The Ultimate Souvenir: All About Traditional Thai Tattoos

Bamboo Tattoos: The Ultimate in Traditional Thai Art

Traditional Thai tattoos are the new big thing for visitors to Thailand. What’s the deal and what should you be considering before taking the plunge?

Ever since Angelina Jolie stepped into a Thai tattoo shop and asked for a design to be inked on her back with a bamboo needle, the art form has been exploding in popularity. Often written off as a ‘fad’ or something that backpackers do on a year out, getting a bamboo tattoo is actually a spiritual activity in Thailand and you’ll often see Buddhist monks sporting intricate designs. But where did this tradition of tattooing start and how do you go about getting a safe, good quality experience?

Angelina Jolie getting her traditional Thai tattoos

How did it all start?

Known locally as sak yant, the first bamboo tattoos were actually carried out 3000 years ago in the Khmer period. Monks would cover themselves in religious symbols to protect themselves from evil spirits and soldiers believed that bamboo designs would increase their strength and make them invincible. Not everyone who gets a tattoo now has quite such grand ambitions but there’s still a sacred connotation to these designs and monks still perform tattooing rituals at certain temples.

The Ins and Outs

If you like the idea of getting some ink then it helps to understand how a bamboo tattoo works. Forget the usual tattoo parlor setup of foot pedal and airgun- these Thai ones are created by hand with tiny needles lashed to the end of a bamboo pole. It might look a bit more primitive but actually the process is incredible skilled, with artists training for many years to learn how to carry out the process properly.

The plus side of getting a bamboo tattoo is that there are more breaks during the process, as ink has to be frequently loaded onto the needle by hand. The downside is that the whole design may take a lot longer to create for the same reason! It’s really important that the ink penetrates the skin to the correct depth so do your research and choose an artist who really knows what they’re doing.

Traditional Thai tattoos done by Buddhist monks

Careful, this is permanent!

Although it looks very natural and organic during the creation process, a bamboo tattoo is just as permanent as a normal one. Don’t just pick a design on a whim without thinking it through first! Visit some parlors to look at examples of their work, and get online to research some designs that you like. Believe us, it’s better to do some thinking beforehand rather than living with something you regret for the rest of your life!

The Safety Bit

Unsurprisingly there are a few things to watch out for when you’re choosing somewhere to get your tattoo. Check that the place is clean and well-maintained and ensure that the needles are new every time. If you want to see them coming out of sterile packets in front of you then just ask, a reputable place won’t mind this at all (and will probably respect you for asking!).

Check that the ink is kept in sealed containers and hasn’t been used for anyone else’s tattoos either. Ask around with locals and other travelers to see if they have any recommendations for where to go. You may have to wait a bit for an appointment at a good place but it’ll be worth it in the end!

Where can you see traditional Thai tattoos in action?

If you’re intrigued by these bamboo masterpieces and want to immerse yourself in the culture then head to Wat Bang Phra temple, about 30 miles outside Bangkok. Every year in March it hosts a huge festival where devotees flock to get their tattoos ‘reinfused’ with sacred magic. Expect noise, music, monks and a whole lot of tattooed dancers in a trance-like state. It’s a spectacle like no other and will reinforce the importance of this amazing art form to this spiritual country.

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