Tattoo in Thailand

Now not only socially acceptable, but hip and desirable, tattoos have had a long history. From the marks on a recently discovered man from 3300BC found in the ice in the Alps, to wall paintings and mummies in Egypt from 2000BC, to more mummies from that era but in Pazyryk, Russia, it is obvious that tattoo usage is long and widely spread.

The word “tattoo” is derived from Polynesian “tatao”, meaning “to tap”, and/or Tahitian “tatau”, which means to “mark something”. The first known English usage was in the 1769 diary of Captain James Cook on a voyage to the Marquesas Islands, from which sailors brought back the word and tattoos to Europe, and began the long association of sailors and tattoos.

Tattoos have performed many functions in the past, as well as the present. As indicators of cultural identity they prove affiliation with religions, ethnic groups, and even gangs. Status or rank can also be connoted. Ritual links to the myth of the hero are strengthened, especially when tattoos are used in rites of passage, or acts of transition. In animist societies, they are often considered as identification for entry to the afterlife, or spirit world. When combined with magical powers, they have a talismanic function for protection from evil or harm, and as a charm or love attraction. And last, they are a form of individualistic expression, providing decorative enhancement of the body.

Traditional Tattoos in Northern Thailand

We are especially attracted to the traditional designs used in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos for the purpose of invulnerability in the face of evil, and attraction in matters of love and money. These often employ a combination of magic diagrams (‘yantra’) with letters or numbers symbolizing special incantations, images of mythical creatures, or real creatures imbued with special powers. Additionally, these designs are given more power with added lines of Pali text in Thai, Lan Na or Khmer script.

The images included here were taken at a recent ‘Wan Wai Kru’, or Day of Respect for the Master (‘teacher’, or ‘guru’), taken at the home/studio of tattoo master Ajan Innsom Siriwong, outside of Chiang Mai. On this day, once a year, those who have received tattoos from him return for his blessings and to ‘recharge’ the magic power of their images, and to get new ones. We saw the physical transformations of several whose tattoos had ‘possessed’ them, and they became tigers, or other powerful creatures. Please see our Blog for May 2007 for more information and photos.