Tattoo Anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak journeys to the remote jungle of Siberut Island, Indonesia, to learn about the spiritual tattoos and religious culture of the Mentawai people. Mentawai shamans (sikerei) apply the tattoos.
To the Mentawai islanders, the art of body tattooing is not only an artistic expression but is part of one’s life cycle where tattoos signify age, social status, as well as profession. At the age of 11 or 12 years, children are given their first tattoos beginning from the upper arms. At age 18 tattoos are applied on the thighs while in the final phase the entire body is tattooed from head to toe.
The Mentawai believe that “dressing” themselves up with tattoos forms an essential part of life and their culture, since in the afterlife they will be able to recognize each other and their ancestors through their tattoos.
Additionally, to the Mentawai communities, tattoos also symbolize harmony and balance in the natural world. And for this reason, they tattoo animals, flowers, or rock formations on their bodies.
According to studies made by Ady Rosa, researcher at the Padang University, the Mentawai tattoos belong to one of the oldest on the planet. On the island of Siberut, tattooing has been done from the time the Mentawai tribes first settled on the islands around 1,500 BC to 500 years BC. Whereas, Egyptians were found to have started tattooing since 1,300 BC.
The Mentawai are Protomalays who have migrated from the Yunnan in China then mixed with the Dongson in Vietnam. Many sailed further to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand, while others landed on the Mentawai islands along the west coast of Sumatra. These were the ancestors of the present day Mentawai clans.
The Mentawai tattoos have been found to resemble those of the Dongson of Vietnam, and similar motifs have also been found worn by a number of clans in Hawaii, the Marquesas, the Rapa Nui on the Easter Islands and the Maori of New Zealand.
The art of tattooing is a most painstaking (and obviously also very painful) application where the event itself must be preceded by prescribed rituals and fasting, the process of which can take months. Rituals are led by the tribal chief, known as the sikerei. While the head of the household must first hold a feast for the entire village by slaughtering a large number of pigs and chicken. Therefore, just preparing a family member for tattooing already requires quite a sum of money.