Borneo, one of the great islands of the world, is part of the Malay Archipelago located southwest of the Philippines. It is also one of the few places today where tattooing continues to be practiced in a tradition that may stretch back thousands of years. Although it is but an island, it is home to several native subgroups: the Iban (also called the Sea Dayak), Kayan, Kenyah, and Land Dayak. Often times, though, these peoples are grouped under the single term Dayak, used to refer to any of the indigenous people of the interior of this lush and mountainous island. In the late 1800s, anthropologists started to become interested in the traditional cultures of the peoples of the region and several investigative expeditions were mounted. From these, as well as the work of modern researchers, we are provided a rare glimpse behind some of the symbols at work in tattooing and the meanings that they hold.
As with many indigenous forms of tattooing around the globe, the art of tattooing was not simply art for art’s sake. Instead, tattooing was an integral part of the culture, a ritual expression, specifically connected with spiritual beliefs. The scorpion symbol, also sometimes known as kala, was noted particularly in Iban tattoo designs by Charles Hose (a civil officer who worked in Borneo over twenty years) and William McDougall (an English anthropologist) in their 1912 publication The Pagan Tribes of Borneo. However, the authors note that the “scorpion” design is actually based on the highly stylized image of the aso, the mythical dog/dragon associated with protection from malevolent spirits. Hose and McDougall suggest that the Iban adopted their tattoo designs from other subgroups on the island and created their own interpretations afterwards. In the kala design, the claws of the scorpion were originally the back end of the dog while the hooked ends at the back of the scorpion design were originally the open jaws of the mouth of the dog. Although it has no particular significance in the scorpion design, even the rosette-like eye of the dog still persists in the center.