what is a
This page is part of an ongoing dialogue between Vince
Hemingson and tattoo artist Pym Mohn (she was looking after
Thomas' shop while he was off doing the location scouting and
initial filming of Vanishing Tattoo). Pym (from Ireland) has
traveled the world extensively in her own search for tribal
tattooing and it's mysterious roots. This discussion started in
direct response to Vince's
dispatches from the field to the Trip
Updates section of the site.
Lars Krutak our
technical advisor also comments.
A tattooist friend once said on the subject of 'tribal' tattoos that as we
are a modern 'tribe', all tattoos are tribal... the fact that the original
black graphic styles were pilfered from real tribes has unfortunately led to
the pasting of yet another modern 'label' which shouldn't really
apply. I personally think that once you take away the 'tribal' element in the shape
of ritual and symbolism, it stops being 'tribal' and "imitation " cannot be
the "sincerest from of flattery" if there is no respect or mostly even
recognition ,for an image's origin. I have discussed this with Native
American people who cannot understand why non-Natives would tattoo
themselves with Native imagery which may be harmful to their souls even if
they themselves are ignorant of the symbology! Medicine men would paint
themselves but not tattoo themselves because they were working with symbols
which changed for every ritual depending on the circumstance...
to have a permanent 'spirit' mark could endanger him if he was not working with that
particular spirit and would be disrespectful to the other
spirits... (all very convoluted, but there is your non-tattooed shaman...)
Modern 'tribal' is far from any 'tribal' origin except perhaps where it
fulfills the need to be part of something larger, to be cool. I know a few
'tribal' specialists who couldn't tell you anything about the
tribes, their imagery and symbolism... to me they are specialising in a black graphic
style, nothing more!! Where is the flattery? Tom was not wrong when he said
you know more about tattooing and it's roots than the majority of tattooists
out there... how do you feel about that as a statement of affairs?
I wanted to make some comments on the nature of tattooing by
hand, but I gotta run. Take care!
I agree with you to an extent, Pym. But I believe, as do many of the Iban,
that the commercialization of the tattoo, ie having to pay for it, due in
large part to the increased domination of the electric machine over
traditional implements is what's really altered the social interplay of
The result could be seen to be a weakening of the social fabric by a
weakening of the powerful bonding ritual that takes place when you are
continuously tattooed by many different members of your social peers. In
addition, tattooing has gone from being a group practised activity to one
performed by a specialist.
I think a good analogy might be a monkey troop that grooms to strengthen
social bonds. Monkeys, baboons, apes and other primates all groom far beyond
what is really needed to remove ticks, other insects and dead skin. They
groom in order to strengthen the social fabric of their community. Because
we are hairless apes, but apes nonetheless, perhaps at some primitive level,
tattooing serves a similar function.
I don't think Westerners are immune to that need. In fact we may even crave
it to a greater extent. If you look at recent history, most of Northern
Europeans tattooed until the advent of the spread of Christianity which often
times expressly forbid it. Picts, Celts, Vikings... you name them, there is
clear historical evidence that they tattooed. And they must have tattooed in
ways that were similar to the Iban in their longhouses. The tattoos must
have made the initiates feel closer to their larger community.
Fast forward a few centuries and look at how quickly Captain Cook's sailors
embraced the tattooing they found in Tahiti, Fiji and Samoa. Those "western"
sailors went "native" so quickly went it came to getting what could only be
called a tribal tattoo it makes the head spin to think about it.
And the officers were not immune to the lure of getting tattooed themselves.
And officers in the British Admiralty could only be described as charter
members of the social, political and economic elite in Great Britain. And
Great Britain was the social, political and economic super-power of the world
at that time. They were the elite of the world. At least in terms of the
power they wielded in real terms.
In fact, for nearly a century afterwards you have that social elite, the
British Admiralty, actively sanctioning and promoting the acquiring of
tattoos among the ranks of its members because they see how significant a
role it play in "building esprit de corps". Is this not exactly what goes on
in the Iban longhouse, the building of "esprite de corps"?
Another angle that I believe it is very important for us to look at in this
discussion is how the advent of industrialization fragmented the traditional
farming communities in the West. In small villages all over Europe, most of
them dedicated to farming and agriculture or fishing and food gathering along
the coasts, people grew up in communities were they would know most of
the people they would meet on a daily basis. Strangers meant change, and change
is always frightening because it is potentially dangerous.
Most of the West in the pre-industrial age had many ceremonies and rituals
that would have played a similar role as tattooing does in the Iban culture.
All of them strengthening the group bond and the individuals ties to the
larger community group. With the industrial ages need for the concentration
of labour, that lifestyle became doomed.
As a species used to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in small
groups where we know everyone, to suddenly be thrust into large urban centers
filled with strangers must have been and still to this day is very unsettling
to the human spirit. Maybe tattooing, which is so widespread, fulfills a
deep human need and desire to identify ourselves with a community of people
we can recognize. Maybe we need and want, even in the West with our
industrialized tattooing, to feel that we belong to a "Tattoo Tribe".
More Musings from Vince
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Did you ever see Greg Iron's illustration of the "Rime of the Ancient
Mariner"? Right up there with Virgil Finlay, Bernie Wrightson as one of the
best ink illustrators I have ever seen, so you see, art definitely leaves a
mark whether you met the guy or not and whether it was permanent or
many artists, the passion is in the creation, the getting there,
and I think that's what happens to people who truly become fascinated by the
tattoo; they devote life times to it... to me it's a search for perfection that can never
exist, there are too many variables! Greg's work would have lent itself perfectly to tattooing by
hand (western style!) with the prolific use of dots for shading.
I really haven't done much hand tattooing, mostly due to lack of time and the commercial non-viability
of it in a business situation, but it fascinates me because you really can
take every dot into consideration. (I should add that it's not
'tribal' styles that I use as images when I work this way..) The aggression of the
machine is gone, all there is is needle and skin... The bond can be made
between 'artist' as giver and 'client' as receiver (inter-family tattooing of
the Iban would add strength to this bonding), and the scene is set for
incense and ritual ceremony. I sound like a tree-hugger at this
point(!) and it's not easy to explain with the confines of word precision
(you're the expert on this one), but suffice to say that the process becomes much more
personal and much more defined...those involved can really contemplate their
experience and the reason behind it. Hence, ceremony and permanent markings to
establish transition, be it in maturity, warrior status, tribal
position.... a tribal involvement because each member of the tribe was
important to the whole for it's continuation.
The West has only ever known transience, how can we understand the importance
of tribal togetherness when we don't ever totally trust our closest friends
and family, let alone ourselves?
Maybe you should try tattooing yourself by hand some day out of the
jungle, away from the critters, so you can get a feel for it yourself!!!!
Sorry I'm not going to be about when you guys get back, would love to really
chat about all this stuff o.k. Seinfeld's on gotta go, nuff for now.
Just wanted to say that your writings are excellent and very
expressive considering your sleep deprivation factor etc...
Knowing something off tribal cultures in the forests of
Mexico, I think that 'shame' is a Western concept and possibly something that even has no word
for it in Iban... seems to me it's a missionary imposed disease and I wonder
if that is what affects the older tribal peoples so much as the disease of
pollution of younger peoples minds by Americana and satellite tv...
just a thought and you can completely discard it with a big fuckoff if you wish!!!
Your answer to your shamanic question will probably be in the tome
'Shamanism' by Mircea Eliade who wrote extensively on tribal shamanic
Must run, take care and try to enjoy!!
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I both agree and disagree about your comments on "shame being a Western
construct imposed on native peoples..."
I believe that the West, or to be both more fair and more accurate, certain
representative groups from the West, mainly primarily religious in nature, and
by the West I believe we are all speaking of those European powers engaged in
the age of imperial colonization, made native and aboriginal peoples feel
"shame" for things and behaviors that the indigenous peoples had never
considered shameful before. An example being public nudity or the
practice of polygamy or the worship of any God other than the Judeo-Christian model.
However, I would argue that every culture experiences "shame". And by shame
I mean a feeling of conscience that certain acts are prohibited and/or frowned
upon by the community at large because of their potential destructiveness to
the community as a whole. These would be things like unwarranted violence,
incest, theft from ones own community group or behaviors that were accepted
by the larger community as being detrimental to its well-being. If you
violated the social-contract within your community you would be expected to
Shame then, in my interpretation, is an effective deterrent against
potentially harmful behaviors by individuals in a community. And if shame
wasn't a sufficient enough deterrent for the misbehavior of certain
individuals, then nearly every culture on the planet has harsher social
sanctions to punish those individuals who break the social contract. They
can be fines, public condemnation (which it would seem to me to be a way to
try to reinforce a sense of shame in the perpetrator) physical punishment and
in certain cases banishment from the community. In the old days, to be
driven from your community might very well have been a death sentence because
the individuals in the community were so interdependent on each other for
survival. In the most extreme cases of course, certain behaviors
might result in an individual being put to death.
So.... in my usual long-winded way, that's my take on shame. What do you
think? Are there any societies or cultures where anything goes? It's
interesting that the dominant political philosophies of the past several
hundred years have all centered on the arguments that attempt to strike a
balance between the rights of the individual versus the rights of the larger
To me, this poses a larger, more interesting question. Is the rise in the
popularity of tattooing today in the West an indication that individuals want
to be part of a larger community or is it an attempt for a member of the
larger community to become more of an individual?
I'd love to hear what you think...
Best as always, Vince
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|":re: o.k. here's more...."coz" words" is really still on the 'shame' issue
and I've had another whole day to think about this even though today is your
I agree that 'commercialization of the tattoo' has had a profound effect on
traditional tattooing, the same is, I feel, true even in the
West. The "old school" of tattooing (by which I mean, tattooers who completely know and
understand their trade and it's history and protect it's secrets) has been
swept aside by a wave of youthful arrogance with no respect for tradition....this is of
course, a generalization, but I feel it's effects on the tattoo trade in general have been pretty far reaching over the last 10
years. We now have perhaps a higher standard of artwork, but we also have
pop star style super-egos to contend with. So traditions are forced into
change, and every human being now has the freedom to explore his/her own set of
values... with the diversity that brings, I find that the question of why people get tattooed today is almost
impossible to answer, and I'm not sure that there is a common (even
subconscious) goal of any sort.
Outside influences like industrialization, commercialization,
foreign religions, satellite t.v. are bound to fragment the compactness of tribes
which is only truly strong when the only reality the tribal community knows
is the tribal community. Western society is completely fragmented because we are always questioning
and changing things in search of answers. For many, the search for self
identity and the desire to be different is all there is, the struggle not to
conform, not to be another number, to break away from the
community. Media begins bombarding people from the moment they are capable of
understanding, enforcing the mode society has set for us to live
by... are women supposed to obsess over their clothing size all their
lives? how macho does a guy have to be to really be a man? But it's easier to learn than it is
to unlearn and it's easier to rebel than to accept..."maybe
tattooing... fulfills a deep human need and desire to identify
I realize this subject is so open to generalization it's untrue;
we are talking aspects of psychology, sociology, anthropology, theosophy and a whole
bunch of -isms... Here's my idea of an example of this... An Iban tribesman tattoos his neck to make a statement to
observers, and so does the street punk... but one is very secure in who he is and why he is
tattooed, the other is not... would you agree?
If we need to "feel that we belong to a tattoo tribe" why would you say that
there are elements that just want to go further, be more
tattooed, more way out?? Where do implants and brandings and self-mutilation come in...(all
'tribal' origin hence "modern primitives")? If it's about
bonding, how come we still feel the need to outdo each other? Could it be that there is such an inherent difference in the ways of
thinking of tribal and (so-called) civilized societies, that there is no way
we can or should attempt to draw parallels even in something so 'basic' as
And a nice quote to finish this particular ramble..."to the
Native, power is energy, to the White man, power is control"
I think we could be discussing this for a while
there, Vince, gimme feedback when you have time and sleep-smoothed presence of mind!!!
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|Hi Vince and Pym,
Here is the Iban word for "Shame." It can be used in many ways, for differing
offenses... let's go there now!
1) malu : shame, ashamed; hurt someone's feelings: ia malu ka pengawa' diri' ke salah = he is ashamed of his bad conduct; malu hati aku mai' nuan makai laban nadai utai dempa' = I'm ashamed to have asked you to (this) meal because there's nothing much to eat; sida' meri' malu ka aku or sida' ngasoh aku malu = they made me feel ashamed; ia nge-malu-ka aku lalu mayar utang aku = he was ashamed for me and paid my debt; anang nge-malu-ka = don't embarrass people; ia selalu be-malu aku = he always makes me feel awkward; pe-malu = shame, diffidence, offence of giving shame; tunggu pe-malu = 'fine' for that offence. Insult, slander, or malicious gossip easily gives rise to a claim for a pe-malu which, if not dealt with promptly by the Tuai Rumah (recognized representative of longhouse for attending to outsiders, dealing with officials, visitor litigants), can destroy the community.
2)Tunggu: Customary law fine agreed by the parties, payable to injured party (individual or group) = pe-tunggu. Tunggu are not penal in intent but compensatory in the sense that they neutralize the ill effect of the offence and restore the state of harmony (celap) in the community and between it and the deities. This state has been secured by the tuah rumah through omens and rites and keeping of amulets (penselap) for the purpose, so he is entitled to hear cases and assess
|Hi Vince and Lars,
(BY the way it's Friday 24 November, 9.30)
I'm really appreciating this information exchange very much,
it's a great way to learn new things about old things and how often does a person get to
discuss such things with very well educated anthropologists and men in the
field (although I have to confess to feeling a little out of my league so
please bear with me guys!)
I'll start by quoting the original thing that kicked me into questioning
mode, which to me is pretty much intrinsic to our discussion of the concept
of shame among tribal peoples, I needed to recheck this as I was getting a
little confused by the intensity of the information coming in. Vince in his update Saturday Nov 18 "Why on earth am I doing this....?"
said; "We made aboriginal peoples ashamed of who they were, we made them ashamed of
their tattoos." and later went on to say that he hopes you guys can "document that they are
not ashamed of their tattoos."
I wondered if there was a word for shame in
Iban, and now, thanks to Lars, we know that there are, in fact,
several. I was interested in the comments of the professor he communicates with that "the issue of 'shame' is rather complex"
in these languages and would love to have access to the writings he quotes.
Clearly, however, the Iban feel no shame for the fact that their world is a
world of spirits, where everything has a soul and everything has it'splace.
That is simply the way it is. They co-exist with the earth and their
environment and honor it, and their passage through this particular life with
their tattooing practises. If they feel no shame for their spiritual
knowledge and acceptance, how would they feel shame in permanently marking
their transitions on their bodies? To refer to Lars '"A Spiritual
Artform" section, does their tattooing not somehow offer a visual testimony to the
refusal of (tribal) individuals to accept western societies belief in man's
ability to control the world around him?
I'd be very interested to know what you guys think on that one!!!
Wishing everybody a happy weekend!
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My comments about "a sense of shame among the Iban over their tattoos" came
about because they very explicitly stated that when they went "to town", they
made a conscious decision to cover up most of their tattoos. Part of getting
ready to go "to town" was covering up their tattoos. For women, the
concession for going to town was that they wore a top to cover their breasts,
because up until ten years ago we were told, most of the women, of all ages,
went about the long houses topless. We saw, out of perhaps a hundred mature
women, about two dozen who were topless and they were all over the age of 45.
And several Iban told Thomas, Edward and I that the throat tattoo, which
traditionally is the first tattoo an Iban man will get, has fallen out of
favour specifically because it is so difficult to cover up. And the throat
tattoo was symbolically very important to Iban men because the throat tattoo
was supposed to work as a powerful charm to keep YOUR own head from being
And Pym, you should have seen the transformation among the Iban we met when
Thomas and I asked to see their tattoos and then WE took off our shirts to
show OUR tattoos. When the Iban didn't see our tattoos, they were reluctant
to show them to us. And remember, we were traveling with an Iban family who
were asking them in their own language.
When we showed them our tattoos the Iban's attitude changed dramatically.
They smiled and became much more animated and friendly. They were so
friendly in fact that they did not hesitate to enter our personal space.
They were not at all reluctant to touch our skin, and poke and prod our
tattoos. And they encouraged us to touch theirs.
Thomas and I took to traveling up the Skrang River with at least our arm
tattoos showing because it had such a positive impact on the Iban we met.
In the long houses, Edward David and his father David Kalum Lupie told me
that Thomas and I were treated completely differently than the "typical"
white person. Firstly, because we were traveling with an Iban family, we
were considered to BE family. And so we were to be treated, fed and housed
And secondly, because we were tattooed, and especially because Thomas was so
heavily tattooed, we were seen as "tattooed men". And the older generations
of Iban don't consider an Iban man to be a man unless he is tattooed. Edward
said he couldn't remember or imagine any other "whites" getting the
enthusiastic reception we did.
At each long house we were asked to eat with the head man. And when we were
asked to eat lunch with the Headman for the entire Skrang River, in his
house, that was considered a GREAT honour.
And every time we left a long house we were invited back, something Edward
and David said was not a simple courtesy. And Aki Basai even talked about
adopting Thomas and I into the family, which is the highest compliment that
the Iban can pay a person.
It was these observations, that led me to make the statements that I did.
I look forward, as always to everybody's comments.
Cheers all, Vince
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Thanks for the clarification of your statement. The actual being there is a
very important part of your work, because things are constantly changing on a
social level, and books are so often obsolete by the time they're
Would I be right in thinking that the Iban are not ashamed of their tribal
tattoos and appearance in any other situation than when they are in the
presence of "The White Man" ? Was tattooing banned at any time by the
Borneo government? Seems from here that this is somehow a 'missionary
imposed disease' and that you and Thomas are accepted because you are
tattooed and therefore not included in the Iban's picture of "The White
Man"....you're the good guys!!!!!
I think it's a pretty sad state of affairs that Westerners think it's cool
to have 'tribal' tattoos, and this same culture has caused the tribes that
these images come from to consciously cover up their tattoos in public
I'm beginning to formulate a theory that if you take away
ceremony, ritual and the world of the spirits, a tattoo in the black graphic style becomes
just exactly that... haven't we taken enough from these tribes already
without denigrating a style of body decoration which is exclusively theirs?
Did you find any traditional tribal tattooers who would tattoo you in
Borneo? What's your considered opinion on my theory from what you've experienced so
Hope you enjoy Samoa... don't they have dancing girls there or some such!!??
I think you are right. And I think you are right because this happens to be what I think I observed.
Thomas and I were granted a rare opportunity to observe and interact with the Iban because we
were considered to be members of the David family and because we too were "tattooed men". Therefore any stigma that they might have felt in displaying their tattoos in front of us were
The remarkable aspect of the experience for me was how clearly the Iban enjoyed displaying their tattoos to what they must have perceived as an appreciative audience.
At each long house, the Iban would encourage each other to show off their tattoos and they would go off in search of an Iban whose tattoos we had to see.
Cheers all, Vince
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