Style and Lifestyle through Indonesian Tattoos

Originally published in Latitudes vol 12. January 2002

Since her rape by an unknown assailant, Docter Monik (Sophia Latjuba), was traumatized. All efforts by Jimny (Gito Gillas), her fiance, to please her always failed. Monik hated Jimny, after she caught him fooling around with one of the nurses in the hospital. Since then Monik always rejected Jimny. Including the time she was treating a tattooed patient, the victim of violence. Even though that tattooed patient reminded her of her own rape, Monik was determined to cure him. (Scenario from the Indonesian ‘soap opera’ Memori.)

Several eyewitnesses to the attacks stated: we don’t know if they were Santri or not, ABRI or not. They all were big, with cropped hair, in army boots, drunk and tattooed (Report on the Jakarta riots of 1998). 

Even though he is tattooed, my husband was a good man, said the wife of the victim (Kompas, 21-8-95).


Tattoos are not just found on the skin of criminals. When their photos appear in the local media, it is always the tattoo rather than a face that viewers see – a sure sign of obvious guilt and an evil nature.  But the world of Indonesian tattoos is far more complex than this persistently narrow view. In truth, the Indonesian tattoo is extremely alive and well and absolutely not the sole domain of criminals and evil sinners; nor is it confined to the outer islands as a sign of  ‘primitive’ nature.  Not only were tattoos a hugely significant part of underground art movements, a private means of confronting the authoritarian regime of Suharto through body art and symbolism. Tattoos have also been a significant aspect of religious and cultural expression among the mainstream population for a very long time. The demonization of the Indonesian tattoo by their obvious links to preman and other aspects of criminality, is well into the process of giving way to new and fascinating expressions.

Tattoos as an art form and as a symbol of personal meaning have gained popularity quite dramatically since Athonk began staging extremely popular tattoo conventions in Yogya in 1996. By forcing the tattoo into the public eye for the first time and removed from its more ugly elements, Athonk, this gentle, soft-spoken artist, has recreated Indonesia’s tattooing industry and made it trendy, healthy – and even respectable. Place everything you may already know about tattooing in a global context, and then add a legacy of a shoot-to-kill policy against tattooed youths in the Indonesia of the mid 1980s, and you can see what an impressive feat this is!

The first tattoo show in Indonesia, Gamma Fair, 1996 (photo by Laine Berman)

Tribal Traditions

Indonesia, like the island cultures throughout the Pacific, has a very long history of indigenous tattooing, but only on a few of the 13,000 islands that make up this vast and fascinating archipelago. Without knowing it, you have seen Indonesian influenced tattoos. Those bold black ‘tribal’ designs that are all the rage in western tattooing originate from the Dayak peoples of Borneo (Kalimantan and Sarawak). The geckos you see on so many westerners’ bodies have originated from the ancient motifs of the eastern Indonesian islands of Sumba and Timor. Indonesian scholars actually argue that tattooing all over the Pacific was introduced through mariners whose roots lie in the Dongson culture of Vietnam, and who had been tattooing since they first settled on the island of Mentawai off the west Indonesia island of Sumatra back in the iron age. From there, they sailed throughout the Pacific bringing the art with them, which thus explains the resemblance in motif and styles throughout the region. Like the tattoos of Hawaii, New Zealand, and many of the other Polynesian Islands, Indonesian indigenous marking fell into decline as missionaries and ‘modernization’ encroached on very different ways of living. But unlike Polynesia where tattooing died out centuries ago only to make a ‘traditional’ revival in recent times, Indonesian tattooing was banned by the government as recently as 1970. Yet only with this generation of ‘globalized’ youths, has the oldest art in the archipelago begun to really die out. Now, as you wander through the markets in Borneo as I did last year, only the elderly (in local terms – roughly aged in their 40s and up) show the marks of their coming-of-age, position, status, skills, or how many heads they’ve taken. Along with several well-marked women in the ladies’ toilet in the marketplace, we uncovered to reveal and talk about our tattoos. All these women spoke of their tattoos with embarrassment. “No, we will not tattoo our children”, they all told me. “It hurts too much and it’s ugly. Smooth and clean is so much better”, they claimed as they admired my white thigh and were clearly unimpressed by the tattooed right one.

Lineup for tattoo judges at Halloween Tattoo Fair of 1998 (that’s me as judge)

Such is pretty much the case throughout the outer islands of Indonesia. In the Mentawi Islands, the oldest tattoo tradition in the world according to Indonesian scholars, elders are mainly tattooed but it is just this generation of youths who rebel. They want to be accepted just as any other modern Indonesian youth and not tied to their ‘primitive’ customs. “Why should we wear beads and tree bark when we can wear Levy’s and LaCoste?”, a group of teenagers explained to me.

Out of the forests and back in the teeming metropolises of Java, modernization and the harsh forces of globalization are everywhere. Glistening high-rise towers, whole communities of palatial residences, and a constant flow of luxury cars pass by but rarely come into contact with those who are counted in some of the highest poverty statistics in the world. The wealthier classes shield themselves from the peasants behind their glass enclosed, barred windows, high garden walls topped with razor-sharp wire, and the knowledge that the little people ‘know their place’ and would not penetrate these sanctuaries. Shopping malls, post offices, office blocks, and the homes of the wealthy have armed guards stationed at their entrances to deny admission to anyone whose poverty, appearance, or class might frighten the better-off. Here in Jakarta, on the island of Java, any research into the art of the tattoo must account for these socioeconomic discrepancies as rich and poor have both embraced tattooing, but for altogether different reasons, and most certainly they are tattooed in different places. Difference can be analyzed through their different motifs, their reasons for wanting a tattoo, and whether they receive it from a friend at home, in a fancy shop with sterile equipment, or on the streets with a handmade machine and a fatalist’s concern for potential health dangers. Danger, fortunately, is no longer associated with tattoos on the main Indonesian island of Java as it had been in the recent past.


Neo-Tribal Practices

Java has no ritualistic ‘tradition’ of tattooing, but it does have a fascinating history of its own. It begins with corrupt and highly unequal development policies, extremely unequal distribution of wealth, the use of hired thugs to achieve political domination, and the resulting increase in crime and terror. During the years 1983-85 President Suharto lashed out against this wave of violent crime by attacking all suspected culprits (but not those who created these private militias) through his famous Petrus action. Petrus was an acronym for Mysterious Shooters, who, under Suharto’s orders, were killing so-called known criminals. As it turned out in practice, those who were killed were almost all tattooed. Some 5,000 deaths were attributed to this method of dealing with a politically-created problem. Most of those killed were indeed mentioned in the daily headlines as ‘tattooed corpse’ (mayat bertato). “Men who were tattooed began to turn themselves into the police out of fear of being murdered. The [..] tattooed men (were) always accused of criminality and almost never of specific crimes”, reports James Siegel in his 1998 book: A new criminal type in Jakarta (see also

petrus mayat
Suharto’s shock therapy. Bodies with tattoos left on the road for shock effect. (photo:

The exercise in state-sanctioned murder was justified as a kind of ‘shock therapy’; the tattooed corpses were left on street corners and alleys to shock people into proper behavior. It worked. Terrified of being targeted as a criminal because of their tattoo, many youths made every effort to eliminate these visual death warrants from their bodies. Hot ironing them right off by searing human flesh was one of the main strategies. Applying acid, lime, sand-papering, and scraping the area with rock salt were other common methods. The pain and scarring that resulted was insignificant. The main goal, of course, was the elimination of the dreaded tattoo and the criminal stigma. Pain and disfigurement were far better options than the death squads and their highly recognizable signature : three bullets to the head. By around 1986, Indonesian tattoos literally disappeared from sight, except, of course, as a sign of violent deviation.

Rock n roll tats: western influence a la Indonesia

Java-based Indonesians obviously love their tattoos and the tattoo revival began again almost as soon as the Petrus killings were ended. The event which triggered a post-Petrus revival also hints at the powerful influence of globalization: the 1987 release of the first Guns and Roses cassette, Appetite for Destruction. The cover of the cassette features a Gothic cross with five skull caricatures of the band. The music was received with such phenomenal support that suddenly young Indonesian males demanded that image be tattooed on their bodies. The second wave occurred with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers 1991 release of Blood, Sugar, Sex and Magic. The Chilli Peppers were a ‘tattoo’ band. Their album cover was designed by the famous Dutch tattoo artist Hanky Panky, and the cover photos of the band members emphasized their elaborate tattoos.

It was not just young, westernized trendy Jakarta youths who sought tattoos. Among the less affluent, tattoo motifs were mainly taken from the Chinese designs found on imported cigarette boxes or soap wrappers. Dragons, tigers, swallows and the like dominated this underground art. There was (and remains) also an entirely undocumented Javanese tradition of tattooing ritually significant objects. Athonk remembers his grandfather’s tattoo of a Javanese ceremonial dagger, a kris, on his inner forearm. Other elderly men I have known on Java have yoni and lingga markings which they attribute to their sexual prowess. These elderly, toothless men proudly refer to the tattoos they received some 60 years ago as ‘Javanese Viagra’! A very soft-spoken civil servant from Central Java revealed his tattoos of blatant sexuality : orgy scenes surrounding the words LOVE SEX on his forearms, again as secret amulets of potency, hidden beneath long sleeved shirts. Many who fancy themselves spiritually blessed tattoo shadow puppets, the readily available canon of images, all with symbolic potency and very tight links to the myths of Java’s glorious past. Such potent images may not be selected lightly since they can wreak havoc and illness on the bearer if he is not strong enough to endure the power they exude. Strategically placed tattoos such as false beauty marks and tattooed eye brows function as amulets of beauty, attractiveness, anti-aging for men or women, while a small flame between a man’s eyes is for protection from attack. New fathers express their pain through a tattoo when a child is born deformed, and their celebration when all goes well. Two local rockers brought a design they had made which, they said, would help them kick a heroin habit, the tattoo needle then being the only needle they would ever use again.

Indonesian civil servants are tattooed too. Amulet for sexual potency.
A different kind of potency. Street punk in Jakarta.

People can be tattooed in shiny, modern shops on the island of Bali or in Bandung, small ‘local-flavored’ shops in Yogyakarta, or in Semarang and Jakarta where tattooists have ‘opened’ shop on pedestrian overpasses and in night markets. Every city and village seems to have its local tattooist who works on call with home made equipment. Ironically, Jakarta is one of the largest cities in the world but had no modern tattoo studio until Athonk opened his Pure Black Studio in 1999. This very popular location soon became the setting for movies and magazine photographs but it did not last long as neighbors surreptitiously sabotaged the shop by cutting power and water. While some artists can afford western machines and autoclaves, most work with home-made machines, the motor usually from a mini cassette player, tubes from ink pens, needles rarely changed before they grow dull from use. In such a diverse socially and intellectually stratified society, the reasons and interpretations of the art remain as inconsistent and varied as the nation itself.


The majority of those who are visibly tattooed are most definitely the wealthier youths, either male or female, who now equate the physical signs of modernized trendiness with bleached, red or even blond hair, smoking cigarettes, and having a tattoo. Fashions post-Petrus reflect the neo-imperialist domination of the west through the mass media. The popularity of American Indian films such as Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans resulted in a rush for Indian imagery on skin as well as accessories in the markets. When rumors spread that Hanky Panky, Anthony Kiedis and Flea had planned a trip to Borneo to explore the indigenous tattoos, Indonesians recognized the significance of their own outer island traditions by viewing them through the eyes – and on the skin – of foreigners. The tattoos that were part of their own meaningful heritage, whether the ancient arts of Borneo, Mentawai, Sumba, Timor, or Papua, or the more secretive rituals of Java, had been usurped by State-provoked terror. Local interest in uncovering their own design history came fully back to life as Indonesians too demanded western, hence trendy, variations of indigenous, hence primitive, symbols on their bodies. Fish, whales, lizards, scorpions, squids in Chinese, Japanese, or neo-tribal styles can reveal socio-economic background and class affiliation.

Nationalist street tat
Jody (alm) of Getah fame and his more elite, westernised tattoos


Athonk: Indonesian Tattoo Pioneer

Athonk first took an interest in tattoos when he was in his second year of high school. His parents had ordered him to go to the military academy after graduation and follow the career of his father. In rebellion, he had Donald Duck tattooed on his shoulder by a local tattoo artist using a home made machine, which effectively put an end to his military career. As a student of graphic arts in the Indonesian Art Institute of Yogyakarta, Athonk met many tattooed students and found home-made machines readily available for trade or borrowing. It was not until his own artwork, large, vibrantly colorful drawings of contemporary political issues were banned and confiscated by Indonesian authorities in 1993 did he turn to tattooing as a profession.

As a natural, yet very soft-spoken, leader in his own country, Athonk took it upon himself to research tattooing techniques, safety, and health practices. With funding from a whole range of Australians, Americans, and Europeans who return to Yogya yearly for an Athonk tattoo, he acquired materials, machines, books, and a well-earned reputation. Athonk chose to share his knowledge through forming the Java Tattoo Club in 1997, a vehicle for reintroducing tattoos to Indonesian society without any of the violent or crime-ridden associations of the past. Its slogan: Java Tattoo Club civilizes tattoos as we tattoo civilization, sounds better in the original language! With spectacular parties, conventions, and a new monthly newsletter, Athonk has almost single-handedly revived the reputation of the art. Now he is a celebrity in his own right, appearing in film, interviews, TV documentaries. But despite his personal accomplishments, Athonk remains enamoured with tattoo roots. On several occasions I have accompanied him on his walks through the streets of Jakarta’s markets in search of a new street artist he has heard about. In cooperation with a local AIDs foundation, Athonk has taken it upon himself to literally clean up the art as he invites street artists to work in his shop, training them personally in health and safety techniques, while in turn, recording their folk knowledge. One day, he says with enthusiasm, I will write the book on Indonesian tattooing!

Familiar faces on Indonesian skin: wayang tattoo as part of proud Javanese heritage (Tat by Athonk)


Tattooed Women

For the Dayaks in Borneo, the more tattoos gracing a woman’s body, the higher she was in the royalty line. Despite an almost total end to the practice, some daughters, however, do preserve the tradition although their tattooes look nothing like their mothers’. In the Pure Black Tattoo Studio in the tourist district of Yogyakarta, Athonk has tattooed many an Indonesian woman, for many reasons and from all over the archipelago. The majority of them select classic flowers or butterflies.

Wiwit is an ethnic Dayak from a small town northeast from Pontianak, Kalimantan. According to her, women with tattoos are normal. “Both my grandparents and most of my older relations are tattooed”, she states as she flicks through the designs in Athonk’s catalogue. Wiwit, who has just graduated from high school in Pontianak, has come to Yogya to develop her own understanding of tattoo art because she hopes to become a tattoo artist. “Many of my friends really want to get tattoos but they are afraid of the tattooist”. Athonk looks up from cleaning his tattooing machines and grins. Wiwit has just finished getting her second tattoo this week. The first was a Javanese batik motif on her left arm, and now, she is admiring a butterfly on her back in the mirror. These were certainly not your traditional Iban designs. Wiwit picked her tattoos to celebrate her graduation. “I got these tattoos because tattooed bodies are beautiful. I consider these art, not just a trend.”

Many Indonesian models, singers, and actresses too proudly flaunt their tattoos, almost always of the same neo-tribal designs seen on western flash cards. During the few months I resided in Athonk’s studio to document contemporary tattoo practices, young rural women too came in to request simple flower or bird tattoos on their shoulders. Tattooing for them was a strategy for rejecting an arranged marriage, a tattoo being a much safer and more visible option than loosing their virginity prior to the unwanted event.

Tattoo traditions in the Indonesian urban jungle were never documented, regulated, or studied much so any of us who research popular culture are limited to pop descriptions, personal memories of friends and informants, or hang out with artists in a shop or on a mat in the night market. The artists rarely ask why a particular design was selected because of the legacy of secrecy imposed upon an oppressed peoples. When asked, however, people seem very anxious to speak, to explain how personally significant the design, location, or the process was for them. The ‘traditional’ tattoo may be nearing extinction, but the neo-tribal tattoo has taken on a meaning as broad and deep as modernization itself. Antiquity, ‘authenticity’, and heritage brush against the forces of globalization and humanity adapts in fascinating new ways. The Indonesian tattoo presents all of these anomalies in ways that reveal the very depths of contemporary experience and direct cultural understanding.





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