Tattoo artist Ernesto helps Iban culture to ‘bejalai’ around the world

Ernesto Kalum, owner of Borneoheadhunters Tattoo & Piercing Studio

Kenyalang Portraits

By Wilfred Pilo

THE modern spirit of ‘bejalai’, an Iban term meaning “to walk” or “to go on a journey”, is not done by the Ibans alone. Many foreigners who come to the Land of the Hornbills return home with this legacy after getting themselves inked by accomplished traditional tattoo artist Ernesto Kalum in Kuching.

“My work is based on Iban motifs and designs, and it has travelled around the world, so to speak. The Iban legacy of ‘bejalai’ continues to become a reality in every corner of the globe,” Ernesto proudly told DayakDaily in an interview recently.

Ernesto describes his work as a way of life and cannot see himself doing anything else.


“I enjoy what I am doing. If not for my passion for traditional Iban tattoo, I would have quit a long time ago. Being an Iban and to be able to ink bodies with this unique culture of my people is something that has chosen me, and it is an honour to carry on the tradition.”

He admitted that despite doing tattooing for many years now, he is still learning to apply his hands, mind and soul to ink clients with motifs that are filled with history, culture and tradition.

On the tattoo business, Ernesto, who owns Borneoheadhunters Tattoo & Piercing Studio, said it went through a period where business kind of dried up as social patterns, religions and education got in the way.

But the interest in the artform picked up again in the 1990s when young natives, both men and women, yearned to reconnect with their ancestral identities.

“In the 1990s, tattooers started emerging, but Iban tattoos were not done with the traditional method. So, I took up the challenge and began researching on what traditional tattoos were about in terms of methodology, its motifs and designs, and their meanings.”

Ernesto (seated, right) tattooing a client. Assisting him is his assistant Robinson Unau in their studio.

With that knowledge, he also honed his skills in using two pieces of wooden traditional tattoo kit. One has a strong tapping wooden handle called ‘Kayo Tatok’ and the other has a wooden handle with needles attached to it.

The son of a civil servant, Ernesto appreciates the tattooing craft and recalls how his grandfather used to tell him about Iban folklore and history.

“If you grew up in the 70s, 80s and 90s, no one will ever think of becoming a tattooer or tattoo artist. The emphasis then was on education and working for the government.”

The differences in his tattoo works

Despite having won local and international awards and recognitions, Ernesto admitted that his work was actually very similar to the work of others.

“What I do, others also do. The difference is the way the craft is done. Some keep it as close as possible to what it was (original motifs and designs of the Ibans). I am sure artists elsewhere do the same if they were to get into their traditional and cultural roots.”

Ernesto (right) tattooing his client during a conference overseas.

Ernesto’s formula is to always stray two per cent away from the original and keep the remaining 98 per cent traditional.

“You have to compromise with your work as the person you tattoo carries the ink throughout his or her life.”

The inspiration for his work

Ernesto feels happy whenever his Borneo native tattoos are accepted. It means his clients accept the history and the cultures of his people, and this is basically what inspires him in his work.

“On top of that, these people (clients) accept my method of tattooing, which is different and unique to the Island of Borneo.”

Ernesto said he worked best when he could visualise exactly what his clients wanted and he need not have to recreate or divert from traditional designs.

“I believe that the best work a person can produce is when he does not have to redo his work twice. That is not my trade.”

He explained that there is no difference in using a machine or using traditional toolkits in this trade as both methods still use hands.

“The most important thing is how close you can match the tattoo to the motifs and designs.”

Wooden tattoo tools for tapping and piercing the skin. They are called ‘kayo tatok’ in Iban.
Machine tattoo kit

Important Clients and Recognisable Pieces

Ernesto is proud that over the years, he had tattooed some very famous and important people, and one of the recent ones is actor, model and television presenter Henry Golding.

“I think it was important for him to get his tattoo at that time. He wanted to be close to his roots as he is of mixed English-Iban parentage. He also wanted to instil the ‘bejalai’ spirit in him.

Ernesto said his most recognisable tattoo is the Iban’s ‘Bungai Terung’. It is basically the most iconic Iban tattoo, which is easily recognisable from miles away.

“With many people from different parts of the world having it inked on their bodies, I have put ‘Bungai Terung’ on the world map! We have recreated a new tribe, too. In that sense, we have let the Iban tattoos profoundly do its ‘bejalai’. It has gone places around the world — a full cycle, perhaps.”

Ernesto (right) posing with the famous TV presenter and Hollywood actor Henry Golding (centre). With them is Robinson Unau.

Shallow Perception

On whether tattoos are bad, Ernesto opines that tattoos per se do not hurt anybody.

“If anything, it is the person that is bad, not the tattoo. The tattoo just happens to be there. For instance, a gangster happens to have a dragon tattoo. I don’t think the dragon will jump out of the body, bite people and eat somebody.

“But I do believe that some tattoos do carry negative energy, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is a negative effect.”

Global Differences in Tattoos

On tattoos in different countries, Ernesto said the similarity is the symbolism — the style, techniques, the medium used and how the elements or designs are implemented.

“The Japanese have a different history, while the Samoans, the Polynesians and the Maoris in New Zealand do have some similarities with those in Borneo. The themes are one of nature, family and personal achievements. The biggest difference is the tattooing methods.

The interior of Borneoheadhunters Tattoo & Piercing Studio.

He reckoned people come to get their tattoos here because the tattoos still carry cultural values whereas elsewhere things are very modernised.

Some clients tattoo their bodies with the belief that it could protect them along their journeys, while some tattoo their bodies to relate their stories or to make a statement.

“It could be fashionable but also subjective. It can be so individual as being about their own life journeys and to ink their bodies is to disclose their personal stories.”

But whatever it is, Ernesto takes pride in the knowledge that his masterpieces will continue to ‘bejalai’ globally, and with it the Iban culture. — DayakDaily