In no other country in the world except Thailand does the tattoo tradition have an annual religious celebration. Once a year, thousands of tattoo enthusiasts from around the world descend on the temple known as Wat Bang Phra, located fifty kilometers outside Bangkok, where dozens of heavily tattooed Buddhist monks are masters of the tattoo art. This Wat is also known as the Temple of the Flying Tiger. Unlike most tattoos in the West, the Thai version comes steeped in spiritual, or some might say superstitious, meaning. Protection, good luck, and blessings from on high are what the tattoo devotees are seeking. Many arrive already heavily tattooed and are there to simply get their designs ‘recharged’, by having the Buddhist monks re-bless their body art.
In the old days, if you got a tattoo done at a certain temple, you would also automatically belong to a group, others who got tattoos from the same temple. This was beneficial for, if you got into a street fight, the fight would stop if you realized you were fighting with someone who had been tattooed at the same temple. Or others tattooed at that temple might come to your aid.
Ritual tattoos, otherwise known as Yantra, have been popular in Thailand for generations. In the past, tattoos were not usually done as decorative art but instead were done because people believed they gave them special powers.
For centuries, Thai warriors were tattooed before battle to protect them from the enemy and, even today, many Thais believe that a tattoo will keep them safe and even stop a speeding bullet. In modern day Thailand, traditional tattoos are still popular with young Thai men who have just been conscripted into the military and want the comfort of being ‘protected’ before they leave for duty.
Tattoos in Thailand are also used to ward off evil spirits. These tattoos have images of snakes, tigers, Buddhist images and scriptures, even lucky Thai numbers. They have a specific geometric pattern and involve Vedic chanting by the monk to seal the protective element of the tattoo. When the tattoo is finished, it is then consecrated by the monk in a ceremony involving incense and candles.
A tattoo’s placement on the body has great significance in Thai tattooing. The closer a tattoo is to the head, where the soul is thought to reside, greater power it will have.
Thai tattooing has adapted to modernity with typical Thai finesse and subtlety. For those who fear that their tattoos may not be well-received in an office modeled after its Western counterparts, Thais may get tattoos not with the usual tattoo inks but with sesame oil or even no pigments of any kind. The tattooing implements, the designs and the mantras are all the same. The result, however, for all intents and purposes, is an ‘invisible’ tattoo, with none of the visible stigma of a tattoo, but with all its magical powers to protect as an amulet and talisman intact.
One of Hollywood’s most prominent actresses has had a couple of yantra tattoos done in Bangkok. Angelina Jolie, a frequent visitor to South East Asia, has visited Bangkok a couple of times to get tattoos. The first one she had done in 2003, five lines of ancient Khmer script to ward off evil and bad luck and the second one in 2004, a large Asian tiger by famous Thai tattoo artist Sompong Kanphai. Jolie believes the tattoos give her protection, and sometimes the belief is all it takes for something to become a reality.
So if you are looking for a traditional Thai yantra tattoo, head to Bangkok and ask at one of the thousands of temples.
Just like anywhere else in the world though, the yantra aspect of Thai tattoos is fading. Less people now get tattoos done by monks and instead are going to one of several popular tattoo artists who have their own small shops.
Thai traditionalists would warn tattoo enthusiasts that ordinary ‘decorative’ tattoos have no power to protect or bless them. Decorative tattoos in the traditionalist’s eyes are executed using modern electric machines in the hands of tattooists with little true feeling, and consequently the tattoos lack authority and integrity. Mainly, they are perceived to lack magic. Such tattoos would have little power to act as a protective amulet or talisman or to bring good fortune to the wearer.
Nevertheless, tattoos are now becoming art in Thailand, just like everywhere else. Members of Thai bands and rock groups are also getting tattoos as the ‘in, cool Western thing’ to do. The function of these tattoos is a tribal identity, a badge of membership. This is the heart of the whole business, although it is influenced by current trends and passing fads, the purpose of nearly every tattoo is to show that the wearer is a part of something.
Krabi is one of the most fascinating tourist attraction in the south of Thailand. Apart from swimming and diving in the sea, getting tattoo is one of the most popular activities here. So, if a more modern tattoo is what you are looking for, head towards the many tattoo artists of Krabi, most of whom have clean tattoo parlors and who sterilize their instruments. Just make sure you go to one with a good reputation and one that is known for being clean.
If you’re looking at getting a design done during your travel in Thailand, just make sure you think through the following points so you don’t end up regretting it:
- Take your time deciding on the design
- Shop around for price
- Pay attention to their portfolios
- Personal recommendations are to be taken strongly
- Chat through everything, design, time, etc; a good artist will happily do so
- Check needles are new; they won’t be offended if you ask to see them be opened
- Avoid getting one whilst wasted on a night out!
Just be aware once you get some ink it’s rather addictive, so bookmark some skin for some more designs.