The Fascinating Woodcarving Industry of Bali, Indonesia

Tegallalang in Bali, Indonesia is not just famous for its scenic rice terraces. Lining the north-south road from Kintamani and Ubud you will find numerous wood carving shops, most of them family-owned and specifically catering to tourists. I stopped at one of these and had a pleasant chit-chat with the owner. His name is Wayan Sabar  and he has been in the industry for 30 years.


Wayan Sabar’s woodcarving shop.


Wayan Sabar showing off some of his creations.


I noticed that many of the sculptures in his shop have a nightmarish and/or playful quality full of mythical and mysterious creatures, probably from their animistic past (which, being Malay, we share with them actually), with strong Hindu, Islamic and Chinese influences. The sculptures are very vibrant and attractive.



Wayan told me that it takes his team of tenmen three months to finish big sculptures like these. Although he has never seen octopuses and the other creatures cavorting in his sculptures, he was able to carve them “from [his] own imagination”.

Aside from animal carvings, wall masks are also popular in these shops. They are used by tourists for interior decoration. The Balinese use masks also, but they are of a different kind and have religious and ritualistic significance.

Moreover, I was disabused of some of misconceptions about this popular Javanese art. Wayan told me that Balinese people themselves do not keep these kinds of modern woodcarvings in their homes (although woodcarving itself is an ancient tradition there) and they make these mainly for tourists. This information was corroborated by further research; in fact, according to Bali blog, the woodcarving shops in Tegallalang specialize in “pumping out carved fish, birds, trees and other designs that are painted in bright colors. These are designed for the tourist market, not really the antique or quality market. A visitor might also check out the selection of wall-panels, furniture, antique-style doors and topeng masks”.

Furthermore, the internet and influx of tourism has been bad for business; in the past only the more determined tourists who were willing to spend for these things come to Bali. Wayan employs around 10 men and they are all feeling the crunch. Wayan Sabar learned all too well the volatility of market forces as well as the dangers of catering to flimsy Western tastes.

Actually most of the small family-owned woodcarving shops I visited looked kind of gloomy.

This is the dark side of globalization which I keep seeing everywhere actually: the deterioration of quality, devaluation and commercialization of art, as well as the destruction of “living heritage” artifacts and traditions. But this is for another post.

A side note: Penis Items

One thing that struck me while sightseeing in Bali, Indonesia are the penis items in the form of can openers, bottle holders, keychains, door handles, etc. Here, the the penis represents Shivalinga (in Hindu, the Brahman’s practice of worshipping the penis of the supreme god, Shiva). These bottle openers at Wayan’s woodcarving shop in Bali seem to be a popular souvenir item.


I find them to be pleasant items, and since they are stylized representations of the male sex organ (all traditional Asian visual “erotic” art is stylized), they look harmless and innocent. I found it cute actually. I give this bottle holder a rating of 5 stars.



Details of his family-owned business is shown in his business card: Br. Pujung Kelod, Tegallalang, Gianyar-Bali Hp 081339592748


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