Interview with a Borneo Hand Tap Tattoo Master

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“Two sticks. That’s all the equipment you need to tattoo by hand.” – Jeremy Lo, hand tap tattoo master.

Sitting on the terrace of a traditional long house overlooking the Borneo rain forest, Brighton based tattooist Fade FX is chatting with world renowned hand tap tattooist Jeremy Lo. Fade FX is the only UK tattooist trained in the ancient art of Borneo tribal hand tap tattooing. She revisited the Borneo jungle in 2015 with film maker Tom J. Kelly to document the last of the Iban Head Hunter tattooists, meeting with former teacher and tattoo master Jeremy Lo to document and discuss the intricate technicalities of hand tap tattooing.

“You have two sticks. One has needles tied at the end, while the other works as a hammer. The size and length of the sticks depends on which part of the body you’re tattooing. It’s like using a machine with different needles, different tubes and different throw depending on what and where you’re tattooing.”

Needle stick 2

Borneo Tribe Members

Fade first went to Borneo in 2008 specifically to train under Jeremy, learning the techniques and procedures of hand tap tattooing and has since returned regularly, each time learning a bit more to perfect the technique while living in the rainforest with members of the Iban tribe and simultaneously learning about their culture and tattooing heritage.

Jeremy paved the way for tattooists like Fade, encouraging the Iban tribal elders to open up to outsiders and share their secrets. The process of gaining their trust is described as painfully slow at times. Jeremy would spend days with them, receiving just snippets of information.

To the untrained eye, the two sticks Jeremy references look dangerously archaic, but, in the hands of a master, they can execute some of the most beautiful tattoos.

“One holds the needles, one is the hammer and the voltage is your hands. You can use any hardwood except for bamboo, because it’s too soft.”

Hand tap tattooing dates back to the Stone Age. In Europe, the knowledge of tattooing was lost for centuries until sailors brought it back from long voyages to the Far East. In the Borneo jungles tattooing has an unbroken lineage dating back to humanities earliest forays into art, where beautiful geometric lines, curves and pictograms where all achieved with two hard sticks, organic inks and improvised needles.

“Before there were modern needles they would use different things. I’ve seen bones, hardwood, and sometimes even thorns used as needles. When people started being able to get ahold of metal needles, they would use that one needle on everybody. They wouldn’t change it, just sharpen it between tattoos. On big patches they would use 3 to 5 needles together, but that was it. Basically anything that was sharp could, and would, be used.”

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