The art of traditional Indonesian tattooing and body modification – Suku Suku Tatau
Entering the Suku Suku Tatau studio at JL Nakula No 99 x, Seminyak, you will immediately realise that this is a studio light-years away from the average tattoo shops on the streets of Kuta, where tourists get the name of their boyfriend around their ankles or little dolphins on their lower hips.
Of course everyone has his own taste, and in a place like Bali where you have twenty tattoo shops on each corner, it is quite a challenge to know which one to choose.
This is why it’s definitely worth spending a bit of time doing some research before entering the first studio to cross your path. You might find out, once lying there powerless under the gun, that the guy who is supposed to have been doing this for decades, is actually holding a tattoo gun for the first time. Surprise!
Bali’s streets are packed with tattoo stores, making the search for the right place even harder.
Furthermore, he might be colour-blind and so inexperienced that you end up with something that looks more like a skin disease than a tattoo. A couple of beers and a big portion of humour might get you through the horror, but it won’t remove your permanent markings.
Luckily enough, there are other places to choose from. Places in which tattooing is still treated as an art form.
At Suku Suku Tatau, every tattoo is a special piece of artwork
Suku Suku Tatau is one of the rare places in Bali which carries and preserves the traditional Indonesian way of getting tattooed. In 2008, Albar Tikam opened Suku Suku together with his girlfriend, Pitzi Mudita, and the store became a creative playground for everyone who walked through their doors.
Pitzi focused on building up the tribal street wear label, Gado Gado Vienna, which she founded together with her friend Issy in 1993. They create individually designed and printed clothing incorporating tribal and tattoo art, which is now established and recognised over the whole island . Inspiring each other day by day, Pitzi and Albar became an unbeatable team, following their passion and making their dreams come true.
The history of traditional tattoo tapping
Meanwhile, Albar devoted himself to a centuries old method of tattooing. Using only a wooden stick and a needle, the tattoo gets hand-tapped with two sticks. It is said that this style of body art was originally developed by some of the ancient tribes of Borneo.
Sadly, most of the old designs no longer exist. With the arrival of the missionaries in the 1950’s, many tribes converted to Christianity, and the traditional tattooing process almost died out. This is precisely why it is so important for Albar to revive this unique technique – the technique of his ancestors.
“I feel so happy and blessed to be Indonesian,” he says. “We have so many beautiful, unique customs, but they slowly disappear. I want to do my little part to ensure we don’t forget our roots and background.”
Tattooing – much more than just a profession
For the man all dressed in black, being a tattoo artist has a far bigger meaning than just a profession. For him, tattooing has nothing to do with fashion, it is a piece of art that describes a certain path or moment in your life. An image that has to be chosen thoughtfully and with care.
When a person enters the store, he takes all the time needed to find the right image. He knows about his responsibility and the importance of the moment for each single client who decides to get tattooed by him.
Traditional tattooing with the ‘hand tapping’ technique has evolved from tribes such as the Dayak Borneo Kalimantan and Mentawai.
So the big question: does Albar find it weird when Western people come in and request deep, meaningful Indonesian symbols to be engraved onto their bodies? He smiles and shakes his head. Most certainly not.
“It is an honour,” he responds. “Many of the people who come to me feel a very special connection to Bali or Indonesia. They arrived here as foreigners, and now they feel like they are at home. They want something to always accompany them and remind them of this beautiful place they fell in love with.” As he speaks, his split tongue becomes visible for a short moment, and when he starts talking about the things he loves, his black eyes sparkle passionately through his on trend glasses.
Albar Tikam – A man dedicated to his art
Meeting Albar is like diving into a completely different world, one full of mysteries; full of things that most people will never get the chance to discover. With every sentence, it seems, he opens another hidden drawer of his magic cabinet, leaving listeners to sit and stare in silent admiration.
A world full of exotic notions and words like poketing, scarification, microdermal, and body suspension. A world his parents took a while to accept, so different from any world they had known before.
Albar was born in Jakarta, the oldest of nine children. Coming from a more conservative background, it wasn’t always easy to make his family understand why he chose such an unusual lifestyle. His mother nearly had a heart attack when he came home with his first piercing at just 14 years of age. And his father couldn’t understand how he could call the noise he produced with his friends “music”. But he stayed true to himself and continued his path, ignoring the uncomprehending head-shakes of his siblings until they surrendered. He got more piercings and started working in a body art studio as a tattoo artist and piercer in Jakarta.
Despite his father’s fear that he would worship the devil, Albar founded the Metal-Hard-Rock band, “The Last One“, once he moved to Bali. With time, he became an important influence on the music and art scene on the island, and now they’re somewhat inseparable. He worked for a few more years in different body art studios in Kuta to deepen his skills, but once he discovered the old Indonesian art of tattoo tapping with traditional tools, he knew that he had found his calling.
The history and thrill of body suspension
The unfathomable idea of people hanging in the air on big butcher hooks becomes more digestible once Albar starts talking about it. Understanding more about the intentions and feelings of people who like to drill holes through their flesh – hanging in the air like living angels – gives a unique insight its thrill and mystic.
Historically, Body Suspension was a sacred ritual practiced by an American-Indian tribe called the Mandan at the Missouri river. In modern times, it has become a way for a small minority to express themselves. Exploring their own physical borders and relishing in the kick of extreme adrenaline.
In all cases, it needs very precise preparation – a minimum of one week of fasting, no alcohol or drugs, and no heavy partying. Mental health and a strong physical condition are both required.
Although everyone who embarks on the body suspension journey has their own personal reasonings, there is one thing, it seems, that they all have in common – an indescribable feeling of absolute fulfilment and happiness during the ritual. Once they are released, everyone agrees that this is how it must feel to be a reborn – totally pure, untouched, and open.
“Sometimes we make a whole theatrical performance out of it, somewhere in the forest, or as a big event on stage. We have people perform while hanging above our heads when we play with our band.” Wisely, he has never invited his father to one of these concerts.
But even though he remains a strange bird, his parents overcame their doubts and support him all the way. Understanding that there are a million different ways of living life – none of them right nor wrong – made the bond between them even stronger.
Looking into the future
After working for almost twenty years as a body and tattoo artist, Albar Tikam is well-known in the scene and gets invited to events and tattoo conventions all over Asia. To the question of what his next professional dream is, he answers without hesitation. “I’d love to participate in Body Art conventions in Europe, or tour over there with my band.” He smiles. Europe, no doubt, will welcome talent like his with open arms.
Jl. Nakula No 99 x, Seminyak
T 0815 9691475