Indonesia Leaves Its Mark

Tau Taa Wana man from the remote forests of Central Sulawesi. Photo taken in 1997

Tau Taa Wana tribesman during a treck in the remote forests of Central Sulawesi. 1997

In a seeming intervention of Fate, Indonesia has repeatedly woven into my life.  My foreign exchange student experience here during high school was a rite of passage and a first sip of international travel.  After living in rural Malawi, Indonesia served as a staging ground, a familiar yet still developing country to catch my breath before Western world re-entry. I scuba dove the Celebes Sea, explored the jungles and highlands of Sulawesi, and immersed deeper into Bali.  Today, I type this in my family’s apartment overlooking the north Jakarta night, as undulating highway lights snake through a perpetually unfinished, dystopian skyline.  Almost unsurpassed in the world, Indonesia is blessed with the most attractive attributes I look for in a country.  Biology could have been one of my first words out of the womb, and a lifelong spiritual quest into ancient beliefs lends me an envious interest and a mission of reconnaissance with surviving indigenous people.  Malawi may have stolen my heart, but Indonesia owns my soul.  



After his tattoo apprenticeship abroad in Europe and the States, Indonesian artist Durga returned to Jakarta to open his own studio and began researching Indonesia’s indigenous tattoo culture.  Starting work on the Mentawai Tattoo Revival Project, he regularly travels to Siberut Island off the west coast of Sumatra, where remote villages still live traditionally.  During his visits, Durga learns from the elders and works with the community to preserve and continue the tattooing art and culture of the island.  He has also done similar trips into the jungles of Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  Last school year, I often accompanied Adrian to Durga Tattoo downtown.  It took six separate five-hour appointments for him to complete an elaborate and personally designed full back tattoo, a tribute to his heritage and experiences in the military.  Surrounded by reprints of old anatomical lithographs, Indonesian artifacts and photographs of native tribes, I would keep Adrian company and correct papers on an appropriated dentist’s chair with the tattoo machine’s constant low buzz in the background.  One of the practices Durga retains is hand tapping; using special sticks, one fitted with a needle, to create tattoos as was done for thousands of years before a machine.  It was during these visits with Durga that I knew what I wanted to take with me from Indonesia.

The old pavilion

The old pavilion

Durga tattoo is now located outside of Java’s cultural hub in the central region of the island, Yogyakarta, so my trip the other weekend to the new studio required a quick flight from Jakarta.  With me was Brent, looking to add to his own tattoo collection and Caitlin, who came along for moral support and a good laugh.  Mostly a good laugh.  Durga met us at the Yogyakarta airport and quickly removed us from the city to a quiet neighbourhood.  Durga’s home and studio are set into a terraced slope which bottoms out into a river flanked by tropical foliage.  At the top was the main home adjoining a large, ornately carved wooden pavilion once used for community gatherings.  Down through a small collection of steps and paths, past the organic vegetable gardens, swimming pool and stilted huts is the tattoo studio, walled in sliding glass on two sides and opening out onto a deck overlooking the river below.  This was our backdrop for the weekend.

Durga's studio

Durga’s studio

Brent’s tattoo was the next day, and he had already decided on the star crossed lovers Rama and Sita from the Hindu epic Ramayana, a story that permeates the traditions and cultures of many Southeast Asian countries, despite the adoption of Abrahamic religions like Islam.  Designed in wayang form, Durga drew out intricate sketches.  Javanese wayang refers to the cultural theater tradition that is often acted out by puppets, such as the stick-manipulated wayang golek or the cow hide shadow puppets wayang kulit, which are moved behind flame and screen at night.  The wayang are not only characters from Hindu stories but symbolic archetypes, and each character is identified by their distinct features.  Wayang is an old practice dating from the expansive Hindu Majapahit empire, and the continuation of wayang is essential to preserving Javanese traditions.  It was an excellent choice for Brent, whose tattoos come from each of the places in the world he’s lived.

Making difficult meal choices at an assisted buffet

Making difficult meal choices at a beautiful Indonesian buffet

We spent most of our days that weekend relaxing at Durga’s house, checking up on whoever was getting tattooed, refilling our coffee, and enjoying time outside the city, watching the day slide by.  One of the direct benefits of staying with Durga is we had an Indonesian guiding us through Yogyakarta in the evenings.  We were able to eat at some of the restaurants specialising in the food the city is famous for and sit back with a beer at a few of the more reclusive bars that wouldn’t have been on the radar had we come by ourselves.  In truth, I had become weary of Indonesian food until a few suggestions from Durga.  My new favorite is lontong sayur, sticky rice wrapped and cooked in a banana leaf, then unfolded, chopped and added to coconut curry with shredded chicken and hard boiled eggs.  Served with krupuk (shrimp crackers), it is usually eaten in late morning and it is delicious.

Sketching out the design

Sketching out the design

My tattoo day was next.  After reviving with coffee and idle chat that morning, Durga and I moved to the studio deck, where we could watch the river flow by, glimpse an occasional snake swim its way to the opposite bank, and enjoy the breeze as it moved through the tropical foliage.  We never really planned out the tattoo directly.  Instead, we talked about our admiration of indigenous traditions and beliefs, and the lack of protection for many Indonesian cultures.  I told him about my travels through the archipelago and he told me about his experiences with the traditional peoples of Mentawai and Kalimantan.  I wanted a hand tapped tattoo that incorporated authentic motifs from locations I had explored in Indonesia.  Durga pulled out reference books and prints of designs he had collected along with a steel surgical tray of colored markers to draw on my leg.  Remembering how Durga would abruptly halt progress on Adrian’s back to study the paper rendition of the tattoo taped to the wall, he bookmarked and flipped pages, pointed at images to himself, and studied the designs as he sketched my leg in different colors.

Tattoo instruments. Photo by Caitlin Doonan

Tattoo instruments. Photo by Caitlin Doonan

The tapping process, even here in the outskirts of Yogyakarta, was ritual.  Joined by Durga’s friend Alfo from Borneo, we moved into the tree hut and they began taking trips in and out of the studio to collect the necessary materials.  The tapping sticks are kept in an intricately carved wooden box made by Durga.  Water was handy in clay pots and even the ink sat in a special bowl.  New, sterile needles were strapped onto the different-sized tapping sticks as I was positioned in the hut and Alfo made paper towels and antiseptic at the ready.  Tapping requires two people, one to tap in the tattoo and the other to stretch the skin for the needles.  Once the preparations were complete, I laid down, Alfo pulled on the skin of my calf with both hands and the rhythmic tapping began.  After each dip of the needle into the ink well, Durga would tap just above my leg to establish the needle’s rhythm and let me know he was starting again.

In the tree hut. Photo by Caitlin Doonan

In the tree hut. Photo by Caitlin Doonan

The first run was outline, then a quick break before resuming to tidy up and start shading.  The feeling was endurable along my calf muscle, less so on the shin and knee cap, where the needle would at times cause various parts of my foot to twitch involuntarily.  He slowly tapped his way up my leg towards my knee as he informed me the area was particularly sensitive.  If machine tattoos feel like needles raking through the skin, tapping feels like repetitive stabbing.  My brain jumped around looking for a place to put this self-induced pain, and concentrating on the sound of Durga’s sticks clicking together put me ironically into a frame of tolerance.  It was here, in a thatched tree hut surrounded by tropical foliage, listening to the flowing river, tapping sticks, and exotic sounds of Bahasa Indonesia, the air thick with heat and humidity, that for a few moments in time, I was privileged to participate in an age-old and vanishing rite.

Laced in my skin are ancient symbols of the Indonesian archipelago.  Lines curve around my knee from Sulawesi, abstract animal forms of Borneo flank my calf, and Maluku spirals punctuate the ends.  It’s a dedication to the seminal memories from those experiences, expressed through a disappearing art and tradition whose preservation honors our ancestors and reconnects us with the human condition.


7 thoughts on “Indonesia Leaves Its Mark

  1. The explantation is very discriptive of how you think, and is a journey of what you have done so far.
    As I noted before to you earlier, the Hungarian tattoo was a nice touch to your grandmother (not that she would approve of a tattoo under any circumstances).
    You were not just born with biology in your head, you were apparently born with a backpack on your butt.
    Your are so lucky to have Sarah in all of you and your family’s adventures.
    You and yours will have many journeys ahead…. I guess I always thought that Malawi was just a beginning….


    • I’ll never forget when Sarah and I landed in Fiji for our first backpacking trip together, and we walked out of the airport to the street. She stuck her hand out, hailed a local, rickety and overfilled bus to pull over, and she jumped in. As we made our way through the aisle, she turned around and looked at me.
      “What?”, she said.
      “Oh, nothing”, I replied. I knew it was all going to work out.

      I’m sure it’s not easy to be a mom (or worse a grandma) of travellers, but you know you’re partly at fault, right ;-). All those trips out west when we are kids?


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