It’s official! (Well, ok, perhaps not official…)The new favourite travel memento for backpackers in Southeast Asia isn’t a suntan. It isn’t a photo (or several hundred). Nor is it an item of clothing with ‘Same Same But Different’ emblazoned all over it… (please say we’re done with that, now. Please?)
These days, virtually everyone who arrives in Bangkok Airport goes back there (at some point) looking slightly, and permanently – different to the day they first arrived.
I’m talking about ink.
Whether it’s a traditional Thai Sak Yant tattoo, or a personal design you’ve been wanting to get for ages, getting tattooed in Thailand has become a backpacker rite of passage.
Cynics may say this is partly due to the ‘herd mentality’ so prolific in our species (so you thought you were ‘different’ for going travelling? Think again!) – as well as the fact you can hardly walk down a street in Thailand without passing at least half a dozen bamboo tattoo studios.
You simply can’t deny their appeal, though. At least, I certainly can’t – I’ve had two done this year alone. Baaaa.
Why do backpackers get tattoos?
Life-affirming moments, special memories, symbols of loved ones and significant quotes, never to be forgotten, can all be influential factors in creating a design that will mean something unique to you for the rest of your life.
As travelling in itself can be a momentous undertaking, we can perhaps appreciate why so many backpackers get a tattoo as an important part of their once in a lifetime trip. It’s no coincidence that most of the freshly inked-up travellers you’ll encounter will probably be sporting a design influenced by what they’ve seen and experienced during their travels, with the most common theme being ‘freedom’.
The best example I’ve come across so far of this is a girl I spent time with in Pai, Northern Thailand earlier this year. Schachar was backpacking in Southeast Asia when she had her tiny, beautifully detailed image tattooed just at the nape of her neck: “It’s a chaff of wheat. I’d been thinking of something to symbolize ‘freedom’ for ages, then all of a sudden, I thought of the wide expanse of wheat fields, and of the wheat itself, blowing in the breeze.”
In this respect, tattoos are powerful. Most of us want to inscribe ourselves with something meaningful; something that describes who we are, what we want – or quite simply – how we intend to live.
This very tribal instinct to assert ourselves (and perhaps even our identity – or a facet thereof) has been handed down to us from our ancestors, from all over the world, and from ancient times that go back (in Eurasian terms) as far as Neolithic times at least.
History of Tattoos
Going under the needle (or the bamboo stick in some cases) is a tradition that dates back thousands of years and one that is steeped in more history and profound meaning than you may at first realise.
Indeed, having been practised by a myriad of cultures, for a multitude of reasons, from denoting a girl’s sexual maturity to tribe rank and social status, tattooing has an incredibly rich history.
Did you know that the word ‘tattoo’ comes from the Polynesian tatau, and was brought to Europe by sailors?
The first written reference to the word, “tattoo” (or Samoan “Tatau”) appears in the journal of Joseph Banks, the naturalist aboard Captain Cook’s ship the HMS Endeavour: “I shall now mention the way they mark themselves indelibly, each of them is so marked by their humour or disposition”.
According to that trusted source, Wikipedia, tattoo-bearing mummies dating from the second millennium BC have been discovered, as well as Otzi the Iceman, dating from the fourth to fifth millennium BC, who was found in the Alps with some 57 carbon tattoos of ‘simple dots and lines on his lower spine, behind his left knee and on his right ankle… thought to be a form of healing because of their placement which resembles acupuncture.’
A strong tradition amongst many indigenous people, such as the Kayan and Kelabit Tribes in Borneo, tattoos were a sign of pain threshold for the warrior men, and one of beauty in women. In fact, the women’s elaborate lacework of dots and lines on their arms and legs (so fine that ‘from a distance, it looked like they were wearing blue/black stockings’), was so revered that they were not allowed to marry without first having had it done.
That is, of course, until the message of Christianity came their way in the ‘40s, bringing many others with it, including cleanliness and the non-marking of skin (although as amusingly pointed out by one contributor on Yahoo Answers, ‘apparently God has given himself quite an extensive and detailed tattoo: “See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Isaiah 49:16).
Of course, despite being frowned upon by some religions (though not Catholicism, interestingly enough), tattooing is a prominent feature in others, for example, Hinduism – and of course, Buddhism.
Sak Yant Tattoo Thailand
The sacred Sak Yant, traditionally made by monks in ancient Siam to warriors and Muay Thai fighters, is quite famous these days (thanks in part no doubt to Angelina Jolie), and is said to give powerful protection to all those who are marked by its complex geometrical designs.
The art of tattooing in Thailand has its roots in ancient Buddhist culture where special designs were originally engraved on people’s bodies for protection, good luck and blessings from a higher level.
Designs were known to be ‘charged’ by Buddhist monks who performed ritual chants and recited prayers as a long sharp stick was tapped into the skin repeatedly creating the sacred impression.
Throughout history, Thai soldiers have taken on such protective tattoos with faith in their power to keep them safe from harm, some even believing them to have mystical power, as amulets, to shield them from weapons and even deflect bullets.
Apparently, one tattoo is never the same as another, although it is also suggested that, because of the complete mix of religious references of more recent emergences, very devout Buddhists in fact no longer agree with it.
Traditional Thailand Tattoo Meanings and Designs
Today, the belief in the strength of religious tattoos remains strong. Designs that resemble Buddhist temples or Deities, holy Thai scripture, symbols and patterns made up of tiny dots are some examples that you’re likely to see on local people in Thailand, mainly on the back area.
From warding off bad luck, to attracting wealth and prosperity there’s always a underlying meaning behind such motifs and rarely are they purely aesthetic like many tattoos in the West.
Different designs incorporating certain animals are also traditionally used that each signifies a different force of energy. Famously, in 2004 Angelina Jolie was engraved by Thai Tattoo artist Sompong Kanphai with a highly revered, traditional tattoo of a tiger on her lower back. The tattoo was formed to protect her and her adopted Cambodian son, Maddox from bad fortune.
Thai Tattoo Festival – Wat Bang Phra
To give you an idea of just how much resonance Thai people place in this sacred art form, there’s even an annual religious festival to commemorate the tattoo, held at Wat Bang Phra Temple, also known as the Temple of the Flying Tiger, just outside Bangkok.
Every year, thousands of people attend the magical event to have their bodies adorned with new tattoos, or have existing tattoos ‘recharged’ by the Buddhist masters who reside there. Some devotees actually enter a trance like state during the festival as they are infused with the spirit of the animals that they have tattooed on their skin, roaring like wild tigers or slithering like snakes.
Watch the below video taken during the Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra… (Be warned – turn your volume down!)
Bamboo Tattoo VS. Machine Tattoo
Many backpackers like to go for an ‘authentic’ style Thai bamboo tattoo which is administered with a bamboo rod.
The bamboo process is made with very fine needles (usually five), that are firmly attached in a line to the end of a thin piece of bamboo using cotton, and then gently tapped into the skin. It doesn’t go in as deep, which means the healing process is virtually instant, and is, apparently, 50% less painful than the machine.
A machine tattoos at 50 strokes a second; bamboo at two. Guess which one is quicker?
The Do’s and Don’ts of Getting a Tattoo in Thailand
1. Get a Buddha Tattoo or anything Buddhist-related. This is a serious no no. It is totally against the law in Thailand and other Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia to use the image of Buddha as a decoration and the authorities have become much more strict on this in recent years. In Sri Lanka, a British tourist was arrested and deported for having a Buddha tattoo on her right shoulder.
2. Be tempted by cheaper prices. Good tattoos are NOT cheap, and cheap tattoos are NOT good! Always check out TripAdvisor to see reviews of tattoo shops and find yourself a reputable one. Even if it’s not the cheapest on the street!
3. Be careless. Don’t let your new tattoo out in the sun for a good few days afterwards – or swim in chlorinated water – if it’s a machine tattoo. These really bleach the colours, and sunlight can also burn the skin and cause infection.
4. Put sunscreen or insect repellant on it. Ouch.
5. Get dr-ink-ed. Hangover’s fade – tattoos don’t!
1. Check the tattoo shop out first. We’re looking for all-round cleanliness, decent equipment, switched-on staff and a professional approach.
2. Check out the quality of the artist. Do you want someone who traces standard flash art, or someone who turns your concept into something awesome?
3. Take good care of it afterwards – particularly if it’s a machine tattoo – it’s basically a large open wound for a few days (and anyone who’s cut themselves in the tropics will know only too well that infections can and do happen, whether from water, insects, or dirt).
4. Apply all the above to piercings as well. Before touching, clean those hands!
5. Ask around for recommendations! We’ve had a few recommendations from travellers in our Facebook Community. Feel free to ask advice or share your awesome tattoo story in our group!
What will be your inspiration?
When speaking with other backpackers whilst researching for this article, I wondered if I’d hear of tales of intoxication, memory lapse and next day discoveries of Chinese writing spelling out the name of a whirlwind travelling romance (come on you’re never that drunk to get it in a language people will actually be able to read!).
However, on the contrary, most of the people I spoke to had seriously thought about what they wanted and for them, it was a deeply serious decision. I was very interested to hear that many travellers had them for spiritual reasons in fact.
And, whilst not as openly religious as the Thai designs, many travellers had integrated their own spiritual sentiments, family beliefs and personal mantras into symbolic designs. Asking people I’d just stopped on the street about their tattoo very quickly turned into a highly personal conversation and, on a few occasions I felt that I really shouldn’t be probing such intense answers out of people that I’d only just met!
What was also very interesting was that in many cases, you naughty naughty backpackers had failed to mention this tiny little detail of your backpacking trip to dear old mum at home and have decided to cross that bridge when you come to it!
Thailand Tattoo Shops
The following Thai Tattoo shops have been recommended by travellers in our Facebook Community.
- Sak Yant Tattoo – Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Space Bamboo Tattoo – Pai, Thailand.
- Crazy Tattoo – Chiang Mai, Thailand.
- Khao San Tattoo Studio by Eak Tattoo Group – Bangkok, Thailand.
- Monkey Magic – Pai, Thailand. (Nina says: They fixed a bad nose piercing I got in Bangkok and did a badass job with my complicated request for a tree tattoo. It was a 6-hour job! They were so good! Super chill but professional. I’d get another one from them in a heartbeat.)
Header photo: By Michelle Wu, taken from her article: A Permanent Blessing – Getting Sacred Tattoos at Wat Bang Phra.
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