Thailand has a long and rich history with the traditional bamboo tattoo and although no-one actually knows exactly ‘where’ bamboo tattooing originates from, it is believed to have begun in Thailand in the Buddhist temples, where monks would receive religious texts tattooed by grand master monks for the protection of the scripts. Soldiers would visit the temples to be tattooed by monks for protection, charms, and spells.
When I was in Phuket in 2011 I decided to get a traditional bamboo tattoo or Sak Yant as they are also known.
I had my bamboo tattoo done by a Muay Thai instructor in Chalong, Phuket and in my opinion, this method of tattooing was much less painful than an ordinary tattoo gun. The tattooist was a 13th generation weapons maker for The Royal Thai Family. His name is Kru Oh and he works as a Muay Thai, Muay Boran & Krabi Krabong instructor at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket.
This is a skill that takes years to perfect and relies on a steady hand and immense concentration. Monks will use a meter long stick and pierce the skin 2-3 times per second.
The traditional Tattoo in Thailand is called “Sak Yant” – Sak Yant is an Ancient magical practice of sacred geometry, using Buddhist, Brahman, Animal imagery and magical incantations (Kata), written in Khom (The Ancient script used to write Pali Sanskrit), which was the language of the Buddha.
There are many beliefs associated with these protective tattoos in Thai culture. The blessing of the drawing, needle and bamboo stick plays a very important role in the process and is believed to be as important as the tattoo itself. The most common images are geometric designs based on Buddha, the Lotus or Bodhisattvas. It is believed that the Buddhist tattoos provide protection from evil spirits, attract luck, wealth, and happiness.
Animal images are also considered powerful with tigers being a strong symbol of strength. It is usually placed on the lower back or high up on the shoulder. The belief is that the closer to the head the more powerful the tattoo. Most traditional tattooists will not tattoo below the waist as this is considered taboo and bad luck. Also, the feet are considered to lowest part of the body in Thai culture and it is rude to point your feet or touch things with them. The head the most respected and highest part of the body, hence many monks will have tattoos on their head (as above).
Yet after doing a quick Google of bamboo tattoo images, there appear to be many tattooists working on people’s feet in Thailand at the minute. A friend of mine had one done on his foot and when he went to rural Thailand, away from the party islands and bright lights, people looked at his foot bamboo tattoo with disgust. So respect the culture if you are getting a tattoo and don’t ask a monk to put a sacred image on your feet!
The drawing which was traced the blueprint for the tattoo (if a blueprint is being used) must be tied to a rock and cast into a river after use. This is to do with superstition so as no-one can cause harm with your tattoo blessing and water is believed to be pure and peaceful.
How much does a bamboo tattoo cost in Thailand?
The cost for my tattoo was 6,000THB – $250 and this included the trip out to Wat Chalong to see a monk and have the tattoo blessed the following day. Kru Oh takes the whole process very seriously and is deeply spiritual about the experience from start to finish.
Although it is possible to get a bamboo tattoo done for free in certain monasteries by practicing monks, the monk then decides on the design and the location. He looks at you and then apparently knows what protection you’ll need. Hmmm… Up to you there.
How to get a Bamboo Tattoo for FREE in Bangkok… (Almost)
Wat Bang Phra is just outside of Bangkok and offers a very cheap/free traditional bamboo tattoo service. A small contribution is all you need to give. $5 worth of incense, cigarettes, and candles will do the trick and this will get you a traditional Thai bamboo tattoo by a practicing monk. It takes around 1 1/2 hours from Bangkok out Route 338 to get there and if you get a motorbike taxi it will cost around 100/200 THB. If you arrive late in the day there can be lots of people looking for tattoos so you may not get one. Plan ahead and leave as early as you can to avoid disappointment. This has become a very popular tourist attraction and the quality of some of the tattoos are not the best, in my opinion.
It takes around 1 1/2 hours from Bangkok out Route 338 to get there and if you get a motorbike taxi it will cost around 100/200 THB. If you arrive late in the day there can be lots of people looking for tattoos so you may not get one. Plan ahead and leave as early as you can to avoid disappointment. This has become a very popular tourist attraction and the quality of some of the tattoos are not the best, in my opinion.
Plan ahead and leave as early as you can to avoid disappointment. This has become a very popular tourist attraction and the quality of some of the tattoos are not the best, in my opinion.
Personally, I prefer to pick what my tattoo will be and where it will go on my body. So I opted to pay a higher price, but I am happy with my decision. Also, it was high-quality workmanship. I have dodgy tattoos already, didn’t need another one added to the list!