The Vanishing Tattoo

2009, Society  -  50 min Leave a Comment
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Two adventurers are forging their way into country that was home to perhaps the fiercest headhunters the world has ever known. These two Canadians are hot on the trail of some of the last remaining tribal tattoo masters. A small hand cut tattoo of only a few square inches takes many painful hours to pound into the flesh with a needle on a stick. But it's been decades since anyone along the Skrang River has seen this rite performed.

These tattoo hunters won't quit until they witness this vanishing ritual firsthand, even sacrificing themselves to the needles, if they have to, to keep this dying art form alive. Vince Hemington is a writer and now historian of tattoo lore. His partner, with the full body tattoo, is renowned tattoo artist Thomas Lockhart.

Tom's been tattooing for a quarter of a century, while Vince is relatively new to the tattoo world, and what better place to start than Borneo. Borneo is the largest land mass between Australia and Asia, and it's about as far from home as two Canadians can get. At just a single degree north of the equator, Vince and Thomas couldn't have picked a much hotter place either.

Early explorers to Borneo told fabulous tales of incredible sites, none more frightening than the fabled wild man of Borneo. But the arrival of Europeans in the 19th and 20th centuries began to take the wild out of the warrior and the magic out of the indigenous culture. Some of that magic was tied up in tribal tattoos, marks so sacred that without them the people would become invisible to their gods. Just like those early explorers, Vince and Thomas head eastwards from Kuching along the edge of the South China Sea.

They thought they'd probably lose their bearings at some point on their three-week journey, but not that soon. Heavy smoke from forest fires on the Indonesian side of Borneo has completely obliterated the horizon. Placing their trust in the captain, they join in the only thing they've forgotten to do, pray for a safe passage.

They're not sure what gods they're invoking, or whose protection they're seeking. But since they'll be heading up a river once known as the River of Death, they figure they'll need all the help they can get. This part of the journey ends 50 kilometers up the Skrang River at Pais. There, they've arranged to rendezvous with two brothers whom Thomas has often met at tattoo conventions around the world, Eddie and Simon David.