Months before I ever set foot in Southeast Asia, I decided I wanted a traditional bamboo tattoo. In all my research I discovered the ancient practice of Sak Yant, where Thai monks give a supplicant a holy and blessed tattoo. Taking place in a temple with no exchange of money, the receiver of the tattoo brings offerings like incense, flowers, tea, etc. The monks read your energy and decide on a specific blessing or protection you would need based on “magical geometrical, animal and deity designs accompanied by Pali phrases that offer power, protection, fortune, charisma and other benefits for the bearer” (Wikipedia). I already wanted to get a tattoo to remember my adventures but I knew I had to get one in the Thai style.
As soon as I got my bearings in Thailand, I asked around in search of a temple that would tattoo me.
I even asked a man who formerly served as a monk. Over and over again, I heard people tell me I could not be tattooed by a monk because I am a woman and monks, being celibate, are not permitted to touch women. (Women aren’t even supposed to sit next to a monk.) That was discouraging. I had never been excluded from something I couldn’t argue my way into. It was a dead end. Monks cannot tattoo women and that’s final.
Halfway into my month in Thailand, the woman who owned a hostel in Chiang Mai connected me with a tattoo studio that offered tattoos with both guns and bamboo rods. One day, without any notice, she yelled at me and told me someone was coming to pick me up to take me to the studio. Minutes later I jumped on the back of a motorcycle and soon after I was there. (So much for the never-ride-with-strangers rule.)So I couldn’t get a holy tattoo; at least I could still get a bamboo tattoo.
Working through a language barrier, I tried to explain the design I had in mind; something I had only thought about for a short time since the monk tattoo was apparently out of the question. I decided an elephant of some form would be appropriate since I was in Thailand. (It seems like an elephant is to Thailand what a bald eagle is to the United States.) I wasn’t that concerned about the design itself, what was most important was that I was getting it done with a bamboo rod in Thailand.
I tried to explain what I wanted, but due to the language gap and so many words not being registered, the artist’s assistant wanted to find an image online to be recreated exactly. I saw a statuette of a baby elephant with his trunk facing upward, a sign of good luck, so the assistant copied it, did a few things in photoshop, and had the image ready to place on my skin. They told me to come back a few hours later for an appointment.
When you only have a few more weeks in Thailand, and you’re looking at a tattoo that meets your standards, there really isn’t any reason to procrastinate a “bucket-list item”.
Getting the tattoo
As I came back to the chair, the artist pointed to a steaming cylinder of wood that looked like an ottoman and said something about cleaning. I think he was making sure I wasn’t scared of the banshee noise, coming from this little ottoman-thing. He was sanitizing the bamboo rods.
My first thought, which had been hammered into my head for years, is you must have a tattoo with new needles, no exceptions. But I couldn’t bring myself to walk away. They had spent a lot of time getting the image ready, and I was determined to experience bamboo tattooing, come hell or high water. I figured that other tattoo places around Southeast Asia probably had the same practices so I wouldn’t get anywhere if I just walked out. To be fair, the artist never said the needles had been used; I’m not sure how that works with bamboo needles. Don’t worry, though, because I didn’t contract any diseases on my travels.
If I had gotten this tattoo in the US, they probably would have done an outline with a small, single point needle, then gone through the whole image with the shading needle to contour. Here in Thailand, the entire tattoo was done with a bamboo rod, which, similar to a shading needle, had a row of several tiny needles all in a straight line. Everyone always compliments the detail and the shading of my little elephant and I believe the use of one single shading tool is to thank for that effect.
The entire tattoo took about three hours, which is actually kind of impressive considering it would have taken about the same time using a much faster tattoo gun. Playing in the background, was a stoner comedy about a pot-smoking alien, voiced by Seth Rogan, who makes friends on Earth and has a crazy adventure in an RV. I’m not sure what it’s called in English.
They gave me a little canister of salve to put on the tattoo for proper ink care. The assistant, the one who spoke simple English, told me it was ok to go swimming with the tattoo because salt water heals the skin. (From previous tattoo experience, I have learned that the ink does in fact bleed if submerged in water too long, but I’m sure for general skin health, yes, salt water is your friend.)
When they revealed the tattoo, I was so thrilled! It was b-e-a-UTIFUL! I tried to convey my appreciation, admiration and utter joy at my ink through facial expressions. I thanked the artist and the assistant in Thai, “Korb kuhn kah,” gave a small wai (bow), and still fully engulfed in my new-ink euphoria, walked off into the sunset. I couldn’t wait to show my new friends from the hostel!
A week later or so, when I was in Koh Chang, a friend showed me a blogger who was in fact a woman and had found a way to get a sacred tattoo from a monk. Read the story here. AGH! I was a little frustrated that it could have been done and I just went to a tattoo shop. That wasn’t very “Thai” of me! But I couldn’t be mad for too long because my little elephant was so happy and adorable.
How does a bamboo tattoo compare?
Bamboo is much gentler on the skin where as a tattoo from a gun seems to make the skin raw. I believe a bamboo tattoo heals faster, as there is less shock to the skin, although I am not certain about this. A bamboo tattoo also hurts much less than one delivered with a gun. They both take about the same amount of time and money. I would highly recommend this method of tattooing to anyone.
At the time I wrote this post, I had the tattoo for about a year and a half. It hasn’t faded at all and there are no raised parts, which results from the artist going too deep in the skin. I have never once regretted this decision. It’s my absolute favourite of all my tattoos. And I get compliments on this little elephant all the time, not like this matters a whole lot but it’s nice.
The elephant itself is a beautiful and artistic piece that could be appreciated by anyone. But that’s not the only reason I love it. My time in Thailand was so amazing, it was beyond words. It was majestic, adventurous, breath-taking, flashy, stimulating, intriguing, and impressive. Imagine all that set to the backdrop of the bright colours of passing temples, the smell of Thai foods wafting through the air, made even richer by the humidity, the immense pleasure of achieving my biggest accomplishment to date, and the satisfaction of my deep, ravenous curiosity. To have that all wrapped up in one 2.5×3 inch tattoo I will have forever, reminding me of some of the best days of my life and the magnitude of one of my greatest achievements, is a magnificent blessing. This is the spirit in which tattoos were intended.
Perhaps it should be a goal of mine to be tattooed in different ways. Should I go to New Zealand next and get the ink hammered into my skin?
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