It was a high culture event in the East Java city of Malang’s most prestigious building – the Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat [DPR – the People’s Representative Council.]
The invitation list was the usual mix of dilettantes, freeloaders and connoisseurs found at art exhibition openings everywhere; matrons dressed to kill and men in bemedalled uniforms who’d never done so. On the sidelines the unkempt artists, fiddling with their berets as though they’d just come from a Montmartre garret.
And then there was plain-clothed Zumpotus [Ikha] Shalikha, 25, who clearly didn’t fit, but just as clearly didn’t seem to care. She was there to make money, but unlike the long-haired men with huge canvasses and price tags to match, her creativity could be bought for only Rp 15,000 [US$1.15].
Low though it was, this charge had been inflated by a third from the price list at her studio. “I thought that crowd could afford to spend more, and I was right,” she said. “Even public servants were getting a mahendi.”
These are the temporary tattoos that have become an essential fashion statement for Indonesian women, particularly among the late teens and ladies who lunch.
Mahendi are not to be confused with the tattoos favored by overseas tourists wandering Kuta, looking for something to accompany their dreadnoughts and tell the folks back home that I’ve Been To Bali Too.
Mahendi appears to be an Indonesian corruption of the Sanskrit word mendhika, meaning henna, the dye made from the leaves of the small African and Asian tree Lawsonia inermis.
Ikha’s work is original; there are no skulls and crossbones, no upholstered blondes or arrows piercing hearts.
“Ikha’s art is not haram [forbidden],” said her husband Rahmat Hidayat, 31. “It’s said that the wives of the Prophet used mahendi. No-one has ever suggested what we are doing is wrong.” [Some religious authorities claim having a tattoo is a sin because it embellishes God’s work.]
“Our tattoos vanish within a fortnight. Prohibition is against permanent marks. We have a sign outside saying sah untuk sholat [legal for prayers]. Mahendi has become popular since local TV started screening Indian movies with women wearing complex designs.”
As Ikha’s workplace is their front veranda in the couple’s tight-packed kampong just meters from a mosque it’s safe to assume the zealots would have interfered long ago had there been any hint of impropriety.
“In the West it seems that tattoos on women indicate prostitution, but that’s not the situation here,” said Ikha. “I don’t do men, although I’ve put our daughter Aisyah’s name on my husband’s arm.”
The crowd that eavesdropped this interview unanimously agreed that tattoos were only for women and the idea that an inking could make guys look macho was greeted with ridicule.
There’s little doubt Ikha was a problem at school in the village of Bulu Lawang, about 15 kilometers outside Malang. The seventh of eight children she didn’t want to end up doing menial work. Academically she was no standout, but any shortfall was filled by determination.
“I was always doodling,” she said. “I preferred drawing to listening to the lesson.” She was also experimenting with liquids to try and get the colors right for drawings.
Her teachers probably thought she was a lost cause but her business has now been running for two years and her income far exceeds that of her former tutors. She’s become the major breadwinner, a fact that makes her sound engineer husband proud, not jealous.
“Ikha is very clever and creative,” he said. “She doesn’t sit around watching sinetron [soap operas]. She’s always active and seeking opportunities, not waiting for them to come to her.”
Rahmat is no slouch either. He learned English by watching foreign films. “Of course talent is essential but by itself it’s not enough,” he said.
“You have to make your own luck. It’s also important to be honest and treat everyone fairly and equally.”
The couple borrowed Rp 2.4 million [US$ 185] from a bank and topped this up with loans from relatives to make banners and other promotional materials. All the money has been repaid.
Every evening Dad, Mom and Aisyah, 3, pack onto a motorbike with three plastic stools, a fold-up picnic table, banners, stands, carpet and other gear and head to the Malang Night Market.
When The Jakarta Post visited Ikha had four customers in the first hour. Her maximum has been 30 in one night. The women said they just wanted to look attractive, the girls to show off to their friends next morning. Their menfolk who paid grunted monosyllables, unable to understand why women want spiderwebs on their knuckles.
Ikha started out in business making and selling accessories, little decorations to pin on headscarves and blouses.
Customers admired her hand art and she added the tattoos. Instead of using commercial dyes she makes her own from crushed leaves mixed with volatile cajeput oil to produce a russet color.
Ikha loads the mixture into a thin plastic cone and uses this like a batik canting, the little hand tools used to draw hot wax onto cloth, though her dyes are cold.
Decorating the hands, wrists and ankles of women at a wedding can earn her Rp 3 million [US$ 230]. When she started she was the only show in town – now mahendi are being offered in beauty salons, though at several times the price.
She’s a rapid worker and can complete an intricate design in about five minutes.
“My challenge is to constantly create new patterns,” she said. “High school girls in particular are always looking for something fresh and different. I check the Internet a lot to get ideas but most designs are my own.
“With fashion you have to be ahead.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 26 June 2015)