Borneo Inspiration Board

Covering an area of roughly 287,000 square miles, Borneo is the third-largest island in the world

Headhunting and tattooing were intricately connected in the magic, ritual and social life of many tribes.

If a Sarawak Kayan has taken the head of an enemy, he can have the back of his hands and fingers covered with tattoos, but if he only has had a share in the slaughter, one finger only, and generally the thumb, can be tattooed. On the Mendalan River, the Kayan braves are tattooed on the left thumb only, not on the carpals and the backs of the fingers, and the thigh pattern is reserved for head-taking heroes.

Kayan women are tattooed in complicated serial designs over the whole forearm, the backs of the hands, over the whole of the thighs below to below the knees, and on the metatarsal surfaces of the feet. The tattooing of a Kayan girl is a serious and long process taking up to four years. At ten years old a girl would have her fingers and the upper part of her feet tattooed, and about a year later her forearms would be completed, the thighs are partially tattooed during the next year, and in the third or fourth year from the commencement the whole operation should have been accomplished. Her tattoos would be completed before he becomes pregnant because it is considered immodest to be tattooed after she has become a mother.

Tattooing among the Kayan women is universal; they believe the designs act as torches in the next world. The operation of tattooing is always performed by women, never by men but men actually carve designs on wooden blocks.

Universal among the Kenyan-Klemantan of the Upper Mahakam and Batang, Kayan there is a belief that after death the completely tattooed women will be allowed to bathe in the mythical river Teland Julan, and that consequently they will be able to pick up the pearls that are found in its bed; incompletely tattooed women can only stand on the river banks, while un-tattooed will not be able to approach the shores at all.


This baby carrier, or ba’, was made around 1890 by the Kayan people of Borneo. Baby carriers not only serve a functional purpose, but have a spiritual significance as objects of ceremony and protection. The carrier may take 3 months to create and will be used until the baby is around two years old. The baby is carried facing the front of the parent until it is old enough to ride along on her parent’s back.
It is made of woven rattan with wooden seat. The back is covered with red trade cloth and a beaded panel of yellow and black abstract designs.
Bunches of dangling charms—seed pods, large snail shells, and small brown snail shells—make a comforting sound as they dangle. Once the baby’s umbilical cord falls off, it is placed in a shell and attached to the ba’.