For the indigenous people, spirits embody everything and often, they consult them as a guide to designing tattoos.

Back then, these blue-black tattoos were inked in with soot or powdered charcoal, substances thought to ward off malevolent spirits. Some groups spike their pigment with charms – a ground-up piece of a meteorite or shard of animal bone – to make their tattoos even more powerful.

Drawing inspiration from traditional tattoos, young Iban dancer Andrew Igai Jamu has choreographed The Vanishing Ink, about the long-established tattoos of his community in Pakan, Sarawak.

The mid-length contemporary work is part of the Double Bill: On This Boat Made of Paper + The Vanishing Ink graduation performance project by Jamu and Joyce Chan Suet Mei, both final year dance majors at the Dance Department of Universiti Malaya.

Referred as pantang or kelingai, these tattoos once played a very important role in Iban culture as Jamu recalls his elders narrating tales when he was a youngster.

“Growing up in the longhouse, I saw how the traditional tattoo process took place. I also heard plenty of stories from my parents and grandparents. Now that these tattoos have become extinct and are no longer part of contemporary society, I was inspired to make this piece,” says Jamu.

He weaves his dance plot by focusing on four motives – the Bungai Terung (matured man’s tattoo), Ukir Ranggam (neck tattoo), Entegulun (head hunter tattoo) and Pala Tumpa (head of women’s bracelet). Each motif had its own unique meaning and represented one’s social status

“Our traditional tattoo art has been consumed by modernisation so my work will explore tattoos as a symbol to identify the contemporary Iban community, and highlight the attractiveness of the tattoo practice and craft that uses living human skin as canvas,” adds Jamu, who began his dance training with traditional dances while in high school.

Joyce Chan explores the theme of friendship in her choreography. Photo: Joyce Chan

Joyce Chan explores the theme of friendship in her choreography. Photo: Joyce Chan

Chan’s On This Boat Made of Paper stems from the concept of friendship, something she values deeply.

“Looking back at my years in Universiti Malaya’s dance programme, I encountered many harsh realities and lessons that came as a hard slap, lessons I would never have learnt elsewhere. I was always in the comfort zone until I started university,” she offers.

Chan started dancing ballet at five, but it wasn’t till 16 that she found her love in choreographing by creating her first work for a Sunday school’s annual concert. Since then, she has been actively choreographing in events, concerts and ballet competitions.

In university, Chan found it daunting to juggle between studies, rehearsals, work and staying away from home. If not for the strong support and encouragement she received, and continues to receive from friends, Chan admits she would have given up her undergraduate studies.

“I take inspiration from real life experiences and observations to explore how people make friends, the different types of people one will meet throughout your life, and the flaws and destructive qualities, as well as beauty, of these relationships,” she says.

Hence her piece, using paper boats as a medium of exploration, is about gratitude and appreciation to friends.

Chan explains, “Paper boats are often linked to symbols of hope and trust, which are the two main qualities of true friendship. Another similarity of friendship to paper boats lies in its fragile quality.

“A little pressure applied can crush the paper; the paper can always be refolded back into a boat, but the creases caused by the initial application of pressure will always remain. Likewise, a friendship can easily be broken through selfishness and carelessness. One can forgive the other, but what’s done will forever leave a scar.”

From the celebration of friendship that creates many crossroads in life, to the response of the beauty and mystified tattoo arts, go watch this double treat.

Double Bill: On This Boat Made of Paper + The Vanishing Ink will be performed on April 26 at 8.30pm at the Experimental Theatre in Universiti Malaya. Entrance is by a minimum donation of RM10. For more information, contact Siti Fatimah at 03-7967 7071.