In Thailand, tattooing with bamboo began in the Buddhist temples where monks would receive religious texts tattooed by ‘grand master monks for protection. Throughout Thai history, soldiers would visit temples to be tattooed by monks and receive spells for protection, strength and invisibility. Thailand has many legends with one being that Thailand has never been occupied as the Thai soldiers are warrior ghosts who cannot be seen or killed by the enemy due to their protective tattoos.
It has been a long tradition in Thailand for soldiers to partake of these protective tattoos. It is believed that the power is so great that it is charmed and that the correct tattoo applied by the best tattoo master can ward off bullets.
The belief is not only that the Buddhist designs are potent, but also the chanting of prayers that accompany it. The implement used for the tattoo is nearly a metre long and as the monks do their work, the chanting begins until the tattoo is finished. One hand directs the needle, cradling the tip as one would a pool cue, while the other hand drives the needle in and out of the skin at around two to three times per second. The series of dots in the skin connect to resemble a tapestry. Bamboo tattooing is extremely painful, but is considered worthwhile as it is believed to make the barer invincible.
Another technique involves the tattooist’s rubbing ink into the wound after the needle has penetrated the skin, while at the same time a prayer is said to impregnate the charm with its spiritual power.
There are hundreds of traditional designs, many of animals and the most popular being the tiger. The tattoo of a tiger represents the tigers’ spirit and placed on the lower back, is a favored location as the tiger spirit will be in control of your life.
Quite often, the tattoo will not be recognizable as it will be a Thai script reproducing prayers and sometimes it will be a ‘yantra,’ a pattern which is less graphic than a tiger and composed merely of dots.
Traditional tattooists will warn enthusiasts that decorative tattoos have no power to protect or bless the barer. In the traditionalists’ eyes, decorative tattoos are those done by electric machines in the hands of tattooists who have little if any true, spiritual, or authoritative feelings. They are believed to lack the magic and power and so the barer of the decorative tattoos will lack good fortune and protection.
As with the classic Japanese tattooists, the Thai monks have to undergo months of training to find the mystical place within themselves a place where they won’t be distracted. Only when they have found this place within, can they orchestrate their mind, body and heart in the necessary performance of tattooing. It is not just the one monk who chants the necessary sutra, there are 108 of them.
The tradition Buddhist tattoo is of a geometric design based on images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, the Lotus or some other type of Buddhist symbol that is said to attract luck, wealth and blessings as well as providing insurance against evil spirits.
Another Thai tattoo that performs more or less the same functions is a Hindu Sanskrit tattoo that is based on the fearsome Hindu gods and deities such as the four faced Buddha, the Holy Eagle, the Heavenly dog, Hanuman the Monkey God, and a Wealth Deity which make the evils spirits retreat.
Lucky Thai Icons such as the tiger, dragon, the phoenix, lion, leopard, snake, animals are both holy and lucky, but aren’t complete as a tattoo unless they’re surrounded with appropriate mantras and yantras and applied by a monk chanting the sutras.
A special Thai tattoo to improve your interpersonal and relationship skills called the Golden-Tongued Bird ‘Sha Li Ka’, is supposed to improve your confidence and speaking skills, and it must work because it is seriously painful as it is applied to the tongue. The tattoo inked on the top of the head is intended to ‘flood your head with blessings to protect your soul’. This is called the ‘Yuan Shen Guan Ding’ tattoo. It is said that the soul resides up there, right alongside one’s store of good luck, and also any potential for success in business and relationships.
The placement of the tattoo on the body has great significance in Thai tattooing, the closer a tattoo is to the head, where the soul is thought to reside the greater the power of the tattoo.
Thai tattooing has been adapted to modern times with typical Thai finesse. For those who worry that their tattoos may not be well-received in an office, tattoos can be done not with the usual tattoo inks but with sesame oil. The tattooing implements, the designs and the mantras are all the same except that the result 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.
For attracting special wealth, the Thai have hand pieces of 24 K gold flakes inscribed with personal data into the palm of their hands.