Their tattoos tell the Moluccan story

They are proud of their Moluccan origins. 33-year-old * Romy Rondeltap (family name Tahitu) and Phaidra Lawalata are one of the first Moluccan-Dutch women to have traditional cultural tattoos on their faces. They want to start a movement among Moluccan women of all ages to spread the identity of their ancestors. It was very common before the colonial history of the archipelago: With tattoos, you showed that you belonged to the Moluccan people. After colonization, that identity often came under pressure, and facial tattoos disappeared from the moment the first Europeans set foot on land.

How thousands of Moluccans ended up in the Netherlands

On April 25, the Moluccas celebrate the birth of the Republic of the South Moluccas (Malay: Republic of Maluku Selatan, RMS). It was proclaimed in 1950 on the Moluccan island of Ambon. Many Moluccans were not safe in Indonesia and the Moluccas. Therefore, 12,000 Moluccans were involuntarily brought to Holland by the Dutch government. They were housed in former concentration camps and later in the Moluccas’ neighborhoods. The ‘temporary’ situation did not officially end until 1970. About 70,000 Moluccans now live in the Netherlands.

The Republic of the Southern Moluccas is a non-recognized state. The Government of the Republic operates in exile from the Netherlands.


The arrival of the Portuguese to the Moluccan Islands in 1511 sees Rondeltap and Lawalata as the beginning of colonization. “Our destruction because no facial tattoos have been done since then,” Rondeltap says. It was explicitly forbidden by the Portuguese: “Old aspects that were part of the culture at that time had to disappear. It was clothes on and tattoos off.”

What binds us is our history and spirituality

In the Moluccas, there have always been external influences. After the arrival of the Portuguese and a little later the Spaniards, the Dutch and the English left their mark on the archipelago. Even today, the Moluccas are not recognized as a separate state and are politically part of Indonesia. Nevertheless, the mutual connection between the Moluccas is strong and they also form a close community in the Netherlands.

‘We are a warrior people: strong and loyal’

Moluccan Dutch have lived in Moluccan neighborhoods throughout the Netherlands for seventy years now.

Rondeltap: “What binds us is precisely the history, our spirituality and the pela communities1† Rondeltap and Lawalata want to spread this connection with traditional tattoos, and by encouraging other Moluccans to do the same.

Originally symbolized tattoos, or markings, families, villages or clans. “It was a kind of passport to show who you are, where you come from and what your status is,” explains Moluccan-Dutch tattoo artist Joe Patty (32). He only makes these kinds of traditional tattoos, at the tattoo shop Manifacto in Amsterdam, and has also made them from Rondeltap and Lawalata.

Video and production: Iris Zwart


When the Moluccan communities did not yet have a writing system, stories were mostly spread word of mouth, or songs were sung to communicate. “Those stories were tattooed on the body to capture and pass them on to the next generation,” Patty says. This did not only happen in the Moluccan culture: tattoos were also used in this way by the Maori in New Zealand and the Inuit in Canada, just as face decorations are common in many other indigenous societies.


Dutch-Moluccan tattoo artist Joe Patty in traditional clothing.

Picture of:
Iris Sort

Supernatural experience

In Moluccan culture, it was mainly women who passed on the stories. This was symbolized by tattoos on the chin: a drawing that flows out of the mouth like a kind of speech waterfall. The three lines tell the ancestral migration history of the ancestors – as it is known according to tradition. “The lines represent the three rivers that originate from Mount Nunusaku, the place where our ancestors are said to have come from. It is a mythical place on the mother island of Seram, where the so-called tree of life is located. In the place where the rivers differ from each other, according to history, our ancestors moved away from Seram to the other Moluccan islands, ”says tattoo artist Patty.

The kind of mythical stories and the spirituality that comes with them play a big role in Moluccan culture. “We see more than people from the West,” says Rondeltap. When she got her first tattoo, she says she had a meeting with her ancestors: “It was a supernatural experience. I saw my ancestors right in front of me and they said, ‘We carry you because you carry us’. So I knew I had done the right thing. ”


Chains are worn crosswise across the chest, thus symbolizing the four cardinal directions.

Picture of:
Iris Sort


Rondeltap and Lawalata want to encourage as many other Moluccan women as possible to return to the identity of their ancestors by having tattoos put on their faces. Therefore, they started a movement. “It’s a global movement to find your identity regain”, Explains Rondeltap. Because Moluccan women see the restoration of traditional facial tattoos as a form of cultural preservation. They are proud of their identity, culture and origins. Rondeltap: “Now I finally stand for something.” She already had many tattoos, but not yet anything typically Moluccan. “My ‘normal’ tattoos are never the same spirit like my cultural tattoos, ”she says.


Romy Rondeltap (Tahitu) in traditional clothing.

Picture of:
Iris Sort

But the face tattoos do not like everyone. The women receive regular comments. “I see people looking, or they say, ‘Your face is so beautiful, it’s so annoying!'” Rondeltap works as a dentist and deliberately wears long-sleeved shirts to hide the tattoos on her arms. The tattoo on her chin is hidden behind her mouthpiece: “I often do not want to answer all the questions during my work. But to put make-up over the tattoo? I would never do that. “

Lawalata did this in the beginning when she worked in the hotel industry. But now she wears it with pride. “Who decided that a face without tattoos is more beautiful? That’s where I come from: The more tattoos, the more beautiful,” says Rondeltap. “Our Moluccan identity has always been very important to us, but now Joe has done it. visible with a tattoo. “

* This article was previously shown on on 3 May 2019. The age of the interviewees has been adjusted.


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  1. A pelaskib was an alliance between different villages that supported each other. Now there is still pelaspap between families. A pela can be described as a blood condition. For example, it is still forbidden to enter into a relationship with a pela.

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