What is a Thai Tattoo?

It’s funny when people think of tattoos in Thailand they think of the traditional body art made with bamboo and ink. In actuality, the locals call the burn you get on your leg from a motorbike a Thai Tattoo?

But let’s talk about tradition, the traditional bamboo tattoo is created by an artist skillfully handling a bamboo stick with needles at the end. The needles are dipped in ink and then tapped into the skin to create the design. You might be surprised, but the process is a lot less painful than using a tattoo gun. This is because the needles are not ripping through the skin, they are gently puttering along. The most popular Thai bamboo tattoos are called Sak Yant Tattoos. These are only supposed to be done by Buddhist monks. Thais of all walks of life believe that the monks can tattoo away evil. It is the monk, not you who picks the design. The monk will pick based on what he sees as your journey in life or the reason you want/need the tattoo. As he creates the work of art, he recites a chant and blows good luck into the tattoo which will bring your prosperity. Just as each person is different, there are different types of Sak Yant designs each with its own unique meaning.

The Real Sak Yant

Angelina Jolie Sak Yant

Many people (dis)credit Angelina Jolie for popularizing the Sak Yant with the Westerns. Hers was made by Thai tattoo master Noo Kampai in April 2003. Photo AP on Daily Mail

A Sak Yant tattoo, if not done by a Buddhist Monk, is considered to bring you bad luck. According to Ted Thornhill, “The designs – lines of script, geometric patterns, and animal shapes – are also deeply interwoven with Buddhist and animist imagery that some Thais fear Westerners fail to appreciate.” If you place the Sank Yant in the wrong part of the body, it can also bring bad luck and be viewed as disrespectful.

A friend posted this article in a travel group and I learned quite a bit more about Sak Yant artistry and blessing, in fact you can get “the other hidden [one] (using magical oil from charm flowers). An oil based one is done in order not to visually mark the skin, yet is considered to be almost as effective and a visual one. It is done exactly the same with needles however the needles are blunt with oil instead of ink.”

Many foreigners come to Thailand wanting their own trendy Sak Yant tattoo without knowing the meaning or tradition behind it—but they have seen it on a movie star so it must be cool.  Now, I am not saying there is anything wrong with seeing the beauty in something. But, and this is a big but, not researching the origins or meaning can come across as arrogant to those from a culture who believe in the spirituality and powers of your travel tat.

Farangs on the Prowl

So farangs, what Thais call non-Thai, land on a mission to get their movie star tattoo, so they hit the main streets of Thailand’s many tourist areas looking for a deal on a permanent souvenir. There are Buddhist-owned shops and those who respect the ancient art of the monks who will refuse to do a Sak Yant. This is not only out of respect but also fear of the bad luck it will bring the tattoo artist.  Then there are those just out to make a quick Bhatt. They will do it for you and pretend that they have studied to be a monk and will make up a prayer or chant for you. Some don’t bother with any of the traditions and let you chose the design and ink it out. Keep this in mind if one of your Thai bucket list items is getting a Sak Yant. Also if you are even contemplating getting a tattoo abroad the CDC recommends you get a full Hepatitis series.

Bamboo vs. the Gun

In general, bamboo tattooists can do some amazing huge pieces with subtle shading that even after ten years of being here continues to amaze me. However, I have yet to see many bamboo tattoos done in color. This is because it is harder to get the skin depth and consistency needed for brilliant color with the bamboo and needles. As I mentioned before, it is far less painful than a gun, and those who know, highly recommend the bamboo for black ink pieces. Please make sure the tattooist is working in a sterile environment, as there are some pretty dirty, cheap, grungy shops that do not have anything resembling a sanitary setting. Think about, they are about to pierce your skin, would you get a yellow fever shot from a homeless man who swore he was a nurse and the area behind the dumpster was his clinic?

Double, No Triple Check

Take it from me, I learned first hand eleven years ago when I first arrived in Thailand with my two sisters. We wanted to get matching bamboo tattoos. So we decided that we were going to get the word sister written in Thai above the arch on our right feet. We went to a local bamboo artist who was popular with the tourist on the island. His shop, and I use that word generously, was literally a thatch roof sand floor hut next to a bar. Hindsight is 20/20, eh?  He didn’t speak much English, so he looked up the word sister in a Thai-English dictionary. He said, “Yep, yep I got it.”

Misspelled Thai tattoos

Me, my two sitsers and cousin with our very special bamboo tattoos

He left to go and buy new needles. He returned and wrapped the needles around the bottom of a long slender stick. He then filled up a soda pop bottle lid with ink and said: “OK, ready!”  I went first and didn’t think about the fact I was sitting in a bamboo shack getting my skin pierced by a man with no gloves who was holding needles on a stick dipping ink from a bottle cap. It took about twenty minutes and was pretty much painless. Then my older sister went. Once we were done, we went back to the Muay Thai camp where we were staying. The local massage girl looked at my foot and said, “SITSER?” I said, “No it’s sister, me and my sisters just got these tattoos.” She began to laugh hysterically. See she spoke pretty good English and said, “No Lindsey, it says sitser.” My older sister and I looked at each other and were like WTF? Needless to say, we made our little sister who was going to get it done the next day get it written wrong as well because the whole point was to get matching tattoos. It became a huge family joke, and to this day, we all call each other sitser. Even our cousin who came to visit me and got a misspelled one too as she was like a little sitser to us!

So Much Talent

The tattooists in Thailand are not only skilled with the bamboo, but they are also very talented with the gun. Too many artists in Thailand work for way less money than they deserve—at nearly a quarter of the price a foreigner would have to pay in their home country. My tattooist, Supachok Sakkaew, turns away anyone who tries to bargain for a lower price than his quote. He says, “If you want a cheap tattoo job then you can go to another shop because I do quality work here and have quoted you a good price already.” My question is this, “If you are more interested in the price of your tattoo than the quality of the artist that’s doing it, then maybe you should ask yourself why you’re getting the it in the first place?”

Muay Tattoo

Muay Thai Tattoo

I was going to have a fight but decided just to get a tattoo instead

The other thing that makes me laugh is the people who come to Thailand to do Muay Thai, the traditional style of kickboxing, then go and get a fighter tattoo after doing the sport for maybe three weeks. I was a professional fighter for three years before I even thought about a boxing tattoo. Over the years, I have seen many people come to Thailand and get the Muay Thai logo of my gym tattooed on them. I have fought for my gym for almost a decade, and I don’t even have the logo tattooed on me! Like really people, com’on!? But hey if that’s what you want to take home from your journey then so be it.

Respect Buddha

Strange tattoos in Thailand

Definitely above the heart but…

The other favorite tattoo is that of the Buddha. Most visitors seeking this tattoo, as they are not Buddhist, do not know that it is incredibly disrespectful to have Buddha tattooed anywhere on the body lower than the heart and even more so below the waist where it is especially frowned upon.  Anthony Kuhn reporting for NPR’s All Things Considered wrote, “In 2011, Thai Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat called for a ban on foreigners’ getting religious tattoos that offend Thai people.” You can read more about the inciting incident here.

To me, tattoos in Thailand are some of the most beautiful in the world whether it be a Buddhist Monk working in traditional bamboo or a talented young artist with a gun making the colors pop off the skin in dizzying original designs. Their skills are amazing and plentiful.

Just keep in mind where on your body it is placed and why you’re getting it—respect the talent and the culture.

You can contact Supachok Sakkaew via his website or Facebook he works by appointment only and in completely sterile conditions. 

Image Credit: Lindsey, Tototat2