Published: Jul 30, 2007

Once feared as the mark of a criminal, tattoos are today almost a teenage fad

Megan Baker

Athonk knows his art form like the back of his tattooed hands. The owner of Pure Black Tattoo Studio in Yogyakarta can tell you that Australians in Melbourne have the most desirable tattooing skin because the needle easily penetrates their fine, cold hide. Indonesians have the least suited skin. A red heart tattoo on his throat beats as he swallows.

His passion for tattooing grew out of drawing comics. Athonk studied at the Indonesian Institute of Art (ISI) in Yogyakarta until lack of funds put an end to formal education. He then learnt to apply his artistic skills to skin through friends, magazines, and a trip to study the art form in Australia. A vast collection of photographs proves his technical competence. Designs range from small simple turtle motifs to large detailed tribal patterns applied to limbs and backs.

New Order tattoo artists used to work underground. In the early 1980s Yogyakarta was the least safe place for tattooed Indonesians. Tattoos were a sign of a previous prison sentence. The government embarked on an operation to 'clean' the city of troublesome citizens. 'Mysterious gunmen' (petrus - penembak misterius) shot down tattooed street thugs known as gali (gabungan anak liar). Men with tattoos were told to report to the police. Their tattoos were noted, and in some cases forcibly removed with a hot iron. The stigma forced artists underground, where drugs or alcohol became payment for artwork and hence part of tattoo culture. Athonk once received a chicken from a poor client.

The tattoo artist creates a lifetime mark. The relationship between designer and client at times resembles that of psychologist and patient. In a state of pain, Athonk says, clients easily 'confess all'. One got a tattoo because he was ordered to marry someone he did not love. Rebellion continues to be a prime inspiration, like the anti-military 'peace punk' tattoos in the US in the 1970s. Many clients make a ceremony of the process, inviting friends, preparing party food for the minute of completion.

Hygiene is a big concern. In the 1930s tattoo studios in New England were blamed for the spread of syphilis. Athonk worries about street tattooists who use dirty tools. Few studios use gloves as they are expensive and artists do not know where to purchase them. Athonk tries to educate other artists by organising Tattoo fashion parades and establishing the Java Tattoo Club. Artists need to learn the technicalities of tattooing machines and the latest ink types, as well as how to apply designs to skin. There are too few skilled tattoo artists to meet increasing demand. Studios not ready to 'go public' continue to operate from small outlets in heavily touristed areas of Yogyakarta like Sosrowijayan.

The tattooed community considers non-tattooed people 'stark naked' (telanjang bulat), a term Athonk claims originates with tattoo. In the early 1990s the music of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns 'n' Roses had a 'phenomenal' influence on Indonesian youth. They wanted tattoos of the cover image on the first Red Hot Chili Peppers album. Now Indonesian youth, aware of a new 'individuality' which comes packaged in consumerism, are requesting more self-devised designs as well as common popular hearts and roses. Their choice of designs provides a visual reading of attitudes in a transforming society.

Athonk also owns the only professional studio in Jakarta. Many clients come from wealthy families. In fact most are teenage girls who come to the studio with their parents. Tattooists are increasingly seen as 'fine artists'.

But 'sensationalism' remains part of modern tattooing culture. Foreign tourists come to Indonesia in search of the more raw tradition lacking in the West. They ask for exotic tribal designs, symbols of eternity and spirituality, or pictures of Javanese wayang puppets.

Javanese do not have a strong tattooing tradition. But tattooing is an integral part of the more tribal Dayak and Mentawaian cultures. Bunga Terong, the top part of an eggplant, originated in Borneo and is now an internationally recognised tattoo. In Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) women tattoo symbols on their foreheads to indicate skills such as weaving which increase their worth in the eyes of potential husbands. Men were expected to earn their tattoos by taking heads.

Megan Baker ( studies at the University of Technology Sydney, Australia. Find Athonk near Supermans in Sosrowijayan, Yogyakarta

Inside Indonesia 64: Oct - Dec 2000