalinga Tattoo: Ancient and Modern Expressions of the Tribal, focusing on the Kalinga people of northern Philippines.

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