Rahung Nasution: Heritage Etched in Ink


There are intangible pieces of heritage, and then there are indelible pieces. Rahung Nasution has been documenting Indonesia’s rich heritage of tribal tattooing across the archipelago.

Photo by Rahung Nasution

“People think that heritage is keeping some rocks in a museum, that it starts and ends with Borobudur and Prambanan–but its not like that,” says Rahung Nasution.

The social activist is passionate about preserving Indonesian heritage. As a culinary activist, Rahung, born to a family of farmers in North Sumatra, has made a name for himself as a chef for the Aku Cinta Masakan Indonesia (I Love Indonesian Cooking) community, bringing traditional cooking techniques from remote communities to urban viewers.

Rahung has also travelled to the Mentawai Islands to document another passion: Traditional tattooing. Along with his friend, Aman Durga Sipatiti, one of Jakarta’s most accomplished tattoo artists, Rahung ventured to the regency, which is about 150 kilometres off the coast of West Sumatra. A 10-hour river journey took his crew to the isolated villages of Matotonan and Sakuddei, so Durga and Rahung could document the centuries-old tattooing tradition of the residents, who live a tribal life.

A Mentawai gains the right to bear a tattoo after turning 16 or 17, when old enough to work or marry. It is a slow ritual, with tati (tattoos) added over the years, Rahung says. In the past, sharpened bark was used as a needle to make the tattoos, while ink was concocted from leaves and wood charcoal. This traditional process, which required thousands of slow pricks for a single tati, was dramatically accelerated for the Mentawai, thanks to the mechanised tattoo needle and generator that Rahung and Durga brought with them up river.
Mentawai tattoos follow three basic patterns. People begin with a cadik perahu, or outrigger canoe, the village’s essential form of transportation. With thin lines spanning the front of a person’s torso, the tati has underlying metaphor of finding the balance needed to pilot the boat in one’s own life. A sago tree tattooed on the back is typically the second tati bestowed, honouring the community’s principal food source. The tattoo also reflects balance, albeit with nature.

The third major titi depicts a crocodile, who the Mentawai revere as the spirit of the river, which along with the forest Rahung says that it keeps people safe: No resident has ever perished due to a crocodile attack. Other titi work like an identity card, depicting the bearer’s work in the community, he adds. A great hunter might have an image of his prey emblazoned on his arms or legs.

These days its tough to find Mentawai with tati, especially on the more-frequented coast Rahung says. In the isolated interior, the tradition is stronger. Rahung says that attitudes to the tradition have changed quickly in recent years, due to discrimination during the New Order dictatorship, among other things. “If you had a tattoo, you were a preman (thug). It was a sign of criminalization. With a stigma like that, people were afraid, arrested, denied a chance to go to school, called tools of Satan.” These days, typically only the local shaman, his wife and village elders will have tati.

Rahung has also traveled to West Kalimantan for the tattoos of the Dyak Iban tribe, better known as the “sea Dayaks”. Unlike the fixed patterns of the Mentawai, Dayak Iban tattoos are flexible. Traditional motifs exist alongside exotic images such as airplanes. “Many of the Dayak Iban merantau to Malaysia or Sarawak,” Rahung says, using a word meaning to find your fortune away from home. “They see these things like planes, so they get a tattoo to bring this story back to the village when they return. It’s like a right of passage or a journal written on the body.” However, outside pressure means that Dayak Iban tattoos are also waning. “The grandmothers I spoke to said that before tattoos were a sign of a good husband, someone with experience. Now they say that the men are ugly–no one has tattoos.”

On the future, Rahung wants to venture to Belu, East Nusa Tenggara, to research the local tradition of batik-like tattoos. However, on the prospects for this indelible piece of Indonesian heritage, Rahung is phlegmatic. “How many traditions can’t advance because people find new beliefs?” he asks. “In a generation, [tattooing] will vanish. There’ll just be people like me, the Mentawai and those who do it for spiritual reasons.”

Rahung’s documentary Mentawai Tattoo Revival can be seen on YouTube.

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