I don’t have any tattoos. Nothing against them, not even worried about needles. Nope, I suppose I’ve just never felt strongly enough about anything to have it permanently inked into my skin. Oh, I’ve come close before. For maybe the past eight years or so I’ve often had this recurring thought about inking myself with a design that pays homage to my Indonesian ancestry, but alas, I’ve never gone through with it. Whether it was a lack of funds, a change of heart, or simply putting it off, the design never made it onto my body.

That’s not to say my ancestral tribute hasn’t come to fruition, however. Some years back, when I was scribbling words about motorcycles at a different publication, I was offered my own custom painted helmet. Coincidentally, I happened to have a plain silver Shark helmet lying on my desk in need of a makeover. “Sure!” I said, excited at the prospect of getting artwork for my head.

Barong Helmet right side

I debated about getting a tattoo for a long time. Instead I got a custom helmet.

From here, the process felt very similar to what I imagine getting a tattoo must be like. I toiled long and hard about the design but couldn’t think of anything. I Googled several terms to draw up inspiration. Nothing. Finally, when asked what kind of design I wanted, from a voice on the telephone I’d never met before, I simply said, “Just do something that would combine my American and Indonesian backgrounds.” Little did I know it at the time, but those words would spark creative genius.

The voice on the other end of the line was Anton Henggono, an Indonesian. When given those instructions, he knew what he was about to create would become his crowning achievement. For the next six weeks I didn’t hear a word about my helmet. I was worried I had just fallen for a scam and Anton had run away with my lid! Reality couldn’t be any further from the truth. When I finally received a package in the mail with my completely customized Shark, I was floored. The design exceeded my expectations and the attention to detail was second to none. Just look at these pictures for proof.

Barong Helmet side by side

He might be scary looking, but Barong (left) is actually a good guy! Rangda is the one you want to be worried about. She credits eating kids as an enjoyable pastime. While you’re looking at him, check out the gold flake in Barong’s crown.

So what is it? In short, the war between good vs. evil is playing out on each side of the helmet. Barong, the bright and colorful creature that kinda resembles a lion is the leader of good spirits in Balinese mythology, who is in eternal conflict with, you guessed it, evil. And the queen of these evil spirits is Rangda, a dark, gloomy character, known for her long tongue and penchant for eating children. The story goes into much further detail, of course, but it doesn’t really matter here.

For me, wearing this helmet was a symbol of national and ancestral pride. How could it not be? It drew attention whenever I wore it, and I was happy to share the story with those who asked.  Beyond the artwork, the care and attention Henggono put into it really shows. I imagine much is true about a top-level tattoo artist. I had no idea Henggono was a fellow Indonesian, and when I got the helmet back we talked again and he revealed his ethnicity. When he heard my design request, he knew he had to pour his heart and soul into this helmet. While a gorgeous design from a distance, look closer and you’ll see details like gold flake and pinstriping no machine could come close to duplicating. How do I know? Because KBC helmets bought the licensing rights to this design and copied it onto its top-tier racing lid at the time. I got my hands on one. It wasn’t even close.

Barong Helmet back

The view from the back of the helmet may not be as flashy as the sides, but the artwork is equally impressive. Red, white and blue stars on top of the lid is a small homage to Uncle Sam.

I’d flaunt the helmet in much the same way I imagine I’d flaunt the tattoo of this same design. If I got it. I thought about it long and hard for many nights. Anton even offered to tweak the design to make it better suited for body art. Alas, I declined. Still couldn’t bring myself to do it.

I wore the helmet a few times and gave it ink in the mag to give the company some love. It apparently wasn’t enough, as the company didn’t last very long and folded under some controversy (unrelated to me!). No matter. Thanks to this helmet, Anton got a call from none other than Troy Lee (yes, that Troy Lee) to come work for him. While there, he designed lids for Loris Capirossi and Alvaro Bautista, among many others. He’s now a graphic designer at Fox Racing.

Ducati 1198 launch

As an Indonesian-American who loves Italy, wearing this helmet during the Ducati 1198 launch only seemed right. Photo: Milagro

I’ve since retired the helmet as it is well past its use-by date. It now sits prominently in my living room as a conversation piece. It’s funny, as a moto-journo, a metric crap-ton of products cross my desk. Many of which are excellent at what they do. But for me, it’s rare that I form an emotional bond with any of them. This lid is different. So much so that I’d rather stare at it on my mantle than get a tattoo I can take wherever I go.