The traditional tattoos of the Asia-Pacific

Pic: Shutterstock.

IN many parts of the Asia-Pacific tattoos were once a thriving tradition, with designs evoking nature, to ward off enemies or bad spirits, and to tell an individual’s story. While some interest in inking has now faded with modern times some of these traditions are still alive and well, as evidenced in these locations.

Borneo, Malaysia

The Iban tribe from Malaysian Borneo is one of the Asian cultures where the tradition of tattooing is still alive and well. In the past many adult members of the Iban tribe were tattooed with decorations that had their own meanings and stories; for example tattoos were placed on the neck to protect it from being cut and tattoos were used to mark events such as fathering children.

SEE ALSO: Sacred ink: Thailand’s Sak Yant ‘magic tattoo’ festival

Today this tradition is going through a mini revival as young people seek to connect with their culture. Many of the designs are still plants or animals, although modern motifs may also be integrated, and the traditional hand tapping method can still be found. In this process needles dipped in pigment are used and tapped into the skin with a hammer. While this method takes longer, can be more painful and is more costly (largely because it takes longer and requires more people), it’s still relatively easy to find for tourists and locals in places like Kuching. In fact walking around Kuching, or other parts of Sarawak, you may find full all sorts of tattoos and even full body ones, although out in the long houses you will come across more traditional designs, including the painful neck tattoos like in the image below.

Iban tattoos, Sarawak. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Iban tattoos, Sarawak. Pic: Joanne Lane,

There are numerous traveller’s videos of Iban tattoos on YouTube, including documentaries, such as this time lapse taken in Kuching, Sarawak.

New Zealand

In Polynesian cultures tattooing is sacred and communicated social standing or family history. Tā moko, traditional Māori scarring as opposed to tattooing (the skin is carved and grooved with a chisel rather than punctured), were applied to the face and body – for men on the face, thighs and buttocks, for women on the lips and chins. The head and face are considered sacred to the Māori and therefore a moko here is a powerful statement of one’s identity. As happened elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific the interest in this practice declined in the 20th century but has since revived as young people seek to reconnect with their heritage. Today it is still considered sacred and therefore misappropriation by a non-Māori is offensive–for example use of Maori designs by celebrities like Robbie Williams attracted some controversy. While tattoo machines are largely used for the application of the moko today, chisels are still employed.

Ta Moko. Credit: James Heremaia (

Ta Moko. Credit: James Heremaia (

Papua New Guinea

Like in New Zealand, people in Papua New Guinea consider tattooing a sacred act of forging a connection to the ancestors. And similar to the Maori culture, women in Papua New Guinea are often the most tattooed, although it is losing its appeal as many now move to provincial capitals and away from their traditions. Traditionally tribes tattooed their women throughout their childhoods, marking each stage of their lives, and to make them sexually attractive. The final tattoos were added when a girl was ready to be married. Men received tattoos to indicate they had participated in a head hunt or to purify themselves afterwards.

Dancer in the Central Province with facial tattooing. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Dancer in the Central Province with tattooing on the chin. Pic: Joanne Lane,

In the Korafe and Tufian tribes of the eastern Oro province adolescent girls still undergo facial tattoos when they come of age between 14 and 18 years old. The procedure is painful and can take up to two months as the designs are painted on with charcoal and then tapped into the skin with a sharp thorn. This is repeated day and night to ensure the design stays on the face. The young girl lives with the tattooist until the design is complete and her face has healed.

Pic: David Gray / Reuters

Pic: David Gray / Reuters

Skin cutting to scar the body so it resembles a crocodile’s skin is also a practice that still takes place today, once with sharpened bamboo and today with razor blades. The process is undertaken on young men and said to make them adults, independent, self-sufficient and bond them together. Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, visited a village near the Sepik River in central PNG, to see if he could take part in a skin-cutting ceremony. Krutak’s episode on Tattoo Hunter about this attracted a lot of criticism but explains his take on the traditions and shows the painful process.


The BBC published an article in 2014 about the Filipino diaspora that are reviving the ancestral form of tattoo art to make sure its not forgotten, even though it is becoming more obsolete in the Philippines itself. A Filipino living in the US said in the article: “Filipinos in the Philippines don’t need to define themselves, but for the Filipino diaspora many are looking for a connection back to their heritage.”

In the Philippines tattoos were often linked with the practice of headhunting and tattoos were believed to possess spiritual and magical qualities that gave them strength and protection. Tattoos were often used to distinguish a warrior after a successful headhunt expedition. In Luzon, among the tribes people of the Cordillera Region, they were common. Women were tattooed to enhance beauty and fertility.

Like in other parts of the Asia-Pacific tattoo methods included attaching a sharp object like metal, thorn, wood or bone to a stick that was tapped into the skin to apply ink, or cutting/pricking the skin and rubbing black ink into the wound.


The Naga warriors and women of northeastern India have long practiced tattooing, another practice traditionally linked to head-hunting, that has been phased out as interest declined, headhunting stopped and tribes converted to Christianity.

Most tattooists were older women and travelled, particularly in the cold months of the year, to perform the tattoos. They were often made by smearing pigment on the skin and then tapping it into the skin by using a thorn with a mallet of some kind.

Like in other parts of the Asia-Pacific men would receive tattoos for accomplishments in battle or rites of passage. Girls were often tattooed at puberty, on marriage and after pregnancy or giving birth.

The tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak also investigated the Naga tattoos of India in one of his episodes of Tattoo Hunter. This episode shows a young Wancho girl undertaking the tradition and receiving the first tattoos of her tribe in 15 years.

Top image via Shutterstock