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An Ancient Art

Traditional handtap tattooing

When you see how this tattoo was made it will blow your mind!

I’m Fade FX a modern tattooist who has reached deep into the heritage of body art. I compliment my intricate dot and black work geometric pointillism with traditional Borneo hand tapped tattoos. I’m based in a private studio in Brighton, England but I have travelled all over the world tattooing. My spiritual home is Borneo where I learned the ancient art of hand tapped tattooing while living with an indigenous tribe deep in the heart of the rainforest. The rainforest and its people are under threat and this autumn I will be going back into the jungles of Borneo to make a documentary about the last of the head-hunter tribal tattooists.

I first went to Borneo in about 2008. I spent time with members of the Iban tribe living with them and learning about their culture. I also learned a lot from my friend Jeremy Lo from Monkey Tattoo Studio in Borneo. Tattooing in Borneo was lost for a generation as Christian culture displaced the traditional Iban way of life. It was difficult for Jeremy to learn about the traditional tattooing as a lot of the elderly tattooists are reluctant to pass on their secrets. He’d spend days with them and all he’d get was a snippet of information.

I’m the only person in the UK who does this particular style and Jeremy is one of a handful of modern tattooists in Borneo keeping the tradition alive. I feel really lucky to have been taught how to do this. I thought there’d be at least a few people in the UK doing what I do but on my last visit to Borneo I found out off Jeremy that I was the only one. At first Jeremy was reluctant to train me and show me the techniques but I think he was just testing me out because you don’t want to teach everyone your secrets. I think once he saw I really wanted to keep the tradition alive and my interest in the culture and being part of it he began to teach me. I’ve practiced on my own and each time I’ve been to Borneo I’ve learnt a bit more from Jeremy.

Hand tapped tattoos are a lot more gentle than modern machine tattoos. The main reason is the motion of the needles. Everyone thinks it looks more painful like your hammering it in and you’ve got this big old needle poking out. It just feels like I’m pinching you. Hand tapping works at an angle of 90 degrees which pierces the skin but the needles don’t travel through the skin. With a machine you put a line in and it’s just there. Machines push the needles into the skin at a 45 degree angle putting pockets of ink into the skin. Hand tapped tattoos take longer and have a softer, thicker line but there is less trauma and therefore less bleeding. It’s surprising it actually works. You look at what you’re doing and you think “How is that going in?”

Because of the needle arrangement it kind of opens it up a little bit and keep working at it to get the ink in. You have to work to open the skin up. It also heals thicker and blacker. When I was learning I was telling the guy that his lines weren’t thick enough but he said to leave it as it’s not like machine tattooing as the ink moves a little bit in the skin. They have a quicker healing time than machine tattoos and less need for after care. Hand tapped tattoos don’t suffer from drying out, cracking out and splitting like machine applied tattoos. All you have to do is occasionally apply moisturiser to the tattoo. There is no need to wrap the tattoo up in cling film when it is finished or regularly apply aftercare products.

Prior to Europeans colonises arriving in their tall ships the Iban had no pens or paper. They would carve their designs into wood. The antique carved wooden hand I have is a mock-up of a design. The tattooist would use the wooden hand like a modern artist would use flash. Designs would be passed down from master to apprentice

The designs are very culturally symbolic. For example on this tattoo the wavy lines represent water and the diamonds with a dot in the middle are the peeping eyes of the crocodile. The Iban traditionally lived near water so a lot of their folklore is associated with crocodiles. At the top of the tattoo is a crab in the waves and above him is a star fruit. Star fruits feature on tattoos with animals so the animals have something to eat. It’s bad luck to tattoo an animal and leave it hungry so star fruits are a common feature of animal designs.

Tattoos traditional had both a decorative and ceremonial purpose. Some of the designs were just for decoration, some functional, many were both. Art is very important to the Iban. The antique Borneo tattoo stick I have is made from Borneo Ironwood and the needle end is decorated with hornbill carved from deer antler. The Dayak mask I have up in the studio is over 60 years old and would have been used in dancing ceremonies. The entrances to the long houses where people slept would have been guarded by decorative charms to keep out evil spirits.

The equipment I use is a mixture of ancient and modern. Two sticks are differing weight are used. The heavier stick acts as the percussive device tapping the stick which holds the needles into the skin. The tapping stick I j use is made from Borneo Ironwood a dense wood renowned for its resistance to bacteria, fungi and insects. The lighter stick which the needles are attached to was selected from an English wood. I picked it based on size, weight and durability. The stick holding the needles is supported by a cushion during the application of the tattoo. For hygiene purposes the sticks and cushion are wrapped in Clingfilm which is secured by masking tape. I make my own needles which resemble closely pre-made round shader needles. The difference is the size and shape of needle bar which has to be attached to the stick in the correct position to allow for a 90 degree vertical motion. The needles are soldered looser then pre-made off the shelf needles. Traditionally needles would have been manufactured from whatever sharp material was available; anything from thorns to pig’s teeth! I use Intenze 'zuper' black ink and I feel that Borneo hand tapped tattoos work best with black ink rather than coloured. Traditionally ink would have been made from a paste of sugar and carbon. The source of carbon was burnt food from the bottom of cooking pots.

I plan to go back to Borneo this autumn with film maker Tom J Kelly to document the last of the indigenous tribal tattooists and look at how the Iban way of life can be saved from deforestation caused by illegal logging.

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