(Guest Article) Tattooing Timor - written and researched by the Dili Collective


Tattooing timor

Below the Banda sea and to the north of Australia lies the island of Timor-Leste. Originally, Timor was a crocodile, but formed into land after the crocodile died. Thus it is that the crocodiles are respected as the ancestors of all life. Those who are eaten by them have been eaten for a reason. As a land, the crocodile is mountainous and dry when the rains don't come. For many years it was occupied by the Portuguese, then by the Indonesians. Both ruled more with violence than benevolence. In 2002 Timor-Leste became the newest country in the world. Among the first things that the people of this tiny crocodile nation did was cover their bodies in tattoos. 

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. Photo Tony Amaral.

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. Photo Tony Amaral.

Little documentation exists on Tattooing in Timor, yet it is perhaps the most popular contemporary art-form. Today the Timorese tattoo scene is thriving yet there is little visibility of the actual practice. Though there are only three visible tattoo studios in the entire country, every fifth person is bearing ink.

The people of Timor live on the land inhabited by their families since long before memory. The dead inhabit the land one walks on. Ancestral land is littered with ancient graves and sacred places where long before strange events occurred. It is a semi-mythic landscape in which history constantly overlaps with the present.

         This too is visible in the tattoo culture of Timor. The modern intertwines with practices passed down for generations, born from beliefs that have been held since long before colonial occupation. Tattoo art in Timor is unique to the nature of its evolution. In the details of the tattoos that coat the limbs of bureaucrats, taxi drivers, soldiers and school children, one can see the scars of history.

         Traditionally, tattooing would be done at a funeral. A funeral is a time in which the entire family – both living and dead – come together.  When a person dies the ancestors gather by the body, called up by the death, called on by the lia nain, who carries the law and history of the people. In ceremonies the dead are called upon by name. To know the names of the dead is to have power. The dead can heal and destroy. 

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. 

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. 

Tattooing is conducted during the vigil. Beside the body the near family sing the deceased's history in a rhythm made of tears. While clusters of cousins drink and gamble in little pockets of light about the village, as the ancestors one by one arrive from their graves to receive the spirit of the newly dead, as the animals set aside to die in the morning shuffle blandly, a select few receive tattoos.

          In the village of Suai-Loro, this is also the ritual acknowledgement of marital engagement. The family holds the bride-to-be while her betrothed painstakingly stabs his family marks into the folds of her elbows. From this point on they are committed to marriage.

         There are a variety of pre-industrial tattooing methods. In some areas particular kinds of wood are burned in a covered fire. The soot is then collected and mixed with water. Soot is collected by covering the smoke of a fire. In other areas inks are made from boiled leaves or fruits. Thorns are then used to etch the tincture into the skin. In some locations the hard casing of a certain bean is used as a needle. In pockets of the south east the dyes of woven tais were burned into the arm using thick, heated metal skewers. The process is slow, haphazard and painful. 

In the 16th Century , Portugal laid claim to Timor. Though Portugal technically colonised Timor-Leste for four hundred years, outside of certain areas their presence was not particularly visible for a long period of time. Little headway was made among the kingdoms of Timor, few proved willing subjects to Portuguese occupation.

         For the Portuguese, Timor was a best forgotten backwater where opportunities for exploitation were limited to sandalwood and tobacco. A lethargic apathy slowed colonisation to a crawl, with little done in the way of infrastructure, decade to decade. Barely a road was laid.

          However, the Portuguese brought certain materials and ideas that proved popular. Tattooing spread to other areas of the island. Sewing needles replaced thorns.

         One key element that the Portuguese brought to Timorese tattooing was writing. Writing allowed for names to be carved onto the body. Those who walked across the mountains to the funerals of loved ones would now have the dead person's name etched onto their arm. Others tattooed their own names on their body, in case they died far from home and needed identification. Many others still had the names of ancestors tattooed on their skin, to give them power and protection. 

Portuguese period tattooing - late sixties. Battery ink and sewing needles. The names of dead friends were tattooed on at their funerals. Kamuala. Photo Thomas Henning.

Portuguese period tattooing - late sixties. Battery ink and sewing needles. The names of dead friends were tattooed on at their funerals. Kamuala. Photo Thomas Henning.

Often traditional work contains approximations of writing, for neither the recipient nor the tattooist could write. Amongst the elderly are those with strange hieroglyphics cut into their arms, which they claim to be their name. And who's to argue? What unknown alphabet they drew on to write the words existed perhaps in the dreams of the tattooist, in the mind of the recipient and in the eyes of the dead who had gathered at the funeral where the tattooing took place.

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. 

Suai loro - pre Portuguese style. 

         As European empires opened sea-roads across the globe, sailors and legionnaires spread a love of tattoos as fast as they spread syphilis. Manufactured goods probed further into the mountains. New sources of ink became available. Soot was replaced with the manganese oxide from inside batteries. Manganese oxide was ground down into powder then mixed with water and jabbed into the body.

Though grotesque in concept, manganese oxide is often used as ink and was widely used in early painting across the globe. It's appeal for tattooing is the strength of the stain it can create on skin. The quality of battery work is different from other inks, creating a dense scar, which remains raised slightly out from the body long after the work has been done.Some skins are known to respond badly to battery ink, creating a sporadic itching beneath the tattoo. 

In 1974 Portuguese governance ended due to insurrection in Lisbon. Fifty years of dictatorship under Antonio Salazar melted, and in the wake, across the world, new nations awoke to independence. The Carnation revolution blossomed from a military coup into vast social upheaval culminating in the total dismantlement of all Portuguese colonies.

Artist Arau Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

Artist Arau Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

         In the power vacuum that befell Timor, various parties fought for control. After a failed coup by the Union democratica Timorense, the socialist inclined Fretlin party took power. The squabble over the new nation's direction led to civil war. Each party began exterminating members of the opposition. The unpopular Apodeti party saw opportunity to seize control with the support of neighbouring Indonesia.

In declaring one's affiliation to one group or another, tattooing bore gravity. Fretilin flags sprang up on biceps up and down the island. Many among the newly formed national military branded themselves with the insignia of their unit. 

After around 2,000 deaths in two weeks, Fretiln formed a government and UDT joined Apodeti in calling for Indonesian occupation. Fretilin were declared communist. Better dead than red paranoia of the Cold war led America and Australia to support Indonesian intervention. Nine days after Fretilin declared Timor to be an Independent nation, soldiers crossed the border. Soon American planes were dropping Indonesian paratroopers up and down the island. Fretilin took to the hills, beginning what would be a twenty four year campaign against the vast Army of Indonesia.

         Rather than merely exploit Timor, Indonesia sought to assimilate the people. Many roads soon rolled out across Timor's cliffs and hills. Mass produced produce became readily available in most villages. Electricity was present in regional centres and military posts. Nevertheless, media from the wider world, as well as any freedom of expression, was utterly limited.

Artist Charles, Tasi Tolu tattoo crew. Photo Thomas Henning.

Artist Charles, Tasi Tolu tattoo crew. Photo Thomas Henning.

         Under Indonesian law animism became illicit. Across Timor traditional beliefs became interwoven and absorbed into Catholicism. As the numbers of loved ones killed during occupation grew great, the practice of memorial tattooing continued.

         Across the country the clandestine movement grew, conducting covert resistance wherever it could. A small but ever active guerrilla war was fought through out the mountains that make up the spine of the crocodile.

Under Indonesian occupation there was zero tolerance for those who were pro-independence. Pro Independence tattoos were cut or burnt off. Electricity was used to sear nationalistic tattooing from bodies.

Nevertheless, tattooing continued as an underground practice. Though in the mountains funerals remained the common location where one would get ink, in the city and in the towns tattoos were made willy-nilly, wherever batteries and needles could be found. Purpose made tattoo equipment was uncommon in Indonesia, particularly in occupied Timor. Hand-made machines worked behind closed doors. With occupation came the martial arts gangs. Instead of the scouts, Indonesian colonials established street gangs such as Kera Sakti (monkey warriors) And PHST (Loyal Brotherhood of the Lotus Heart), who practiced Silat and soon controlled large swathes of Dili. In response, youth groups sprang up in pro-independence areas, defending their neighbourhoods with magic and machetes. Their large numbers bolstered the ranks of the clandestine, holding whole neighbourhoods against rival gangs, against the army and, later, the militias.

Bizkit's ironing board studio, in Gembel - bidau lecidere. Photo Mariano Goncalves

Bizkit's ironing board studio, in Gembel - bidau lecidere. Photo Mariano Goncalves

         Each gang came with it's own tattoos. Others practiced scarification. For those initiated into 77, the most prominent of the ritual arts gangs, the arm and chest are ceremonially cut and packed with a power that makes the body impenetrable to bullets.  

Tattooing under occupation was akin to a mark of criminality. But for the traditional forms, the majority of tattoos served to show affiliation. Commitment through tattoos continued on among the guerillas and the clandestine, among the gangs and in the prisons. Sex workers wore brands to render them easily recognisable.

During the early 1980's in the main cities of Java, large numbers of tattooed bodies were irregularly found dumped in streets and rivers. The Petrus anti-crime campaign involving the open displaying of dead criminals continued through the early eighties, creating fear and cementing the illicit reputation of tattooing.

         In 1997 the Economic crisis weakened Suharto's reign. Protests spilled out from the universities and flood the streets of the cities of Java. Students were shot and a wave of riots broke out from a tightly repressed population.

Internal power struggles shattered the New Order from within, feeding the flames in the cities. In a failed attempt to oust his rival General Wiranthu, General Prabowo Subianto went into disgraced exile, accused of stimulating the riots against the Chinese through use of the special military unit Kopassus. With the populace aflame and the economy ruined, Suharto stepped down as President.  

Lenore “Chaching” Ankis Lay tattooing man's head, Kampuala. Photo Lenore Ankis Lay.

Lenore “Chaching” Ankis Lay tattooing man's head, Kampuala. Photo Lenore Ankis Lay.

One year later, under pressure from Australia, acting President B J Habibi gave license for an Independence referendum to be held in Timor. In the wake of the majority pro-independence decision, the militias loaded up on Mad dog pills and burned everything. The overt support of the Indonesian military drew gross outcry from the nations who had advocated the referendum. As an international military corps spread into the spine of the crocodile, the militias slaughtered their way to the border, driving before them three hundred thousand refugees. In a scorched earth finale to an era of brutal occupation, Indonesia slowly withdrew. 

Timor was liberated.

         Contemporary tattooing as we now know it hit Dili alongside independence. The toll of occupation had left the population immensely young. In a shattered legal system and a lack of opportunities, gangs proliferated. Each added their own flare to their members' bodies, branding many with the mark of their area.

         Some of those that were removed have been tattooed back in their former position after independence. On certain arms, across certain scars burned in the shape of Timor, lies freshly inked Timorese flags.  

 In the void left behind, the UN began a transitional government. Check-points manned by nations ranging from Denmark to Pakistan controlled movement in the city. Two decades of pop culture flooded in on arms and chests that celebrated hip-hop and hair metal, glutting the young populace with images of rebellion.

         In the period after referendum, Guns and Roses became Dili's most overplayed supergroup. The song Knockin' on Heavens Door swept across the country, making Slash a major icon among frustrated young men once again. Mr. Big hit it big in Dili in 2002, the same year that the band broke up after sixteen long years of shredding and infighting.

         Currently Timor-Leste is going through a tattoo boom. it's the nation's most visible visual art. Traditional practices fused with criminal and popular culture. Freshly inked forearms again bare the names of relatives and ancestors. The flowing patterns of tais unfold beside gang tattoos. National and cultural pride entwine with teenage rebellion, littering skins with eclectic designs. The names of metal bands reside alongside the names of the dead. Crucifixes sit beneath traditional houses. A weeping madonna is depicted beside buffalo skulls, standing on the back of a crocodile. 

Tattoos are made on hearsay. Phones and friends are the basis of a business. Work is obtained by word of mouth. Most tattoos are made in home studios, or as a portable practice that goes to the client. 

Dohnny's Rakit machine, Tasi Tolu. Photo Mariano Goncalves. Johnny's machine is built from a DVD player. His previous one he'd made from a discarded electric toothbrush. The body has been made from the brake clamp from a bicycle. 

Dohnny's Rakit machine, Tasi Tolu. Photo Mariano Goncalves. Johnny's machine is built from a DVD player. His previous one he'd made from a discarded electric toothbrush. The body has been made from the brake clamp from a bicycle. 

          Materials are limited. Disposable needles are available only sporadically. Purpose made inks are rarer still. In spite of the dangers to health, this situation has caused Timorese tattoo art to be a highly inventive practice. A lot of experimentation is going on. 

         Tattoo machines cannot be bought in Dili unless there is someone pre-arranged to “mule” it in from outside. Though machines are becoming increasingly common, the majority of work one sees in Dili is rakit.

Rakit, Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

Rakit, Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

         A Rakit machine is built around a dynamo. The parts are often accumulated slowly. An artist may retain a new dynamo for several years before putting it together. Bent spoons and motorbike chains are twisted into grips, pens and plastic tubing make up tips. The dynamo most people use are those from DVD players. Before the digital revolution flooded Dili with bootleg DVDs, cassette players were a common body from which a rakit would be built. A cassette player rakit is said to use the fast forward for lines and play for shading. 

The mechanics of the rakit are simple and wily, similar to prison-built equipment. The spindle of the dynamo is connected to a pen which runs through a tube and has a sewing needle wedged and bound in it's end.

Converted stapler peddle, Tasi Tolu.  Photo Mariano Goncalves.

Converted stapler peddle, Tasi Tolu.  Photo Mariano Goncalves.

A needle attached to the dynamo pierces through the plastic ink reservoir of a ballpoint pen. A sewing needle is placed in the head of the ink reservoir and held in place with sewing thread. The dynamo then serves as a spindle, rapidly driving the needle up and down.

Johnny's tattoo studio in Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

Johnny's tattoo studio in Tasi Tolu. Photo Thomas Henning.

         Due to it's home-made nature, rakit work has an irreplicable style, unique to each machine. There is a scratchy line quality, with skips and warps like a gramophone needle. Many contemporary Dili artists with their own home-made machine, and work with the quirks of the tool as part of their style.

         Though one can still find battery ink tattoos, fewer artists use manganese oxide. Purpose-made inks are irregularly available though increasingly common. More often tattoos are made with printer and illustration ink. The most popular brands are Germans, Rotring and Staedtler. Printer inks fluctuate in quality. Often black will soon fade to grey, and colours occasionally fall out in patches. Most desirable are purpose made inks, however these are rare and expensive. 

King Tattoo. Studio, Bidau Santa'ana. Photo Thomas Henning.

King Tattoo. Studio, Bidau Santa'ana. Photo Thomas Henning.

Tattoo needles are by necessity disposable. A lack of regular supply can lower an Asli user's productivity. Purpose made needles soon get used up. With very little supply, improvisation inevitably occurs. sewing needles are sold in kiosks and neighbourhood shops. The head is wrapped in thread to create a stopper that blocks the needle from penetrating beyond the surface.

Portable studio, Tasi Tolu. This is a full kit.  Photo Thomas Henning.

Portable studio, Tasi Tolu. This is a full kit.  Photo Thomas Henning.

Solder is used for rebuilding old needles with new heads, soldering sewing needles onto the spines of tattoo needles.

         The area is shaved and sterilised with a spray of either alcohol or detol. Design is commonly outlined on the body in biro. Often an artist often have a limited number of well-worn magazines for inspiration, or print outs collected from the internet. In other cases, the client will draw up the design along with the artist, who will then copy it out by eye on to the skin. In the freehand style that a number of artists choose to use, the image is created in the moment of tattooing. This style has a fluidity and rawness impossible to recreate in pre-designed work.

         Hygienic practice is mostly limited to avoiding only immediately visible infection. Understanding about HIV and blood-born disease is as limited as faith in doctors. Modern medical information and services are thin on the ground. Death by neglect occurs in the only national hospital. Laxatives are prescribed for throat infections. Though gloves and disposable needles are increasingly more present, without access to clean equipment, infection could easily become a hallmark of having a Dili tattoo. 

In August 2014, during the Arte Publiku Festival, Timor-Leste held it's first ever tattoo convention. For the first time, Dili's Tattooists came together to watch each other work and display their own skills in public. Along the waterfront in Lecidere a stage was erected where machines ran from nine in the morning until deep in the night. Working alongside Timorese artists were tattooists from Portugal and indonesia. Home-made machines hummed along beside the factory built. It was the most public display of a nation-wide love of tattooing conducted in Dili to date. Latex gloves and clean needles were handed out to attending artists.

         There is a scene blooming in Dili now. It's raw and random in it's practice. It's evolution has been haphazard. Until recently it has been entirely underground. Now one can see it driving it's way up through the concrete, spilling through the city with the versatility of a plastic bag and the catchiness of ebola.