I Got a Hand Poke Tattoo in Bali
I squirmed with clenched palms as the needle dug and scraped beneath my tender inner-forearm. The hot light sprawled across my body, causing it to sweat profusely upon the leathered tattoo bed. Tribal women with inked faces, body suspension art and underground punk stickers danced along the walls. The combination of deep breathing and dehydrated head throbs led to a strange sensation, like I was falling into an outer body trance.
“I’m going for a quick smoke,” said Albar Tikam, the owner and my tattoo artist.
Up until that point, I had looked away during the whole process due to a fear that if I watched, I would feel more pain.
“It looks finished,” I smiled gleefully.
“Oh no – you are only halfway,” he chuckled.
I had well over an hour to go. I would say it was around this stage that the potential calamity of my reckless decision to get a hand poke tattoo, within only a couple days of discovering the prospect, was starting to sink in. My stomach was rising up and down like waves, but perhaps that was due to the 11 ungraceful hurls I had that morning from one-too-many Bintangs mixed with Extra Joss. To be frank, I didn’t think it through, and a series of thoughts now slithered through the wires of my mind.
“Don’t get tattoos in Asia – you’ll get AIDS,” my father once said to me. “It’s dirty. It’s not safe. The quality is not up to scratch like it is back home. It’ll get infected. You can’t trust it.”
A hodgepodge of phrases I’ve heard from countless people seemed to all blend into a single voice that feared and distrusted anything dissimilar to the west. Almost subconsciously, we become sanitised by some preconceived notion that tattoo culture and its practice upon clients throughout Asia is not on an equal, comparative level with the western world. Even my mother, who is of Asian descent, would not only be horrified by the blatant visibility of my new tattoo, but by the fact that it was done in Bali. Despite tattooing being a form of art that has been practiced for thousands of years from the birth of Balinese tribes, I too shamefully catch myself every now and then tumbling into that trap.
Albar returned with a cheeky grin etched upon his dotted face of piercings. I forced myself to observe the metal spike penetrating my skin repeatedly, finally realising and appreciating the all-consuming time and effort behind the practice. With every series of pangs, he lathered my new marking in cleansers and cream. It was the most sanitary tattoo process I had ever witnessed.
With 20 years of experience under his belt, Albar considers cleanliness and sterility to be the most important aspects of body art. Professional tattoo parlours pop up in almost every strip in southern Bali, and by undertaking research (as you would if you were back home) to determine which one correlates best with your standards, it is not challenging to find a safe haven. Yet Albar’s parlour, Suku Suku Tatau is the only official establishment that legally operates in traditional hand poke and hand tap tattoos, as well as body suspension and scarification within Bali.
95 per cent of Albar’s clients are tourists and though it saddens him that not many Indonesians partake in this form of art, it serves his mission to continue his culture on an international scale. Tribal artists in Indonesia are searching for more exemplars of this tradition, since political oppression in the last century led to the demise of many of its forms.
“We almost lost everything … In the era of the ’80s, the government made a rule that certain groups with a signature tattoo would have to be killed,” Albar explained.
These series of executions were known as the Petrus killings: a bid by the government of the time to lessen the amount of criminals. It is suspected that people with tattoos were targeted specifically, since tattoo culture had a resurgence in popularity during this period. Traditional Bornean tattoo designs also declined due to the dramatic rise of conversion to Christianity from the ’60s. For Albar, the recovery of these Indonesian tattoo designs and the continuation of its culture amongst everyone is critical to his work, even if his clients aren’t necessarily Indonesian. He participates in various European tattoo expos and festivals that aim to share traditional tattoo culture with all walks of life. “I want to bring up the roots of my culture to the world,” he said.
The final strike of the needle into my bruised skin lifted, as did the pain along with it. Despite my reprieve, I felt a little disappointed that the tug of war between mind and body was over. The bizarre mix of heavy yoga breaths and punk rock blaring had blanketed me in a soothing, meditative state. Dizzily returning back to reality, I felt instant elation as I took my first look at my rising sun imprint. I was now a part of something bigger than myself. Like a blurb to a walking canvas, I could spread the story and history behind it for as long as I lived.
Or, in the words of Albar, “Tattoos are a part of the soul. Life is much more painful.”