Tattoo artist Fade FX documents Borneo tribe and their ancient art of hand tapping

Tattoo artist Fade FX, specialising in geometric and dotwork tattoos including mandalas, is a formidable artist. The body art she creates is simply stunning but she has a unique vibe that makes her artwork hit all the right notes on every level – physically, spiritually and energetically.

The Brighton-based artist, who is an internationally renowned tattooist, compliments her intricate dot and black work geometric pointillism with traditional Borneo hand tapped techniques, honouring centuries old traditions, which in its cultural home of Borneo is at risk of dying out.

Having spent time living with the Iban indigenous tribe in Malaysian Borneo, Fade FX was exposed to hand tapping tattooing. The only artist in the UK who uses this particular style, she also learnt the skill under the guidance of friend and fellow tattoo artist, Jeremy Lo from Monkey Tattoo Studio in Borneo, who is one of few modern tattooists in Borneo keeping the tradition alive.

Hand tapped tattoos are a lot more gentle than modern machine tattoos. The main reason is the motion of the needles. Hand tapping works at an angle of 90 degrees which pierces the skin but the needles don’t travel through the skin. Thicker lines are prominent with hand tapped tattoos. The tattoos themselves take longer but there is less trauma to the skin.

As with all indigenous peoples, tattoo art is used for ceremonial and functional purposes. Tattoos hold symbolic meaning for the tribes – each line, each dot, each marking a visual expression of the knowledge and wisdom shared by the tribe.  

Borneo is a country dominated by lush rainforest, long winding rivers and ominous mountain peaks. The Iban are a division of the Dayak peoples of Borneo who mainly inhabit the Sarawak region of Malaysian Borneo.

The Iban traditionally live near water so much of their folklore is associated with crocodiles. Iban tattoo art often features crocodiles – for instance, wavy lines represent water and diamonds with a dot in the middle are the peeping eyes of the crocodile.

Fade FX explains: “Star fruits feature on tattoos with animals so the animals have something to eat. It’s bad luck to tattoo an animal and leave it hungry so star fruits are a common feature of animal designs.”

In Borneo the ancient art of tattooing was lost for a generation as Christian culture displaced the traditional Iban way of life. As the indigenous peoples, jungles and rainforest now face a newer threat from modern day industrialism, the ancient art of tattooing too risks being phased out.

Fade FX explains: “It’s difficult for outsiders to learn the art of traditional hand tapped tattooing as the few elderly tattooists who are still practicing are reluctant to pass on their secrets.”

Fade FX, who has visited her “spiritual home” of Borneo on numerous occasions since her first visit in 2008, decided to capture the plight of the Iban people and their ancient art of hand tapping tattooing on a recent trip in 2015.

On her trip, she joined forced with film director, John K Kelly to make a documentary, Point of No Return.

Fade FX and John K Kelly travelled to Sarawak, Borneo to research and document the dying art of hand tapped tribal tattooing among the Iban tribe.

She journeyed deep into the jungle, filming the history of the technique and tribal culture before it’s lost with the elder generation who grew up still practising such traditions as head hunting, rituals and tattooing.

Fade had a one-off opportunity to interview the elders in the film and world renowned traditional tattooers, as well as highlight how issues such as deforestation is affected the Iban peoples culture and traditional sustainable way of life.

All images: © Fade FX

Fade FX

Rosalind Medea is Life & Soul Magazine’s Chief. She is a writer who specialises in sustainable lifestyle and living, music, entertainments and wellbeing. Rosalind also works as a spiritual life coach and intuitive advisor helping people to become who they truly are and manifest their heart & soul’s desires into their lives:

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