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Home » Madobak Ugai Matotonan Village » The ancient tradition of Tattooing on Mentawai: the Oldest on Earth

The ancient tradition of Tattooing on Mentawai: the Oldest on Earth

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Among the many Indonesian traditional tribes, the Mentawai, living on the remote Mentawai island-group off the coast of West Sumatra, distinguish themselves by their most intricate and elaborate tattoos covering the entire body.  

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.

Tattooing is executed with traditional, natural tools. First the design - which has remained unchanged through the centuries because they denote symbols of identity and culture,  - is drawn with sharp palm leaf splintered ribs (or lidi). Designs are drawn following a measure of distance, as for example one finger width, two fingers and so on.

Once drawn, the design is then carefully etched into the skin with a pointed needle made from animal bone or sharpened wood. The handle is then beaten to allow the color to seep into the skin. Coloring consists of natural dyes made of sugar cane syrup and charcoal from burnt coconut shells.

When the entire body must be tattood, work begins from the palm of the hands, the soles of the feet and only then on to the body.

Next to line designs, there are rules to be followed according to a persons’s origin of village or clan, since this is required to denote the individual’s identity, status and clan membership. Both men and women are tattooed.  

Tattoos on a clan chieftain  or sikerei , therefore, are distinct from those of a hunter, for instance. A hunter will have designs of his prey, such as birds, pigs, monkeys, deer or alligators. While a sikerei will have the sibalu-balu star on his body.

In compensation and thanks for his meticulous work, the master tattooer, called the sipatiti,  will receive pigs or chicken as token of gratitude.

There are about 160 different tattoo motifs on the island of Siberut.  Tattooed Mentawai men or women usually have dozens on their bodies.

Unfortunately, the unique tradition of tattooing among the Mentawai is fast disappearing. On the island of Siberut, this tradition can be seen only in the villages of Madobak, Ugai and Matotonan


Photo Courtesy by Bayu Marthen

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The ancient tradition of Tattooing on Mentawai: the Oldest on Earth

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