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Facing up to past of tribal tattoos

TATTOOS are trendy today - but not the kind once deeply inked on the faces of a Taiwan tribal group as rites of passage. One man is collecting tattoos and tales of his ancestors. Fu Shuangqi and Wu Jihai report.

When his son came home from high school one day complaining of bullying, Kimi Sibal realized it was time for him to understand his heritage.

A member of the Atayal tribe, one of Taiwan's 14 native ethnic groups, Kimi Sibal knew his son was a victim of racial intolerance.

"My son had a big fight with a classmate who called him 'son of gangsters' because our ancestors had tattoos just like gangsters," says Kimi Sibal. Neither he nor his son bear any tattoos.

"I realized that I knew so little about facial tattoos, which I had seen on the faces of my grandparents," he adds.

The 58-year-old machinist at a cement factory in Hualien, on Taiwan's east coast, began to travel the island's rugged hinterland on his days off, photographing the last surviving members of his tribe to bear the distinctive markings.

The Atayal tribe, which used to hunt and farm in the mountains of central and east Taiwan, used facial tattoos as rites of passage, for identification, and to enhance female beauty for hundreds of years. They were signs of pride.

Mostly the tattoos were on the forehead and cheeks.

They believed their ancestors would not lead them to the afterlife unless they had their facial tattoos.

The Atayal people used to make a tattoo on the forehead when a child was 5 and on one cheek when the child was 10, the other cheek when the child reached 15.

But, in the eyes of Taiwan's dominant Han ethnic people, tattoos have long been symbols of barbarity. In the old days petty thieves and other were sometimes punished with tattoos describing their crime. In the 1930s, when Japanese occupied Taiwan, the custom was strictly banned.

"Forced by the Japanese, many children had their forehead tattoos cut off," he says, showing a picture of an elderly lady with a scar in the center of the forehead. "Since then, few children in our tribe have had facial tattoos. The tradition is lost and very few young people know what these tattoos mean."

Since 1993, Kimi Sibal has visited more than 300 elderly Atayal people. He takes their pictures and writes their stories.

"At first, it was very difficult. These elderly people did not like being photographed because they believed their souls would be taken by the cameras. I have been driven out with brooms and chased by dogs," he says. "Little by little, they understood what I wanted and confided to me."

Their pictures hang high on the walls of his studio, but only seven are still alive.

"Soon, we will not be able to see real facial tattoos. That's why the need to record them is so urgent," he says.

He has seized every chance to display his pictures at exhibitions on Taiwan's ethnic minorities and spent his savings building a small studio.

"People heard about my work and invited me to hold exhibitions and give lectures about facial tattoos," he says. His work has been displayed in the United States, Canada, Singapore, Liberia and the Chinese mainland.

Last year he managed to build a new and bigger studio beside his home. He displays some of the best pictures and relics of his tribe, including sculptures, textiles and traditional tattooing tools.

Traveling outside Taiwan widened his vision and improved his understanding of his own culture.

"I found a similar facial tattoo custom among the Li ethnic group on Hainan Island of southern China and the Dulong ethnic group in southwestern China's Yunnan Province. This shows we are not alone. We have connections with the outside," he says.

He has written a cultural comparison of the Atayal and Li peoples, and university students come to his studio to see the collections and listen to lectures from the high school graduate.

"I learned so much in the company of the elderly people. Although they had little education, they taught me a lot about life," he says.

He was impressed most by the words of Chao A'san, whose parents were killed in an uprising by the Atayal people against the Japanese in 1930.

"When I interviewed her in 2004, I asked if she hated Japanese. She answered, 'If I still had hatred in my heart, I could not live in heaven'," he recalls.

His deepest regret was being unable to photograph his own grandmother.

"I just grasped the tail of our tradition. If I started earlier, more would have been kept," he says. "I want to help our younger generations remember the ancestors and remove long-lasting bias towards our culture."

Kimi Sibal's efforts have been rewarded with changes in Taiwan society. Atayal young people are encouraged to wear traditional dress at their festivals and school cultural events.

"On these occasions, many will attach tattoo stickers to their faces to remember our traditions," he says.

But he does not support young people having their faces tattooed.

"Atayal facial tattoos are not only designs, but a set of rituals and etiquette. Today, our tribal structure has collapsed and facial tattoos have lost their original meanings and functions. I would not like to see the tattoos become superficial decorations," the man says.

An Atayal boy had to prove himself to his tribe as a brave and skillful hunter and an honest man before he could have a full set of facial tattoos and make the passage to adulthood, according to Kimi Sibal.

"Today, a boy can have whatever tattoos he wants on his face. But who is there to judge whether he is qualified or not?" he asks.

While his people have left their isolated mountain habitats, Kimi Sibal says it's important to preserve their cultural legacy.

"Facial tattoos are a reflection of cultural problems facing Taiwan's ethnic minorities," he says. "Our culture has long been wronged, ignored or harmed. Today we face the new challenge of reviving it and adapting to the modern world."


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