The crackle of bamboo shoots roasting over an enraged open fire. Muddy sweat drips from the brow of warrior faces in the intense tropical heat deep in the Indonesian jungle. The early morning silence is broken by the chants & battle cries gaining momentum as each warrior joins in.
The left flank is lined with tribal leaders applying sacred face paint extracted from the soul of jungle flowers.
All the while chanting to ensure the blessing from the gods of protection and strength.
The right flank is still while the most disciplined of artistic tribesmen is hammering centuries of family history into the skin of each of us warriors.
Using a twenty inch length of bamboo fastened with a piranha tooth, then dipped in a mix of tree sap and octopus ink, heated to a thick simmer over a roaring fire.
Tap… tap… tap… as of each of us is engraved with our family traditions prior to defending them against an enterprising tribe that’s fast approaching over the volcanic mountain top…..
This is the scenario I’m envisioning had I met Noa some three hundred years ago when this tradition of the bamboo tattoo began. Instead I meet Noa on Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. This particular island is a series of three; Trawangan, Meno and Air. Trawangan has been nicknamed “Party Island” and the legend holds true. Roughly a ninety minute speed boat ride from Bali, it’s easy to get to and hard to leave.
We slide up on the beautiful beach lined with sun kissed bodies from across the planet. Every other night different bars organize a party night, each with it’s own style of d.j. and atmosphere. From the laid back yellow and red Bob Marley vibes of reggae, to the top floor of a cramped dive school spinning heavy house in an overcrowded room of sweaty dancers. To an ocean side beach bar dropping dub step in the sand during a tropical storm. While some few hundred people explode with defining dance moves and spill out into the building rains and smash through the deepening water that’s building in the broken streets.
This is the Island where I met Noa. Noa is a fourth generation bamboo tattoo artist having learned the trade from his uncle. After talking to several artists on the island I got the best overall vibe from Noa, my only skepticism was his complete absence of any tattoos, at all, anywhere. This not radiating with my previous experience in tattoo artists.
Will get back to this.
All in all I explained to Noa my idea and he took the afternoon putting together a sketch for me. I returned to Noas beach side stall having his portfolio proudly displayed later that afternoon. He had the stencil and agreed to meet back at our bungalow to set up his studio.
“ Umm what?, Noa where the hell is your studio?”,
"Too small, too hot, we set up at your place”
Ok sure, so we set up a studio at my place, which is set back off the road a bit in a nice garden oasis. Not exactly what I was picturing, thou this was my first bamboo tattoo, so I don’t know what I was expecting.
Instead Noa chases me down some five minutes later and decides he has someplace better. So forty-five minutes later I meet him back at his beach side stall. Instead he’s chosen a marginally better suited mix of say ambient jungle setting midst lush plants and banana trees with the hymns of a Mosque in the background, splashed with a mix of typical renegade prison scene. As were literally on the front step of an empty hotel porch with his tools of the trade laid out on the ground and me laid out on some sketchy mattress, I’m sure, he had shoed some cats off for me to use.
Really Noa, this is the studio? This pretty much goes against anything I’d ever learned about personal hygiene in my life. Well who doesn't like a good story hey!
Noa lights up a cigarette, as do my nephew Courtland & I, as he proceeds to lay out solutions, sanitizers, bamboo, needles & ink. With the level of beats per minute increasing in my heart I begin to grill Noa about his sanitation and the history of this trade. Noa shows me he’s using fresh needles that have been fastened to the bamboo via black electrical tape, explains the various solutions that are used to disinfect me and the tools while explaining some advancements in technology.
Noa explains that originally when his uncle was teaching him the trade they would take the cells of a car battery and burn them till they were a powder, then take this powder and mix it with water to make the black ink for tattooing. This was used for many years until it was discovered this caused cancer.
“What, Noa, seriously were using burnt cancer causing battery guts so I can look cool! “
“ No no no, not now. Used too. Today we use special tattoo ink from Japan, I order.”
Jesus, I’m happy to risk life and limb for say swimming with sharks and jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, hell I’ll even smoke cigarettes ‘cause it’s social, looks cool, and rock stars do it, but purposely injecting oneself with battery cancer, ahhhh no, this is where we draw the line.
Specialty tattoo ink, Japanese standards, a nice reassuring smile from Noa, OK I’m in again.
Then next daunting project was to shave the hair off my arm with a single blade razor. If you have ever seen the two white cats attached to my forearms then you’ll know it was like swathing a field of wheat with a piece of rope.
Thirty minutes later and were in business.
Me laid out on the mattress, Courtland in a chair observing the spectacle of Asian art and Noa sitting cross-legged (as he did for three hours) on the floor tapping away at the stencil on my arm.
The one reassuring moment of it all was a Belgium lady came to see what we were up to and explained she had gotten a bamboo tattoo in Thailand and was very impressed with it. It was deep black in color and looked quite fresh, she explained that it had been done some twelve years ago. Wow, it looked better then my gun tattoo from six years ago. That warm fuzzy feeling is back, lets continue.
Dipping the tip of the needle in the ink and gently tapping just far enough under my skin to hold and not so deep as to break the skin, Noa managed to successfully tattoo the inspiration of my thoughts onto my arm for just under three hours.
No blood, no pain & one day to heal as well a week of rubbing coconut oil on, and like magic it’s good. From traditional gun tattoos that hurt like hell, bleed like a murder scene and take a week or better to heal. My vote is to stick with tradition and ink up like the natives.
Upon completion he looked utterly exhausted and I was abundantly ecstatic. It wasn't pre-tribal battle scenario thou it meant a lot to me and a lot to him. Perhaps finally completing an inner warrior battle with myself. A constant reminder to act on ones dreams, opposed to simply dreaming.
Noa later explained he had wanted something meaningful, that would hold true with him forever. He wasn't quite sure what that was yet & when he did then he to would get his first bamboo tattoo…
*You can reach Noa one of two ways, take a plane to Bali, a boat to Trawangan and walk down the beach looking for the red mini mart next to the dive shop and ask for Noa. Who’s probably laid out on the bench sunning himself. Or you can email him firstname.lastname@example.org, keeping in mind that Noas first language is Bahasa Indonesia and he can speak English well and reads your language as much as you can his. So have a little thought to the placement of your words & response time to questions.
Going to Indo.? You'll need these.