Be sure to read Tashi Mannox’s comments and website for insight into some uses of tattoos in Tibetan medicine.
I have often been surprised that Tibet does not have any significant tattoo traditions. (At least, I am not aware of any significant traditions, if anyone reading this knows of any, please enlighten me!) India, Tibet’s neighbor to the south, has a long-standing tradition of religious tattooing. In the east, China has also practiced tattooing for millennia, both as an art form and as a criminal punishment. More close in, many of the cultures that immediately border Tibet also have significant tattoo traditions, such as the female facial tattooing practiced by the Drung in NW Yunnan. On the religious side, many Buddhist countries, such as Burma, Thailand and Japan, have very widespread traditions of religious, often protective tattooing. Furthermore, Tibetans have developed a wide array of protective practices involving amulets, written mantras and images. Given Tibet’s proclivity towards such amulets, and given that the country is more or less surrounded by cultures with significant traditional tattooing practices, I find it very surprising that Tibet lacks (or seems to lack) a significant tattoo tradition of its own.
So during my recent trip to Kham, I thought I would look and ask around, and see what I could come up with. What I did not find was any evidence of the long-term, traditional, religious tattooing that I thought should be present. Instead, I found many people with small, homemade tattoos, all of whom claimed that the tattoos held no special meaning. It was a little disappointing. Nevertheless, I will here put down some notes about what I did find, in the hopes that it will spark a conversation, and others will be able to add details that I have missed!
Figure 1: A tattooed worker at the Dergé Printing House. Note the presence of vajras in the designs.
First off, there are lots of tattoos running around the parts of Kham I visited (Dergé, Pelyül and Karndzé counties, with a trip to Serta thrown in for good measure). Both men and women, monastic and lay had them. The images themselves were often, but by no means exclusively religious (such as in figure 1). ‘Om’ (ཨོཾ) and ‘A’ (ཨ) syllables were common, as were swastikas (in this context, these are traditional Tibetan religious symbols with no relation to WWII) as well as secular designs (such as in figure 2). I also saw a particularly badly rendered eagle (the person had clearly tried to imitate a western tattoo image, without much success), a dragon or two, and numerous other designs. I did not, however, see any large scale tattooing (except for one large, well executed dragon I saw on a Chinese laborer). Instead, the designs were always small, monochromatic, and clearly hand-poked.
Figure 2: A basic, but solidly rendered tattoo.
In fact, all of the people I asked claimed to have done their own tattoo work. In other words, I didn’t come across any evidence of professional tattooers. Instead, most people seem to have done the work themselves, with a cluster of needles and some ink. Furthermore, everyone I spoke to claimed to have performed the operation in their early teens. As they described it, they would simply perform the tattoo one evening, and show up with it at school the next day. As for the reasons behind their tattoos, no-one I spoke with claimed that their images had any meaning beyond looking good. In fact, everyone I spoke with seemed somewhat embarassed by my questioning. I got the impression that these tattoos were adolescent adventures, later regretted by their owners.
Perhaps the only exception to this description are the small tattooed dots that many people had on their foreheads. These dots were fairly ubiquitous, appearing on both men and women, monastic and lay. In fact, they were by far the most common, though not the only, female tattoos I encountered. When I asked about them, however, I was again told that people performed the opperations themselves, when they were young. One woman I spoke with claimed to have tattooed herself in this way when she was six years old. As for the reason behind the mark, I was again told only that it was for aesthetic, rather than religious or symbolic reasons. In fact, everyone I spoke with played down the importance of their forehead dots, as well as other tattoos.
Given how widespread and common these tattoos are, it seems reasonable to think that they may have some broader cultural importance. If so, however, I could not discover it during in my few weeks in Kham (during which time I was mostly working on other projects). Hopefully someone will take the time to properly study this phenomena!
Do you know something about Tibetan tattooing that I missed? Please let me know! You can e-mail me directly, or use the comment form below.
 Although Indian religious tattooing is obvious to anyone who has spent time in India, and although I know I have seen some dramatic images in National Geographic, I’m not aware of any modern scholarly work on Indian religious tattoos. Likewise, a search of Jstor and Google Scholar comes up empty. They must be out there, but I’m afraid I’m not inclined to take any more time trying to find them.
 For more details on traditional Chinese tattooing practices, see Ceresa, Marco. “Written on Skin and Flesh: The Pattern of Tattoo in China – Part One: Generalities.” In Studi in Onore di Lionello Lanciotti, edited by S.M. Carletti, M. Sacchetti, and P. Santanglo, 329-340. Napoli: Institute Universitario Orientale, 1996; Reed, Carrie E. Early Chinese Tattoo. Edited by Victor Mair. Sino-Platonic Papers 103. Philadelphia: Dept. of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Pennsylvania, 2000.
 See Stéphane Gros’ forthcoming work: “Le trésor des femmes. Le tatouage facial féminin chez les Drung du Yunnan (Chine)” in B. Baptandier (éd.), Le Corps Composite.
For a good discussion of the practice in Thailand and Burma, see McCabe, Michael. Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, & Protection. Schiffer Publishing, 2002. There are many books on Japanese tattooing, by many are long on pictures and short on text. Try: Buruma, Ian. Japanese Tattoo. Weatherhill, 1989; Kitamura, Takahiro, and Katie M. Kitamura. Tattoos of the Floating World: Ukiyo-E Motifs in Japanese Tattoo. KIT Publishers, 2003; McCabe, Michael. Japanese Tattooing Now!: Memory And Transition, Classic Horimono To The New One Point Style. Schiffer Publishing, 2004.