Home > Peace Corps Stories > Tattooed

The Peace Corps Stories:
I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters

Peace Corps Stories Section:

Main Page (Introduction and Contents)

PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general

I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters

Quentin, the World Traveler

Stalking Extremely Small Game

The Christians and the Pagans

We Visit the Land Dayaks


Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak

Related Sections:
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Sarawak Links

Other Sections:
Christmas News Letters
Misc. Essays
Web Design

If you live long enough with people who practice ritual tattooing, the question of getting one yourself eventually changes, by a process of cultural osmosis, from "Should I get one?" to "When I get one, how big will it be?" I got mine from the Ibans, the famed headhunting "Sea Dayaks" of Borneo, while I was in the Peace Corps. I lived with the Ibans for two years at a rural boarding school in Sarawak, on the northwest coast of Borneo.

The Ibans ("Sea Dayak" is a term invented by an English anthropologist) have tattooed each other for generations. They put flowers and stars on their shoulders, broad, dagger-like patterns on their throats, fish hooks on their calves, and a wide variety of designs on their arms. Some of the tattoos are for decoration, some render one invulnerable to iron or steel weapons, some make him irresistible to women, and all, to hear my students tell it, were strong tests of raw physical courage.

Some of the longhouses still keep their trophy skulls hung in conspicuous places, a reminder of the old days. Headhunting stopped in the late nineteenth century, except for World War II, when the Japanese occupation forces encountered a revival of the custom. Once in a rare while a student would introduce me to a village ancient with a black ring tattooed around his finger, and I'd know he was a veteran of the irregular forces. Headhunting in Borneo in my time there, 1970 - 1972, was as common as showdowns on Main Street were in Dodge City, a fact I kept trying to impress on my students. (They thought everything they saw at the cinema had to be true, and assumed the cowboys who rode the silver screen were hired right off the range.)

Although I'd missed the chance to be tattooed by a headhunter by a generation or so, the chance of getting a tribal tattoo was too good to pass up. I decided mine would be a traditional design, small but visible. When I got back the United States I would casually explain how I had acquired it to various wide-eyed belles, making light of the pain involved.

One October afternoon Chendang, one of my students, told me if I visited his longhouse that weekend, we would meet a man who could tattoo. I accepted his invitation. Early that Friday afternoon I showered and shaved my arm. There is something final about taking that first, physical step towards getting a tattoo; you can talk about getting one, and think about getting one, but once you've lathered up and shaved the spot, you're committed to going through with the whole affair. As I shaved, I visualized what would happen that night . . .

We'd be working in the long communal hallway of the longhouse, surrounded by people. Pressure lanterns emit a harsh glare and a soft hiss. Strange things cry in the jungle outside, wind rustles the banana leaves, and the night air is soft as a caress. The audience is spellbound as the artist selects a carved wooden block from his private collection, while his assistant mixes soot with rancid pork fat. They use the mixture to ink the face of the block, then print the design on my arm. They use needles to tap the ink into my skin, blunt needles, rusty with age and crusted with the blood of hundreds of other men. As the artist taps, gongs play, slender Iban maidens watch in awe, and arak, a homemade rice whiskey with the robust character of kerosene, flows like water . . ..

I knew from previous experience that a mug of arak would render me nearly invulnerable to any iron or steel they were likely to use, so I wasn't worried about being able to go through with the ritual. If the Ibans wanted to adopt me into the tribe while they were at it, I decided, I'd be willing.

Chendang came over to my house after my shower and we were off. We took a bus to the bazaar, where he bought a packet of sewing needles. "Well," I said to myself, "there goes a bit of the old magic and, a good chance to catch hepatitis".

We took another bus out of the bazaar. I sat with my feet on someone's bale of raw rubber, listening to a fighting cock exchange opinions with a hunting dog in the back. The bus rattled and coughed along the dusty road for an hour, then let us out at Nanga Assam. Nanga Assam is one shophouse and a trail leading into the jungle. We walked along the trail for another hour, through secondary jungle, yellow-green rice fields and half-civilized rubber gardens. Finally we climbed a notched log into the front door of Chendang's longhouse.

A longhouse, Borneo's version of the condominium, is just that, a long, rambling house built and owned by the occupants. Each family has its own set of rooms, but every family's front door opens onto a big communal hall. If you imagine a loaf of bread, with each slice being a different family's apartment, you'll have a good idea of the structure. Richer families have wider slices, poorer ones thinner ones, but each apartment is the same length from front to back. Rumah Malupa, Chendang's house, is typical. It's made entirely of wood, roofed with corrugated tin and palm-leaf thatch. It holds 15 families and is 60 yards long.

We were drinking tea with Chendang's parents when an old man wandered in to join us. He sat in a corner sipping tea for twenty minutes, then Chendang mentioned that this was the man who was to do the tattoo.

"Tabi, Tuai! Nuan udah ngunga mioh ukir itu?" I asked; "Greetings, Elder Sir! You have done many of these tattoos?"

Elder Sir had lived on the upper reaches of the Rejang River, where he had sometimes worked for a timber company. He remembered the British soldiers who had come to Sarawak ten years before, during the difficulties with Indonesia. Several of them had magnificent tattoos, some in several colors. One sergeant had an eagle on his chest. Apoo! When he breathed deeply it seemed to fly!

Had Elder Sir done a tattoo for a British soldier?

No, not exactly. Was I going to go to Singapore? I could probably get an eagle done there. Very clever, the people in Singapore.

That would be nice, I agreed, but I wanted a traditional Iban design, something that would fit my arm here -- see? Where I'd shaved a spot.

Oh. My name, perhaps? That would fit, and then people would know I could read. Several people Elder Sir knew had had their names done.

That wasn't quite what I had in mind either. Could I look over the blocks he used to print tattoos? Maybe I could pick a design from them.

Elder Sir didn't have any blocks at the moment, but he could make one if it was necessary; there was a good chunk of wood over there by the fire.

How had he done tattoos in the past, if he didn't have any blocks?

Well, he hadn't really done any himself, but when his were done (here he pointed at his well-decorated arms) he'd watched very closely.

We'd find something before dinner, I guessed. When did Elder Sir want to start? Right after evening rice?

Elder Sir's eyes weren't as good as they used to be; he thought it would be best to wait for morning, when the light was better.

I agreed. The next morning, while we were eating breakfast, Chendang had a flash of inspiration, and rummaged around in the back of the room. He came up with a shopping bag from the Kuching Hygienic Plastic Factory, decorated with Iban designs. Great, I said; if those aren't traditional, they should be. Chendang copied one of the designs, a stylized dragon, onto my arm with a felt tipped pen, and we were set. Elder Sir came in with two eighteen-inch sticks. I tied six needles together while Elder Sir split the end of one stick. He tied the clump of needles into the split end at right angles. He would tap with the second stick.

Chendang's mother mixed Tiger Brand cooking oil and lampblack into a thick paste; I added a squeeze of antibiotic ointment to the goo and we were ready to start. I put my arm on a rolled mattress.

Elder Sir dipped the needle points into the ink, held them six inches over my arm, blinked, squinted, then tapped the needle stick just behind the needles, driving all six needle points into my skin. He dipped again, blinked, squinted, then tapped. Again: dip, aim, blink, squint, tap.

After a dozen taps I asked for pause. Chendang asked me if I wanted a piece of wood to bite on. I told him I'd stick it out a little longer, but could Elder Sir pay a little more attention to the edges? Some of his taps were going wide, and I'd be carrying his mistakes for the rest of my life.

Elder Sir didn't know what it was, but he wasn't seeing too well this morning; maybe there was something in the air . . .

Chendang's mother offered her services. She tapped faster than Elder Sir had, and came fairly close to the mark with each tap, but not close enough.

Wait a minute, I said. What about holding the needles right on the design, then tapping? In fact, here; I would hold the needles while they tapped. Chendang wondered if that would be asking too much of me, what with the agony and all. I told him it wouldn't, set my jaw at a steely angle. (I could have told him the pain was a bit less than it had been reported to be, but who was I to shatter his faith in a traditional rite?) I heard a set of small exclamations as I took over the needles. Turning around, I saw a group of primary school students had slipped in to watch. I waved, turned back, positioned the needles, and Chendang's mother tapped.

When she had to quit to fix lunch, Elder Sir resumed his place. At first Chendang had winced in sympathy with each tap, but. By the time Elder Sir tired Chendang had gotten into the spirit of the thing, and was ready to take elder Sir's place. By then the audience was so close I could see the eager glint in their eyes, and I was beginning to feel like the fence Tom Sawyer's friends had whitewashed. We shooed the children back before they could even ask to try their hands. We went over the design five times, with a break for lunch, then finished in time for dinner.

Elder Sir said I should rub oil into my skin to keep the new tattoo from peeling, and we spent the night swapping stories in broken Iban. I taught in long sleeves for a week while the swelling went down, then came into class in short sleeves. Instant commotion and concern; had it been very painful, Sir? I shrugged. Aw shucks, class, we English teachers are made of sterner stuff than you thought. Now maybe we could turn to more important things, like adverbs. Get your books out.

Peace Corps Volunteers are supposed to show an appreciation for other Cultures, and to Encourage People to Value Their Traditions. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, if I could show my students, who had adopted so much western culture, that I valued theirs? I didn't have much faith in my ability to influence their taste, based on past experiences. I had tried, by quiet example, to persuade them that it wasn't necessary to have trousers so tight one was uncomfortable when he stood up to recite, nor was it mandatory to put a quarter pound of pomade on hair every morning. One student asked me if I was too stingy to buy groovy clothes, and another showed me a magazine picture of a greasy rock and roll star, and asked me why I wasn't that classy. No one else noticed my efforts.

For once I had an effect, but it wasn't exactly the one I'd planned. A few weeks after I unveiled, ink began to vanish from the library in quantity and small lamps would flicker in the boy's dormitories after Lights Out. Winston James Dimbap got "WJD" tattooed on his shoulder, two Form Three boys had the "Peace" circlet put on theirs, four young men opted for a copy of the Anchor Beer anchor on their chests, and Edward Delie had his name printed on his arm. About then I gave a short, pointed lecture in Civics class concerning Pride in One's OWN Heritage, the Value of Tradition, and, just to make sure no one missed the hint, Thinking for a Minute What a Tattoo Will Look Like in 20 Years.

As I lectured I noticed Tindin, who sat in the back, was wearing a long sleeved shirt. After a week he too came to class in short sleeves to reveal his accomplishment. Not only had he adopted a new name, but he'd done it in letters two inches high. There it was, marching in full glory from the inside of his elbow down to his wrist:


[There's a picture of Chendang's mother, Elder Sir and me in action in the Peace Corps Picture section.]

Problems, comments or complaints? Need an opinion? Send E-mail to:
This page updated: June 20, 2014