Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Xena, not the warrior princess, had a body of a Spanish guitar. A little twerk of her ass fired up the handful of men dancing in front of her. The 19-year old singer was singing ‘dangdut’—Indonesian folklore music genre—in Javanese and everyone sang along. Her persona wasn’t much different to any dangdut singer in Indonesia, with clothes showing what her mum gave her, heels that reach for the stars, and make up accentuating all of her facial features. But tattoos around her shoulders and hands caught my eyes. I’ve watched a lot of dangdut singers whether it be on TV or that on taped live performance and it’s very uncommon to see female singers with tattoos. It creeped up on me, have we reached a new era for tattoo appreciation in Indonesia?
Born in the 80s, I got to see the journey of tattoos in Indonesia. It was identical to rock, alternative, and all the ‘loud’ musicians in the past, especially of that foreigners. However, it was different to that in Indonesia where people hid their tattoos as much as possible because it was identical to criminals and premans—a slang word taken from vrijman, which means free man associated to political thugs that ‘kept the peace’ of a certain neighborhood. It’s common to find them captured for no reason or even shot by unidentified snipers during the Soeharto era. Hence, people hid their tattoos then, unless they were indigenous. It was an ironic time considering some of the oldest tattoo cultures in the world are from Indonesia such as Mentawai and Dayak. All accumulating to a stigma that tattoos are for tough guys only, so tough, you’d have a risk of getting shot!
Read more about the Dayak man and our encounter to Dayak tattoos.
“What the hell is an Instagramable tattoo studio?” both Vira and I questioned one day in a chat with friends. We were talking about people nowadays are getting visible tattoos and it’s no longer a symbol of toughness. Tattoos have become decorative, even the shapes and colors have evolved, to a point that even their studios were ‘pretty’. “Aren’t they supposed to be ‘dark’?” It started to seem like blasphemy.
Until I found myself in Be No Square, a studio tattoo in Bali, which was said to be ‘Instagramable’. The venue was all black and white. More white than black. It was bright and more friendly than what I had expected from a tattoo studio. I didn’t feel intimidated despite I have no tattoos, nor did I plan to get one.
Lidya, the founder of Be No Square, told me about her square one as we lounged on the floor. Her female friend got her first tattoo in a conventional Bali tattoo studio. She was asked to unnecessarily spread her legs up in the air and have the tattoo artists’ male friends watch while she got inked. Lidya didn’t say which part was inked but she emphasized that there were no need for her friend to spread her legs like that. Traumatized, she told Lidya of the experience.
“Why don’t I make a place that is comfortable, a place where we can bridge nicely especially for females? So I made one that isn’t dark, not like the others,” says Lidya calmly. “People want to see a detailed shot of their tattoo, how can they see in a dark place?” It made every bit of sense.
Be No Square breaks a few conventional ideas of tattoos. It’s an all-female artist studio, which makes getting inked more acceptable and comfortable for women in Indonesia. It’s bright and in its best interest to be environmentally friendly. The ink, ointment, and even plastic bags to wrap their goods are either vegan or organic.
“Vegan ink is better. Vegan ingredients are better for practical reasons and the aftercare is easier, especially on people that are vegan or keep good nutrition for their bodies.” Who knew? Vegan or not, the best tattoos are a collaboration of both the artists and clients. Good treatment afterwards, especially with organic matter, also contributes to a beautiful and long lasting skin art. Lidya also tells me that the business grows with her clients.
“The clients choose us and we learn from them. They teach us of designs and technology. We learned about the ink, ointment and all from them,” she continued.
Be No Square currently have three signature styles, though they can do much more. The classic black and white is Lidya’s thing and colors belongs to Elisa. Fiona, also present with her son and husband who is also a tattoo artist, can do handpoke designs.
“Handpoke is a trend, but I don’t like how people are permissive in quality just because it’s handpoke. We have a good artist that can do it well,” Lidya said proudly with Fiona smiling while playing with her son. So how about the prices?
“We can compete with the rest of the prices of tattoos in Bali. We don’t profit much, but we’re not all about money,” Lidya says, all smiles.
Growing more friendly to the tattoo world, I have to admit that the meet with Lidya and friends did reduce some hesitations. Not saying that I would get one, but I get that Indonesia is moving towards more accepting ink.
It was such a friendly talk, I felt closer to these tattoo artists because I had one thing in common as a creator.
“We don’t do other people’s work (plagiarism). Reference is okay, but not exactly the same. Why have the same tattoo like other people? It’s not appreciating other artists; the client also doesn’t appreciate themselves.” Now that’s a great direction to Indonesian artistry for the future. It’s to hear more people will appreciate good creation and spread it, including that ink on skin.
Jl. Pengubengan Kauh No.99A, Kerobokan, Kuta Utara, Badung, Kerobokan Kelod, North Kuta, Denpasar City, Bali 80361