Ancient Tattoos and Tattoo Practices in Southeast Asia


Tattooing has been an important part of many human cultures for centuries. As far back as we can imagine, humans have been marking cave walls and other structures. Whether to mark a sacred or spiritual site of significance or to draw upon sympathetic magic for a successful hunting expedition, humans have an innate need to create meaning through symbols. In this context, the tattoo is a symbol and has powerful meaning to many cultures.

The Ancient Meaning of Tattoos

Though many tattoo traditions in Southeast Asia are fast disappearing or are under threat, it should always be clear that our modern day tattoos owe a lot to these ancient practices. If you love tattoos and want to learn about their history and meaning, Southeast Asia is a great place to start.

For almost all Southeast Asian nations, tattooing is a significant ritual event that is imbued with meaning. Whatever a tattoo means to us today, the ancient tattoos of this region of the world typically have the following meanings:

Spiritual Protection

There is a long tradition of ancestor worship and spirit magic in many areas of Southeast Asia. Specific tattoos are intended to offer protection from bad or evil spirits. Some tattoos are also intended to offer protection from illness.

Mystical Geometry

Yantra is a type of sacred geometric pattern that is used as a focus during meditation in the Buddhist and Hindu spiritual traditions. These patterns can be incredibly fascinating to look at, and many of them are tied to sacred geometry and are believed to possess magic.

Buddhist Tattoos

Buddhists believe that life is suffering, punctuated by brief episodes of joy. The state of Nirvana is achieved when we have victory over our suffering and move beyond it. In the Buddhist sacred tradition, tattoos are used to represent the teaching of Buddha and to remind us that our goal is to achieve a state of Nirvana.

Should You Get One of These Tattoos?

For many people, a tattoo is simply a form of bodily decoration and it may not have much meaning beyond that. For those of us who crave meaning in what seems like a meaningless modern world, the lure of an ancient tattooing tradition in a place like Thailand is profound and powerful.

To some of us, tattoos are about much more than expressing ourselves or decorating our bodies. They form a key part of our identity as a human being and are inextricably tied to our innermost desires and philosophies. They are also appealing to those who find deep meaning in sacred and spiritual traditions.

In this context, here are some good reasons to seek out a traditional tattoo that has roots in the ancient past:

Cultural Awareness

There’s no doubting that modern tattooing would be nowhere without such ancient tattooing traditions. In this sense, exploring the world of ancient tattoos can be a culturally distinct experience that transports us to both another time and place.

Of course, those who can trace their heritage to Southeast Asia may feel a deep cultural and spiritual connection and want to get a traditional tattoo to express this. This is also a profound way to keep ancient tattooing traditions alive.

For example, The Batok traditional tapping tattoo in the Philippines is practiced by a traditional Kalinga tattoo artist called a Mambabatok. This form of traditional tattooing is performed by a woman called Whang-Od who was born in 1917. That makes her over one hundred years old. She still does tapping tattoos in this sacred tradition that is over a thousand years old.

Sadly, Kalinga tattooing in this tradition is a dying art form, and it is believed that Whang-Od is the last of her kind. Unlike modern tattoos, these tapping tattoos are applied with a mix of charcoal and water as the ink, which is fixed beneath the skin using a sharp stick and a wooden block as the hammer. It may be more painful than modern methods, but there is nowhere else where you can get such a tattoo.

The Search for Meaning

Our modern world often lacks meaning. Our lives so often are devoid of meaningful rituals and sacred traditions that we go in search of them in places like Southeast Asia, where tattoos hold profound meaning for so many cultures.

Immersing oneself for a time in any one of these countries may result in a much deeper connection to the local spiritual traditions and thus gaining a much deeper connection to one’s own spirit. Having a traditional tattoo done may just be the start of a new personal journey.

Sak Yant Tattooing in Thailand

As mentioned earlier, Yantra is a mystical geometry that is common in Buddhism and other similar religions in Southeast Asia. Many of them are thought to be imbued with magical powers and confer health, protection, and well-being. The Yantra are also used as aids in meditation.

Sak Yant is a Thai tattooing tradition that uses both Yantra and the ancient Khmer language of Pali Sanskrit. This tattoo tradition is estimated to be between one and two thousand years old. It is thus a strong cultural tradition in Thailand, and even Hollywood actors like Brooke Shields have sought out Sak Yant masters to inscribe them.

If you seek to have Sak Yant, it’s important to find a master who is connected to this cultural tradition. Most importantly, Sak Yant is extremely important to Thai people, and even people in countries like Myanmar and Cambodia. Therefore, Thai people do not always take kindly to foreigners having Sak Yant, especially on sacred parts of the body, such as the head.

Moreover, images of Buddha are to be treated appropriately and not to be used as display pieces to reinforce the ego. Ideally, traditional Thai tattoos should be sought with great respect from Sak Yant masters who follow strict placement guidelines. This, of course, may not apply to Thai people who are seeking to reconnect with their own cultural roots and traditions.

Tattoos in the Buddhist Tradition

Tattooing is also traditional in Dharmic religions such as Buddhism. The Yantra are common tattoos, but there are also other tattoo forms, including the following:

The Lotus Flower

The Lotus is an important and sacred symbol in Buddhism, and it generally means purity. When tattooed, the color of the Lotus has specific meaning, such as the following:

  • White Lotus blossoms symbolize purity of body and mind
  • Pink Lotus blossoms symbolize Buddha
  • Blue Lotus blossoms represent victory over physical yearnings and wisdom
  • Red Lotus blossoms symbolize a pure heart

Dharma Wheels

The Wheel of Dharma commonly represents the teachings of Buddha, or the Eightfold Noble Path. Each of the eight spokes of the wheel refers to one of the eight teachings: Correct Speech, Correct Thought, Correct Livelihood, Correct Actions, Correct Effort, Correct Understanding, Correct Concentration, and Correct Mindfulness.

Conclusion

Tattooing in South East Asia has a long and rich history. It is tied to sacred traditions and cultural identity, and for this reason, many people in the modern world are finding new meaning and connection to these long-established traditions. In this sense, ancient tattooing traditions of this sort can still have a profound impact.

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