From the ashes of a dead tradition, tattoo artists look to make a global name for Sabah

Sabah Tattoo Association acting president Bobby James Aloysius. — Picture by Julia Chan
Sabah Tattoo Association acting president Bobby James Aloysius. — Picture by Julia Chan

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KOTA KINABALU, Sept 14 — Mention the words “tattoo” and “Borneo” in the same sentence, and chances are that body art enthusiasts will think of the Malaysian state of Sarawak.

By stubbornly sticking to their tradition of inking their bodies, the Ibans — who make up the state’s largest ethnic group — eventually put Sarawak, and by extension the entire island, on the global tattooing map.

And that distinction is not lost on tattoo artists in the adjacent state of Sabah, who admit to enjoying the good reputation affixed to Borneo when it comes to the art courtesy of their southern neighbours.

Unlike Sarawak, however, the inking tradition was not as well preserved in Sabah despite their similar cultures and experiences facing a cultural overhaul by their British colonists.

With the British masters systematically dismantling age-old cultures and “uncivilised practices” to make way for their societal ideals, Sabah’s natives eventually saw no reason to continue with the once-significant act of marking their bodies, according to Universiti Malaysia Sabah arts professor Dr Ismail Ibrahim.

“Not having a major cultural role to play any longer, and without promotion of their cultural icons, the art and practice eventually went extinct,” the dean of the varsity’s psychology and education faculty told Malay Mail Online in an interview.

The fact that the tradition of tattooing in Sabah died long before the dawn of the modern age, however, appears to have done little to stunt the growth of the art in what was formerly known as North Borneo, especially in recent years.

The Muruts of Sabah had a tattoo culture similar to those of the Ibans of Sarawak but little is known about it. — Photo courtesy of Dr Ismail Ibrahim
The Muruts of Sabah had a tattoo culture similar to those of the Ibans of Sarawak but little is known about it. — Photo courtesy of Dr Ismail Ibrahim

Simply by its geographic location, Sabah already has an advantage due to Borneo’s exotic appeal among tattoo collectors who value the cultural significance — which range from headhunting conquests to rites of passage — the tribal motifs have among the local ethnic groups, tattoo enthusiast Chris Collins said.

“Never mind that some of the people who get these tattoos are middle class urbanites who have never lived in the jungle —  but they like what it represents,” he said.

Sabahan tattoo artist Carlos Benny Majakil agreed that having a direct link to Borneo works in their favour, though he noted that local artists will need to go the extra mile and promote the industry internationally if they want to carve out their own reputation as a destination for getting inked.

“People’s eyes light up when I say I’m from Borneo. But because Sabah is not known for its tattoo art, I show them Sabah’s culture through our interactions. It’s lending some of the Sabah hospitality in the tattooing session and making it an experience,” said Carlos.

Sabah-born Carlos Benny Majakil is bringing his passion for tattoos back to his hometown for the Borneo state's first tattoo convention. — Picture courtesy of Max Junior Tinun
Sabah-born Carlos Benny Majakil is bringing his passion for tattoos back to his hometown for the Borneo state's first tattoo convention. — Picture courtesy of Max Junior Tinun

Fellow artist Bobby James Aloysius said the accessibility to a multitude of tattoo styles nowadays has spurred what he claims is an upwards trajectory in demand in Sabah, though he admits that he would not mind having something distinctly Sabahan in the art form.

He lamented that the state’s traditional tattoo culture has truly become a lost art due to the dearth of references or living proof of traditional tattoos, especially among the Murut ethnic group who were the most prolific tattooists when it was still de rigueur.

“It’s not that Sabahans don’t want a tattoo as a tribute to their cultural heritage. There’s just not many records or history to refer to that can promote Sabah’s tattoo motifs,” Bobby said.

One of Sabah's pioneer tattooist, Lee Choon Ping said the scene has changed and developed by leaps and bounds. During his time, tattoos were still taboo and those who had them liked auspicious images like the koi fish.
One of Sabah's pioneer tattooist, Lee Choon Ping said the scene has changed and developed by leaps and bounds. During his time, tattoos were still taboo and those who had them liked auspicious images like the koi fish.

The immediate recognition of Sarawak’s tattoo motifs may have also sparked a bit of envy among Sabah’s artists, even as they acknowledge the absence of traditional tattoo art in Sabah.

“When people see an Iban tattoo, they immediately know it’s from Borneo. I would like for Sabah to have that distinctive identity one day,” said tattooist Limuel Estrop.

Despite the lack of references to Sabah’s tattoo culture, Carlos remains optimistic that a revival of the the art would ultimately boil down to making the effort to rediscover what was lost.

“People already know Sabah as Borneo in the tattoo world, the next step is to bring back some of Sabah’s lost tattoo art. Someone just needs to put in the work and go for it,” he said.