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So just what is a "tribal" tattoo?
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.

Hi Vince,
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!


Hi Pym,
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 traditional tattooing.

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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Hi Vince,
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 not. For
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.
take care

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 culture worldwide.......

Must run, take care and try to enjoy!!

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Hi Pym,
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 feel shame. 

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 community.

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 yesterday... whatever!

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 ourselves" period.
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 tattooing?

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 tunggu.

Signing off...


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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Hi Pym,
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 taken.

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 as Iban. 

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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Hi Vince,
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 published...

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"'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 far?

Hope you enjoy Samoa... don't they have dancing girls there or some such!!??


Yes, Pym,
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 stripped away.

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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