TATTOOS IN THAI SOCIETY
I "Googled" a number of key words together with the words: "Thailand", "Tattoo", "Culture", "Teachers" & "Practice". The following pages contain extracts from the many websites resulting from that search.
......"Although the practice has acquired a certain stigma in the modern age, tattoos are typically still popular among young male labourers and other manual workers, or amongst people such as boxers soldiers and policemen"
......."Tattooed women in Thailand are heavily stereotyped and there is also social stigma attached to them. It is left unsaid but commonly understood that only criminals, prostitutes, or homosexual women have tattoos. Tattoos are associated with prisoners or criminal gangs".
......"If you have too many of them in too visible a place you may still have problems landing a professional job".
This may seem a very unjust situation or even an inaccurate stereotype, but the views of "Mainstream Thais" are influenced by their history and their own unique culture.
......."In Thai culture tattoos are not considered to be "body art" or "fashion statements". They are acquired by a number of groups on the "fringes" of mainstream Thai society
So, what Thai people usually get Tattoos?
4. Sex workers
5. Criminal gangs
6. Fashion Statements
Some young people making "western style" fashion statements. (not a very wise thing to do if a person wishes to progress in polite Thai society)
PRISONERS .."One man, whose entire body is covered in tattoos, has spent three terms in juvenile detention centres for drug abuse. He's also been locked up as an adult".
"I've had tattoos since I first went into Baan Karuna, a juvenile detention centre. When we had nothing to do, we'd get inked. They are cool". said the man, who is now 25. "Sometimes I'd get a tattoo because I felt stressed."
......"When he went to adult prison, there was no space left on his body for any more tattoos. He's since been released but with little education, he left school after Grade 4, he has not been able to find work".
"It's a vicious cycle. He'll go back to selling drugs as Thai society generally doesn't accept people that are covered in tattoos as reliable employees," says Pleanjai Taekasem, head of the Criminology Research and Development Centre of the Department of Corrections. Pleanjai recently completed a study of prisoners' tattoos and the problems of social acceptance. The research, which was supported by the Thailand Research Fund was conducted on 420 tattooed prisoners nationwide.
........"Half of the prisoners had their first tattoos in prisons, even though tattooing is prohibited, and 50 per cent reported getting their first tattoos between the ages of 15 and 20, with three in 10 getting inked below the age of 15. The most popular prints include dragons, carp fish, and modern graphics and the areas most popular for being inked are the torso, shoulders, hands, arms and legs. Sewing needles, cooking oils, and ballpoint pen inks are among the usual tools".
......."The main reasons the prisoners gave for wanting a tattoo were that the body art is beautiful and fashionable and a way of releasing stress. None cited the so-called traditional Thai belief that tattoos can guard against weapons and bad luck".
WARRIORS........"People, such as boxers, soldiers and policemen, who see themselves more than usually exposed to physical risk are sometimes tattooed. The practice of marking the skin to a greater or lesser extent with tattoos has been widespread among the Thais for centuries. The difference is not one of aesthetic taste; it is indicative rather of a fundamental distinction. Tattoos in primitive Thai culture are considered magical, in that they serve the express purpose of providing supernatural protection. The majority of people who are tattooed believe they acquire two types of strength:
Kwam yu yong kong kraphan and
The first is physical invulnerability from weapons, with tattoos supposedly preventing the skin from being punctured by knives or bullets. The second is the power to attract admiration and love, the tattooed being able to exert a positive influence over others".
........."Thai soldiers have covered their bodies in protective tattoos called Sak Yant. Today, the ancient ritual is booming and thousands of people in Thailand and beyond are flocking to master artists to have the powerful designs inked on their bodies. The Wat Bang Phra Buddhist temple, about 30 miles west of Bangkok, is one of the most highly esteemed locations for Sak Yant. Dozens of monks and master artists, who have spend years perfecting the art, can be found there. A tattoo from this temple, they say, can protect them from danger or even death. Chakkrapad Romkaew, one of the devotees, says that his first tattoo altered his outlook on the world, made him braver and encouraged him to become a soldier. His back is covered in elaborate geometric patterns and Buddhist prayers. In a week, he's being sent to the south of Thailand as part of an anti-terrorist squad. He wants to get another tattoo so, he says, he will be more fully protected before the bullets begin to fly. "There are so many dangers waiting down there," he says. "Before I got a tattoo, I never wanted to be a soldier. But when they got into my skin, my desire to be a soldier got stronger."
ANIMISTS.......Spirits and Thai tattoos are so entwined that they are practically inseparable. Although Buddhism permeates Thailand's society, there is an even deeper belief in Animism that is woven into the very fabric of the culture. Animism is all about the union of spirit and matter - there is no separation of the body from the soul, and all forms of life have their own personal soul. People, animals, insects, plants are all imbued with a personal life force that is indestructible. Animism is not tied strictly to living things either. This belief system also maintains that material objects have their own souls that have some bearing on their destiny. The average believer would then encounter countless souls as he goes about his daily life; some good, some evil and some indifferent. How does this relate to tattoos? .. In primitive Thai tradition, getting a tattoo is a deeply spiritual experience, just as it can be for many people the world over. However, a genuine Thai tattoo received from one of the Buddhist monks is believed to act as an amulet that carries powers of its own. Believers seek these tattoos as a form of gaining strength and protection from the spiritual realm, and, to some degree, a bit of control over it. As the monks work away at the flesh, they pray over the tattoos they are creating, instilling each design with the qualities traditionally associated with it. A tattoo of a particular god might gain that god's favor, protection and guidance over the wearer's life. The tattoo of an animal like a tiger might protect the person wearing it from evil and physical harm, for example".
SEX WORKERS...........Here I quote from a number of Thai forums discussing tattooed women
.."If she has tattoos then she may not necessarily be a bar-girl, but she worked in the pay-for-play industry in some fashion. Maybe she was a masseuse or fish-bowl girl, served drinks in a bar or even worked as a freelancer, but she was connected in some way with bar-girls if she has a tattoo "
"Thai women are still not very 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 it is looked down on by their families, bosses and by prospective husbands. I have two Thai female friends who had to get tattoos removed by laser, because the company they wanted to work for wouldn't employ them if tattooed
CRIMINAL GANGS .In the present day, we now have a twist on that same tradition with the tattooing of members of criminal gangs. Who have symbols that represent which gang they belong to, or to identify there status in the gang........"
"........The decoration of tattoos is now a big trend among teenagers that can range from small butterflies for girls and macho styles for the boys. The Thai tattoo has become big business and the trend is something similar to other fashion accessories, only perhaps a little more personal "
" Criminal tattoos are in fashion among gang members and criminals. Through tattoos marked over their bodies, criminals show their allegiance to their respective gangs. It is interesting to note that many times criminal tattoos record the wearer's personal skills, specialties, accomplishments and convictions. Certain criminal tattoos have developed recognized coded meanings .."
SOME YOUNG PEOPLE MAKING "WESTERN STYLE" FASHION STATEMENTS........"There are some young people who want to make a "western style" fashion statement. They have nothing to do with any of the former examples. This is the way of many young people world-wide. However, it will take a long time before such statements get anywhere near mainstream Thai society and those with such tattoos will always be stereotyped by others as part of the former groups".
FINAL NOTE I asked a number of Thai managers and human resource executives in professional occupations if they would employ a worker with a tattoo. The answer was always in the negative. Some more enlightened employers said that there was nothing wrong if someone wanted to have a tattoo .but it was inappropriate for their businesses. They could not employ them as it would tarnish the company image and clients would not trust the company anymore.
I directed the same question to school principals and head teachers who informed me that the situation had never arisen in their schools. Pressed further they said that educated Thais don't get tattooed, so none would apply who had visible tattoos. Tattooing was for the superstitious and uneducated people with no real authority or power in themselves. I pressed again and asked if they would employ a western teacher who displayed tattoos on their body. The reply was very Thai. They all said that a tattooed educator was a poor example to children and the signal it sent to the students was counter to what the school wanted to promote. Tattooed teachers would command little respect in the eyes of Thai parents and colleagues alike, as they had diminished themselves. Their work and progress in the school would be impaired.
........."Teachers cannot wear body piercing ornaments, other than small ear-rings for female teachers. Any forms of body art (i.e. tattoos) also have to be covered up".