Underground Jogja Tattoo revival
At the campus of the Institute of Fine Arts in Yogyakarta (ISI) I am talking with a painter around 27 years old who has just completed his master’s degree. He is wearing a black T-shirt and his hands are almost entirely covered with tattoos. “Why did you get the tattoos?” I ask him. “The skin is a big canvas and we can express our feelings and ideas on it” he replies. Let’s have a look on some of his tattoos: on the inner side of his right forearm there is an old Sudanese saying (in Sudanese language of course) which means “fairly prosperous, totally peaceful” (“adil makmur, damai sentosa” in bahasa Indonesia). On the upper side of his forearm there is another writing in English this time, coming from a famous punk rock band: “RAMONES”. The whole picture of his forearm is completed with a caricature face which belongs to the famous Iceland singer Bjork. The interesting thing about this tattooed forearm is the fact that Western elements are combined with Javanese ones to form a “hybrid”. Is this “hybrid” a result of globalization? According to the social anthropologist Laine Berman, the release of the first Guns N’ Roses album “Appetite for destruction” led a lot of young Indonesians get a tattoo with the image of the album cover and that was just the beginning as more and more Western music bands were inspiring the Indonesian tattooing. Generally in Java and especially in Yogyakarta didn’t
preexist a ritualistic “tradition” of tattooing as in other parts of Indonesia like in the Mentawai tribe (Mentawai islands are sited at the Western coast of Sumatra) or the Dayak and Iban tribes of Borneo, but there is a very interesting connection between tattooing and death in the recent Java’s history. Specifically during the years 1983-85 under Suharto’s New Order regime, around 5.000 “criminals” were shot to death without undergoing a trial. The name of this “operation” is known as “Petrus”, which was an acronym for “Mysterious shooters” (Penembak mysterious). As it turned out, almost all of them who were killed were tattooed and their bodies were placed in public places for terrorizing unaware populace. Also the daily headlines at that time, mentioned those who were killed as “tattooed corpse” (mayat bertato). “Men who were tattooed began to turn themselves into the police out of fear to be murdered” reports James Siegel in his 1998 book: “A new criminal type in Jakarta”. “Terrified of being targeted as a “criminal” because of their tattoo, many youths made every effort to eliminate these visual death warrants from their bodies. Hot ironing them right off by searing human flesh was one of the main strategies. Applying acid lime, sand papering and scrabing the area with rock salt were other common methods” writes Laine Berman. Thus, at least during 1983-85, tattoos were equivalent to crime and danger in the people’s eyes in Indonesia.
Jogja Mag November Edition 2012