The 1st Annual

by Bernard Long
Photos by Bernard Long

Hiro Hiro of Japan inks in another on Carla Mulhern of Drogheda in Ireland.

Asia has seen nothing like it. "The friendliest, most laid-back tattoo convention I have ever seen," was the verdict of one attendee from Holland. He echoed the sentiments of all those lucky enough to have been at the 1st Borneo International Tattoo Convention held near Kuching, Sarawak, from May 1-5, 2002.

It certainly was unusual. After all,how many tattoo conventions start with the sacrifice of a white rooster? Where else could you see Iban warriors, descendants of headhunters, comparing tattoo designs with Maoris from New Zealand? Or find an Irish colleen from Drogheda having a dragon inked on her arm by a master from Japan? Watch a Danish tattoo enthusiast receiving a Samoan tattoo from a half Cheyenne, half Mongolian artist or chat to a comely Chinese lass from Singapore as she had a pre-Colombian mask inked on to her shoulder by a lady tattooist from Argentina, now studying Polynesian designs in New Zealand?

It was a true blending of tattoo cultures and quite an eye-opener for experienced convention-goers used to more hectic occasions in impersonal venues.

Philipa from New Zealand and her new shoulder tattoo
by Rinus Souisa of Holland.
Jerry (left) and Ernesto, of the Borneo Headhunters studio.

"Normally at tattoo conventions, you have a queue of customers all day long," said one tattoo artist from Europe. "You make money, but it's hectic and you don't get much chance to mix. Here business was not so brisk, but we expected that. We didn't come for the business, we came to mix, to discuss ideas, see each other’s work and we had plenty of time for that. I have never seen such a laid-back, friendly atmosphere at any convention I have attended."

The choice of venue certainly had a lot to do with the friendly atmosphere - the Sarawak Cultural Village - the fascinating living museum at Damai, about 20 miles from Kuching, the capital of the Malaysian State of Sarawak.

The village is a blend of the cultures of the 30 different ethnic groups who make up Sarawak’s’ population of two million. The Iban longhouse within the village was the center for the convention. After all, the Iban, the biggest ethnic group in Sarawak, have been adept at tattooing since the days when they were head-hunters. The longhouse was the focus of events, but open-air stalls spilled out around the ground adding even more colour to this fascinating site.

The 1st International Borneo Tattoo Convention was the brainchild of Jerry Muda and Ernesto David who run the Borneo Headhunters Tattoo Studio in Kuching. Jerry and Ernesto have won prizes for native designs at tattoo conventions in America. But, they are more than gifted tattoo artists in their own right, they are body-art missionaries who want to revive the dying art of tattooing in Sarawak and to promote their people’s ethnic designs overseas.

Judging by the reaction of the 1,500 people who attended the Sarawak event, they more than succeeded. So much so that Ernesto and Jerry plan to hold the Borneo Convention every two years.

Two Dutch conventioneers and an Iban warrior (center).
Tattoo enthusiasts from around the world watch
Freewind of La Brea, California, tattoo by a traditional
tapping method.

The first tattoo convention ever held in Asia got off to a colorful start. For the first time in Kuching, Iban elders held a traditional Piring Mukak Jalai, an ancient blessing ceremony. It involved the offering of food, the sacrifice of a white rooster, performances of the ngajat, the Iban war dance, and much quaffing by guests of tuak, Sarawak's potent home-brewed rice wine.

After the ceremonies, the wooden floor of the longhouse became a make-shift studio. It looked less like a longhouse than a mobile army surgical hospital as clients lay full length on bamboo mats while rubber gloved artists worked on them under the light of angle-poise lamps.

It was here that the camaraderie of the tattoo world was amply demonstrated. Many artists, renowned in their own right, watched, and even assisted, as artists from other countries gave clients permanent souvenirs of their trip to Sarawak.

Visitors were fascinated by the razorsharp greenstone instruments with which the Maori tattoo artists gently incised their designs on the skins of customers. They were fascinated too to find that the tapping out of traditional designs is done in almost the same manner throughout the Pacific, from Borneo to Samoa to New Zealand.

Jo-D Thomas who runs the Ink for Life Tattoo Studio in Ypsilanti, Michigan, USA, discovered the advantages of the traditional method. Extensively tattooed herself, mostly by electric needle, Jo-D said: "I had a traditional Iban turtle tattooed on my arm. It was the least painful tattoo that I have ever acquired."

A tattooed warrior performs the Ngajat (an Iban war dance)
during the opening ceremony.
Writer Bernard Long (right) chats with some of the

Between tattooing or being tattooed, convention-goers took the opportunity to soak up local culture. Cock-fighting exhibitions, blowpipe contests, native dances and plenty of tuak and local beer meant there was always a convivial atmosphere and plenty of photo opportunities.

When the tattooing was done for the day, open-air rock concerts in the evening kept the party atmosphere going.

The general consensus among visitors was that the friendly atmosphere was in a large part due to the smiles and helpfulness of the local people.

Jo-D. of Ypsilanti said: "People go out of their way to be friendly, say we have nice tattoos and ask us where we are from."

Her friend, Ramona De Bore, a tattooed registered nurse from Brooklyn, Michigan said: "Everybody is extremely helpful, ready to educate us. People here help each other. Not like in the West where they pass each other on the street without a word. Here, everybody smiles."

There was plenty to smile about at this Sarawak convention and it looks as though they will still be smiling at the next one in 2003. A straw poll showed that most participants and visitors intend to be back for the 2nd Borneo International Tattoo Convention.

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