Jeremy Lo: Tattoo Artist. Mythological Scientist. Amalgamation Extraordinaire.
I receive a picture on Whatsapp. It is a photo of the Fung Ka Chew Building, an obvious landmark for the ground location I am at. Another picture is quickly followed by yet another. I then realize what I am receiving are visual instructions of the direction I am to proceed, packaged as a puzzle sent from the clear vantage point of some unseen overlord. The final picture has me in it, conveying the message I have been clearly spotted long before I have found who I am looking for. Who would have thought that deciphering the cryptic location of a tattoo studio would have a game mechanic to it shrouded in clever deviousness. So was the tone set for the person I was about to meet for the very first time.
The world commonly recognizes him as "Jeremy Lo: Borneo Tribal Tattoo Artist”. But in the two days I spent with him I caught a tingling sense there was so much more about him than just a man behind the hand-tap needle. Being in his presence brought about a sensation of all-encompassing multi-dimensionality which is a refreshing change to the common linearity of life. And because the questions I had prepared were largely linear in characteristic, I ended up tossing them aside. From body art to human origins, and from social critique to space fuel, he is a character persona in his own movie script who justly deserves the proper story he has been long deprived of..
B: Borneo Art Collective (Jeremy Baxter)
JL: Jeremy Lo
B: What’s the current public attitude towards tattoos today?
JL: Y’know it's really good here in Sarawak. It's really good especially in Kuching. For the past let's say five, six years I can see the appreciation of Borneo tattoos, the acknowledgement. People know about it [and] it's more accepted.
B: And it's not just tribal tattoos, it's also tattoos [in general]...
JL: ALL tattoos: 'Body Art'. It's also because of the whole culture and history of tattooing [in Sarawak]. It helps the tattoo art grow. People [especially natives] can relate. [They] have [tattoo'ed] grandfathers [but tattooing] stopped for a while. One generation before us, about 50 years ago tattoos were taboo. And THIS generation, we are...
B: …’Bringing it back’?…
JL: …’Bringing it back’, but in a different idea now, y'know? We are doing it because there was a [tattooing] history here, and we would like to see this dying history come to life again in the modern world. And now artists, including me, are using this as an inspiration to our own art. With this and also [for] most of the natives, they have a sense of where they come from. It's like a pride to show their tattoo [heritage].
B: So it's a new appreciation of body art, combined with Sarawak tattoo history and heritage.
JL: Yup! That's it! I wouldn't say that people [today] are trying to [replicate the past]. It's not like that. Ok, SOME really appreciate [retaining the authentic heritage of their culture], but not everybody is like that. It doesn't have to be exactly the same thing, but a modern interpretation of that. If you want to [get a tribal tattoo the traditional way] it might not be really [suitable in modern society].
Jeremy goes on to present an example of the throat tribal tattoo which would raise questionable public opinion being worn in the modern world, but a rendition of it based on a professional tribal tattoo artist's impression (such as himself) would still allow that portion of heritage preservation to live on.
B: You don't just focus on tattoos itself.
JL: Not [just] tattoos - [My craft is] Borneo ARTWORK. It's based on all the [Borneo] carvings, structures, how they make the boats, how the weapons are, how they [natives] dress, how the people talk [native languages]...it's all the raw materials for my artwork.
B: And this is...'Mu'O Tawai'?
JL: Mu’O Tawai is what I created. I was talking to a Kenyah friend of mine, and we were listening to this song and I think I [misunderstood] something [in the lyrics]. We were drinking and I heard 'Mu'O Tawai'. He explained it as: 'Something you THINK about…'. Something you think a LOT about or, ALL of your thinking. Well, I said "[eureka moment/expletive deleted]! That's how I think about tattoos!". So my tattoos would be Mu'O Tawai, because I think of ALL the things!
I'm still working on a lot of things, a lot of Mu'O Tawai patterns. It's never ending... Mu'O Tawai is never ending because at this stage I don't only SEE the patterns, I READ stories. I would say that no artist does this here yet [in Sarawak]. If some other local artist reads about [Borneo folklore], we can have a conversation and we can develop something else. Now, the only other language I can read is Iban. I would like to learn the Kayan language, the Kenyah language, and all of those... I would like to learn all of those and I'm working on it. This will develop my artwork; it will change my art. Y’know?: 'KNOWLEDGE'.
B: What is it about the Borneo tattoo artwork which initially captivated the curiosity and the imagination of the global community now?
JL: People who are fascinated with it, like photographers [for instance] are only in it because of the beauty of it. They don't go into detail about the tattoos [history, heritage, and cultural relevance].
I would give credit to this guy named Leo Zulueta. He's considered in the tattoo world as the father of modern tattoos. Tattoos come from tribal cultures, like our tattoos in Sarawak. He researched on Filipino and Borneo tattoos, and he brought Bunga Terung to the United States. There was not much knowledge on it 30 years ago, and it became famous there first. The revival was there in the United States, y'know! Where we [Borneo tribes] stopped tattooing..B: …but there, overseas...
JL: …Yeah…so from there, now you can understand it was a fascination already like: ‘Wow, Bunga Terung? This comes from which island?? Borneo???’. They don't even know what it means, it just came from some researcher here, maybe taking photos, [with the] caption ‘Bunga Terung’ and that's it.
B: Because when we speak of Borneo tattoo motifs it's always...
JL: ALWAYS the Bunga Terung. So it has been in the [global] tattoo community for a long time! Until now...ok in the past 15 to 20 years, travelling tattoo artists in modern times who wants to study about tribal tattoos, they came here. They start to come here to THIS place called Borneo! Then, when they came, they [were shocked]: 'Whoa! Not only this [Bunga Terung] but, the WHOLE guy is like…whoa! The WHOLE body [is tattooed]...and the NECK tattoos!'
Jeremy then brings up a person aptly named 'Hanky Panky' who opened up the world's first tribal tattoo museum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which he had previously visited in his never ending desire to broaden his artistic horizons and also to study the records of Borneo tattoo art available there. As a travelling tattoo artist himself, Jeremy has shared his art and craft from the United States to London, and from Thailand to Japan just to name a few. And based on his travels abroad, he noticed contemporary Western and European societies marvelling in fascination that tribal societies still exist in Borneo today. There is this perception from developed nations that the culture of tribes had faded into obscurity, effectively lost in time. Yet, such tribal cultures are very much alive and kicking in the 21st century on the third largest island in the world. One wonders if such cultures and societies would still be around if modernity and infrastructural progression had engulfed Borneo as quickly as it had with the other parts of the country. I decided to get a quick opinion on this matter.
B: I think..isn't it great that sometimes, all the rapid development is mostly focused on the other side of the South China Sea?
JL: Yeah??! [eager look]
B: Can you imagine if we in Borneo had experienced THAT kind of rapid development..
JL: [Borneo would be] Finished! No more…!! So in a way, good! They just develop THAT place. Go ahead! Go "kill yourself"! Pollute your whatever!! [laughter].
Despite a sense of pride in Borneo tattoo heritage and tribal cultural preservation, there is another side to the picture. In pursuit of developing his tattoo craftwork throughout the years, he has visited some of the last surviving tribal tattoo artists only found at longhouses in the interior. Out of curiosity, I asked him what he noticed with the current youths still living in longhouses during his visits. With great disappointment, he shared his observation of social issues surrounding complacency and unemployment. Even income generating opportunities of Social Enterprise like tribal tattooing was not of interest to the tribal youths, as an overnight success associated with the fame and fortune of being a tattoo artist was expected. Building up a solid foundation over a period of time as a reputable tribal tattoo artist is not of interest - just a quick-buck desire from the commercialization of tribal tattooing art. Our conversation then proceeded to the authenticity of tribal tattoos in the context of modern commercial art.
JL: This is my artistic way of thinking about the art, and I like the art, but I don't like to see it deteriorate, y'know..to something that is not THAT anymore..
One of the tattoos commonly done wrong is the 'Ketam Lengan'. It has a way [of being worn], and [there is] a story behind it. And now most of the tattoo artists are putting it on the other way 'round. It's like drawing a dog with a tail in front of [its] nose! Trying to make it original but [they] are not researching about what to do! You can change some things, but not [doing it completely incorrect]. You get what I mean?? You can not call a 'banana' a 'mango', y'know?! [laughter]
B: We can't even call this their own interpretation, nor their own rendition. This is actually butchering...
JL: Yeah! It's butchering y'know. It's like ripping off something from the past and [whether] right or wrong, just sell it.
B: So for someone who knows absolutely nothing about tribal tattoos, how would I know what's authentic?
JL: Well honestly ‘I.M.H.O.' for tribal tattoo authenticity, you can only ask me! I've been doing it for 15 years, and I am studying it, and I STILL see people doing the wrong thing.
B: Have these [mistakes] ever happened at your [Borneo Tattoo] Expos?
He shares some experiences at previous Borneo Tattoo Expos where he had noticed complete blunders being made with tribal tattoos. His attempts at approaching and helping to correct the error would sometimes be met with scowls of the finger-biting sort.
B: Does that make you quite 'popular' among the [local tattoo] community?
JL: Uh..no [nervous laughter] No…they don't like me [laughter]: 'Here he comes again [to point out my mistake]’…
B: Can’t make everyone happy, right?…
JL: No… So just make everybody angry. [burst of laughter].
In any case, given the tattooing process at the expo was already underway it was a mistake that could not be undone. His bigger concern however, was seeing such an error shockingly appear as a picture in the public sphere, and a pressing worry that future up-and-coming tattoo artists would blindly take that as an acceptable reference of authenticity in their tribal tattoo work.
It is great that there is a strong sense of enthusiasm with the revival of tribal tattoo art which aids in solidifying its preservation, but the combination of a lacking sense of pride, and a complacent effort in reference, research, and historical accuracy does leave a disturbing sense questionability regarding the future of tribal tattoo art, and the future of Borneo tattoo culture.
JL: There is no way a modern person can do it wrong y'know. You have to just study it. Look at it, [analytical facial gesture] and that's it! Not trying to be [a tribal tattoo genius] y'know, you don't have to be a rocket scientist..
I got a few friends [local tattoo artists] who are very open to my suggestions. Sometimes they ask me about how to do things right. I never give a right or wrong answer, I just say 'Well, the guys from the past, they did it like this...'...
B: …the reference is here [books and photos]…
JL: …Yeah, the reference is here. I follow this reference, so we can discuss about it. But I don't want to be the [Tribal Tattoo Accuracy Police].
A relevant point indeed. Jeremy is an Artist who studies history, not a Historian who studies art.
I returned to Jeremy’s studio on the day proceeding the main interview, and the following impromptu conversation popped up which I thought to include. Why stop at tribal tattoos and Borneo heritage when there is so much more to explore? Matters with which we constantly discuss a lot about, or all matters within the larger context with which we consider? Perhaps in some way, Jeremy’s original style had slowly made its way into my thoughts and words.
B: I kind of wished Sabah and Sarawak had it's own culture and arts industry. We don't have to rely on the existing media structures. There's YouTube..
JL: We don't have to! [But for] a lot of people here in Sarawak, I think...ok...for example like, whoever wants to do tattoo on a...higher level...it's not here! And [for the local artists] ‘my audience is not here [in Sarawak], what am I going to show?!’. Like Jakarta does a lot of things: you can have a concert with a hundred thousand people but....the people are not the real audience that you want.
B: But couldn't we at least start with a small opportunity?
JL: Ok just TATTOO's y’know, for so many years...now it's the fourth tattoo expo, and I still see people doing like….[expletive deleted] tattoos. And tattoo artists [here] don't wanna go higher. People here are just staying 'here'. They have talent, and they don't wanna do it.
B: But for you, you're based here right?
JL: I come here [Kuching], not to work. I come here to just...go crazy and do my own work up there in the workshop. My REAL work is OUT THERE, and if I wanna say where I'm based, I'm based in Holland!
[In Holland] I work in a shop that used to be Rembrandt's last tattoo studio...why would I be here?? [Did you know] I tattoo on [Rembrandt’s] work station man! Actually I've got a permanent job there - I work there, but I wanna come back here..
I know you've been abroad and come back, and you see there's no talent here. All the talent is [abroad]. I don't know why man. People….try to be comfortable here...I think maybe that's the thing. And with all the tattoo expos that I did, the platform is available!! You can hook up with the best [international tattoo] artists, but they [local artists] just don't want to.
B: So they don't want to expand on their craft..
JL: Yeah. No way..
B: [Sarawakian talent] can expand and disseminate out, but it's just too...slow..
JL: Yeah! It's too slow! At least [with local artists], they would not take the step y'know! The most they can do is go to KL, and once there, you're washed down already. I ask: ‘Why [is it] you can go to KL, but you can not go to...at least Australia?’.
Go to the West...that's where your [craft/art can grow]. And that's why I go there.
It happens to..not only tattoos - it's just a character of everything here. Taekwondo, music, everything. I know some guys who are very good in guitar, but in the end just remain as a mechanic. Now that I think about it maybe it's because our culture is brought up to have a secure job, rather than to do something with our talent. Like our generation here is like:
‘Oh, you are drawing? Drawing is a hobby right? What's your real job??’
I’m an artist!
‘Yeah, but what's your real job??’
It's really a Malaysian thing, it's like, really closed minded here. I see Indonesians go out, they are just beside us but they have talents. They have talents who are out there already, winning awards for tattoo'ing man! And looks like I'm the only one, man! [from Kuching and Malaysia] Only one!!
That's the thing, either talents like us just give up on Sarawak, and I don't know why. Maybe it's because there's not enough facilities, not enough support. I don't know, but it affects a lot of things. We can't blame someone who doesn't want to go [abroad] because it's implanted in their mind: ‘What if I don't have a job? What if people don't like my music?’.
The first time I started to tattoo [abroad], I was thinking: ‘Ok if I can't make it in tattoo's, I'll go work washing dishes!’. I'm sure there's a lot of things to do [to earn income], the country is so big. But that's my mind. Here, they won't do that - they would rather work for a garage..for a hundred bucks a month.
Another thing, people here do not take the chance because they have a kampung to go home to. I [know of people] here who worked, spent a lot of money, and when [they] can not pay for house rent, just cabut [leave] man. Just go back home, stay for a few months, and ask among friends for [random] work. So I think here, we have a fall back y'know. Here, it's easier to fall back and that's why people are so [complacent].
Another thing I realize is that places with four seasons, people have to [be more resourceful] because of winter. Here, we don't have winter so you can just sleep at a bus stop. What if we have winters [here] people will have to start to think [about survival]. Pay for heaters, showers...here, we can shower anytime! Open up the pipe here [pointing to a nearby tap], and you can shower! [laugher] In Europe, you pay for your own food and drink. They are brought up to be independent.
It's a cultural thing also. I think that is some of the factors. The culture here is so sharing. Here, we share what we have with others - stay at my house, crash on my couch, come eat with us. It's good but, it's going to spoil everybody.
A biting brutality of honesty indeed yet, closer inspection reveals that these are not words uttered from a one-sided perspective. It would appear that the influential reach of Mu’O Tawai is not limited to Jeremy’s artwork, but extends further out into the universe that surrounds him. The universe of society and people. An extensive perspective and study of art, social observation, combined with substantial inspiration. Born from humble little place called, Borneo.