The Eco-friendly Traditional Tattoo of Mentawai

By Bramantyo Indirawan

Introducing the traditional tattoo method of Mentawai, by using two sticks and a needle, they rajah or hand-tap symbols and motifs onto the human body with natural ink—no electricity needed. The tattoo tradition of Mentawai people from Sumatra Barat, Indonesia can be traced way back to the Bronze Age (1.500 B.C – 500 B.C).

The tattoo of Mentawai imitates nature, or to be precise, an admiration and homage to mother nature. Aside from lines and patterns, animals and plants are also tattooed on people as symbols of identity or titi. The main function of titi is beautification. Beautification here is not something we modern people normally comprehend. It is a “fashion” to keep and attract souls/spirits so they cannot escape or get lost on their return to the physical body, as experienced during a shaman-initiated trance. Titi is also a social symbol that can show which tribe you come from, which part of Mentawai you are from, and what you have successfully hunted.

Rajah or hand-tapping uses two sticks, one is used to tap the other stick that is attached by a sterile needle.

Though titi has diverse ornamentations and meanings from one tribe to the other, arguably there are two fundamental symbols that stay the same: Sago palm and river boat. Full-body patterns of Mentawaian tattoo depicts a sago palm including its parts such as branches, roots, leaves and flowers. On the back, it is said to be a simplification shape of river boat and its stabilizer to represent balance and harmony. Both sago palm and boat are essential in Mentawai culture as they represent the Mentawaian way of life of semi-nomadic tribesmen.

Recently, the tattoo tradition is making a comeback with tattoo artists from Mentawai spreading the methods and manifesting their craft by tattooing other people and even teaching other tattoo artists. Rajah around Indonesia and abroad, they tattoo anyone and can customize their traditional tattoos if desired. Paburutkerey is one of the Mentawaian that spread the tattoo culture of his people. He is currently in Bali, tattooing everyone from around the world and even teaching his method to other tattoo artists such as Jerry; promoting the past with persistence, going on a rajah route to replace machine powered tattoos with the environmentally friendly sticks, ink, and ancient traditions.

Whether or not it is a good way to preserve and cultivate Mentawai culture as a whole, it is undeniable that the tattooing technology itself is not inferior at all compared to modern machinery!

Below is the video of Paburutkerey doing a rajah or hand-tapping to a customer with Jerry as the stretcher or assistant. The tattoo and its placement are a modification of a Mentawai traditional tattoo. | Video: Bramantyo Indirawan.


Bramantyo Indirawan

Author: Bramantyo Indirawan

Freelance Journalist and Writer

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments