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Tattoos in Thailand: Traditional and Ritual Protection or Modern Art?

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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. A true yantra tattoo design though cannot be done just in any old tattoo parlor. Instead, it has to be created by a monk using old-fashioned tools and usually includes ritual scarring, which also helps with protection.

These tattoos 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.

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.

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.

In Bangkok, there are specific tattoo artists that are known to be some of the best. They are usually in certain areas of the city and have hundreds of tattoo pictures to choose from. Chatuchak Market has some well-known artists, as well as the Kao San Road area of town.

I just had a tattoo done by one of the top tattoo parlors in Bangkok – this one in the Thong Lor area of town. Ritual 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. However, most Thai women are still not likely to get tattoos. Not unless they are in the bar girl (prostitution) industry, where you’ll see around 80% of these girls with tattoos.

‘Good’ Thai girls are still reticent about tattoos as having them is looked down on by their families, bosses and by prospective husbands – although, of course, some do still get them. In fact, I have two Thai female friends who recently had to get tattoos removed by laser, because the company they wanted to work for wouldn’t employ them if they had visible tattooes.

However 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’re looking for a traditional Thai yantra tattoo, head to Bangkok and ask at one of the thousands of temples.

Or if a more modern tattoo is what you’re looking for, there are many tattoo artists, most of whom have clean tattoo parlors and who sterilize their instruments. Do a search on the internet to see who others recommend. Just make sure you go to one with a good reputation and one that is known for being clean.

And if you don’t want a permanent tattoo, at Chatuchak you can buy a t shirt that also has a traditional yantra tattoo on it. Who knows, maybe that will give you the same protection?

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