Traditional Balinese Tattoos

For many visiting Bali, tattoos are the first thing that come to mind, but what about traditional Balinese tattoos? Let’s think outside the box. Immersing ourselves deeper into Indonesian culture, or at least the tattoo culture – Balinese Tattoos, also referred to as bamboo tattoos, or hand poked tattoos are quickly gaining popularity worldwide.

Traditional Balinese Tattoo

Bamboo tattoos are believed to date back 3000 years during the Khmer period. Originating in Thailand, the monks and soldiers would have religious texts tattooed onto their bodies for protection, strength and visibility. The old Indonesian hand tapping tattoo tradition however, likely passed through from Thailland, comes from shamans in the Mentawai Islands and people with ancestry in Kalimantan – the Indonesian region of Borneo (about one quarter of the island belongs to Malaysia and Brunei). 

Gaining popularity in recent years with the help of celebrities, such as Angelina Jolie, whom flew to Thailand and received a traditional Sak Yant tattoo. Sak meaning: to tap, or to tattoo. Yant originally deriving from the word ‘YANTRA’, meaning an object or symbol to help in worship or meditation.

The style and art of bamboo tattooing has since sparked more interest in today’s Western culture, becoming most common among travellers, deciding to get the bamboo tattoo for many different reasons. Some for the memory, others for the cultural aspect, and some as a drunk decision. As all tattoos though, you must do your research before committing. Ensuring the space is clean and hygienic, new needles are used on each tattoo, and the tattoo artist does in fact specialize in Bamboo Tattoo is very important.

The basic tool is, a stick carved from wood with only a few regional tattooing traditions actually utilizing bamboo. The sticks fixed with a tattoo needle to the end. There are some distinguishing characteristics, between tattoos done in the traditional Balinese style and those done with a machine, but must can not tell the difference. A machine gun tattoos at 50 strokes a second, bamboo at 2. Although Bamboo does take a lot more time, it is a lot less painful. The needle does not go in as deep, which means the healing process is almost instant.

Traditional Balinese Tattoo
Traditional Balinese Tattoo

It takes a long time and a lot of practice to master the art of bamboo tattooing, as it is a lot of poking and steady hand work involved. You want all the lines to be precise and to poke the needle in far enough for it to ink the skin. As any tattoo, bamboo also does fade. Generally it will fade faster as the needle does not pierce the skin as deep as a machine gun. Bamboo tattoos cause almost no bleeding and no scabbing with a healing time almost immediately, you can usually go swimming 2/3 days after, depending on the size of the piece.

Travelers with their finished tattoos done in the  traditional Balinese style
Travelers with their finished tattoos done in the traditional Balinese style

So if you’re thinking about a new tattoo whilst on holidays, you might consider a traditional Balinese tattoo. Now, don’t expect every studio to offer bamboo tattoos. Suku Suku Tatau in Seminyak has a great reputation for both their machine work and their hand tapping techniques with traditional tribal tools. With traditional Balinese tattoos hourly prices tend be to a little higher as more technique and skill are required. Now go out there and become a part of an ancient tradition, get a traditional Balinese tattoo!

Traveling to Lombok after your stay in Bali or vice versa? Read our article on your options on how to get back and forth between the islands.

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