The Mentawai are famous for their most intricate and elaborate tattoos, which cover 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 B.C. to 500 years B.C. Whereas, Egyptians were found to have started tattooing since 1,300 BC. 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.
According to arat sabulungan—Mentawai’s ancient animism belief—tattooing reflects one’s initiation into adulthood. It is a rite of passage. “The first tattoo [A Mentawai native] has to make is an outrigger canoe on their back which represents a balanced life between the present and afterlife,” tattoo enthusiast Rahung Nasution told the Jakarta Post. “The next tattoo is on their arms, with lines resembling a crocodile’s tail as respect to the water deity. There are also other important tattoos that resemble sago leaves which is their staple food and young fern which is their sacred plant because it can get rid of evil spirits
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. In compensation and thanks for his meticulous work, the master tattooer, called the sipatiti, will receive pigs or chicken as token of gratitude.
Keshie Hernitaningtyas wrote in Jakarta Post, “Using a sharp splintered rib of a palm leaf and natural ink made of sugar cane syrup and coconut shell charcoal, a Mentawai tattoo artist, or sipatiti, meticulously draws a simple design on his client’s skin. Satisfied with the result, he then attentively etches the design into the skin using a mabiau hammered down rapidly with a lili ‘pat. A mabiau is a pointed needle made of animal bone or sharpened wood attached to a wooden stick, while a lili ‘pat is a long wooden stick. [Source: Keshie Hernitaningtyas
When making a tattoo 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.
Keshie Hernitaningtyas wrote in the Jakarta Post, “Local administration representative Minarsih said that, in the old days, everyone in Mentawai had to have a tattoo, as it was seen as a person’s badge, much like an ID card is used nowadays in modern societies. Indigenous people from Matotonan and Butui villages in Siberut, for example, have similar tattoos since they come from the same clan. “There are five types of tattoos available, in accordance with the number of Mentawai clans. So, when people from different clans meet, they can easily recognise where the other person comes from just by looking at their tattoos,” Minarsih said in Siberut. Other than as identity markings, Mentawai tattoos also acknowledge the bearer’s life story. For example, there are special tattoos for a person who is good at hunting animals, has killed another person, or works as a sikerei.
By : factsanddetails