Tibetan Tattoos

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.[1] In the east, China has also practiced tattooing for millennia, both as an art form and as a criminal punishment.[2] 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.[3] On the religious side, many Buddhist countries, such as Burma, Thailand and Japan, have very widespread traditions of religious, often protective tattooing.[4] 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.

Notes:
_____________________________________

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4]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.

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8 thoughts on “Tibetan Tattoos

  1. Interesting to read your article.. as it has been a query of mine for many years, which has lead me to some amount of investigation to how much of a tattoo tradition there is in Tibet, though similarly, not too much discovered.

    Through my work as a contemporary Tibetan Calligraphy artist, has lead me to be very much involved with a budding and increasingly popular ‘Tibetan tattoo’ movement, however, very much based in the West, it has given birth to interest of a previous tattoo tradition in Tibet.

    There is now a Tibetan working as a tattooist in Dharamsala.

    Tibetan iconography and its beautiful calligraphy gives a great wealth of potential material for tattooing, which has only recently been appreciated in the West, not only for its beauty but the deeper meaning that it may symbolize.
    It is agreeably surprising that this artistic wealth had not already established as a strong tattoo tradition in Tibetan, as it has famously in Japan.

    However It seems that historically there was a small tattoo tradition in Tibet, but not as the Western esthetic relationship with tattoos, but applied more for medical or spiritual reasons.

    Indeed one of my teachers, an old Tibetan Lama from Kham, had a small swastika tattooed on his hand, which he told me was over a particular pressure point to address balance and healing.

    I have touched on this subject of the tattoo tradition in Tibet here:
    http://www.inkessential.com/ornamental.html

    Here is also an insight into a Tibetan ex-prisoner who talks of his tattoos:

    http://www.shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=17003

    with warm regards,

    Tashi

    1. Thanks very much for your great comments and links. The medical use is one that had not occurred to me, and I will definitely keep it in mind. I’m a little doubtful about the extent of the spiritual tradition, however. All of the Tibetans I spoke to (in Tibetan, in case you’re wondering) denied any such meaning to their tattoos, even those that were obvious religious symbols. Given how open most Tibetans are to discussing these ideas (I’ve had several conversations about the use of amulets, for example), it seems like people would be willing to discuss the religious meaning of their tattoos, if they felt there was any. That’s not to say that no Tibetans attach religious significance to their tattoos, just that my own limited experience with this indicates that the reasons Tibetans tattoo are more aesthetic than spiritual. I wish I had asked about medical reasons while I was in Kham, however, as that’s a really interesting point to pursue.

      Thanks again for the great comments, and let’s keep in touch. The calligraphy is beautiful, by the way.

  2. A very interesting article & comment – thank you. I have little to add after researching this subject myself – all I can say is that a Tibetan friend living in Dharamsala said his Buddhist teacher warns not to get tattooed as it effects the bodies karma into the next life. Which, to me, makes a lot of sense. He warned me not to get another tattoo – I told him I wasn’t very good at being told what to do – we both laughed. Personally, I have Om nama shivaya tattooed on me – it is in Sanskrit – I wrote it myself & it was copied 3x on my wrist in a geru/orange colour. I think it is all I need but after seeing Tashi’s work I’m thinking again. Thanks kindly, Katie.

  3. Have been in Tibet a few times and noticed that tattoos are very rare there. On a trip to Tibet this summer I asked several people about tattoos and got the same response. they are rare because…. if you want to have your body disposed of through ‘sky burial’ (where bodies are fed to the birds) the monks first cut off any part of your skin that has a tattoo on it, and burn it, before the corpse can be fed to the birds… just saying guys…so please lets not put words into the mouths of Tibetans… tattoos are rare there, and not well accepted

    1. Thanks for the comments Johan, the question of tattooing interfering with sky-burial rites is interesting, and strikes me as highly unusual and definitely worth pursuing. Could you let me know what part of Tibet you were in when you heard this? As I’m sure you know Tibetan cultural and social mores vary widely from region to region, and often from valley to valley. I can assure you I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth. Tattoos may have been infrequent where you were, but in the Dergé region of Kham where I was this summer, there were quite a few, especially among the younger generation, as I said in the original post (please see the photos for confirmation). On previous visits, I’ve also seen quite a few tattooed people walking around Lhasa, though I never discussed the practice with anyone there.

  4. Dear Geoff,

    There was a slightly warm discussion on this very subject awhile back at this Yahoo discussion group

    Tibetan-English_Dictionary-User_group@yahoogroups.com

    I think you have to hav a Yahoo account and sign up for the group in order to see the older emails. I forgot what the date would have been. One thing that I mentioned in this discussion is a brief but anyway significant bit about tattoos by the famous Mi-pham dating to around the turn of the 20th century. It’s in his Bzo-rig (art & craft etc.) text.

    Cheers!
    Dan

    1. Many thanks for the Mipham tip, I will be looking that up just as soon as I find a few spare minutes….. perhaps by Christmas (next year, that is).

  5. I remember talking about this with you last summer, so here’s my two cents!
    My boyfriend, who is from Yulshul, was one of those self-tattooing youngsters. He said most boys in his village did this to themselves in late middle school. Boys did it because if you DIDN’T do it you weren’t considered very manly. He has some pictures and a few words (in Chinese) tattooed in blue ink on his hands. He really dislikes them now, especially since they’re in Chinese, which he didn’t even teach himself until after middle school. He said he barely knew what those characters meant at the time of inking, but since every manly middle school student was doing it…well, you know, Khampa’i posar-s will be Khampa’i posar-s. But you’d better bet he didn’t show them to his parents until a few years later. Now he talks about getting them removed after grad school. To him they represent a mistake he made when he was young, before he had to deal with confronting issues of Tibetan language and identity. There’s no way he would get a tattoo now, but if he did it would be in Tibetan and would probably have religious significance.
    Such non-religious tattoos as knives, characters, etc. seem to be clearly of Chinese influence, because younger people were following a trend of tattooing characters on their hands and upper arms without much regard for the meaning of the pictures or characters.
    Clearly these have no religious significance – I would propose they and other recent forms of tattooing in Kham are primarily of social significance and, even if written in Tibetan, only secondarily motivated by religious beliefs. You don’t see any Rinpoche-s running around getting tattoos. Of course, that being said, if a Tibetan Buddhist gives themselves an “Om mani padme hum” tattoo it clearly has religious meaning for them. But maybe the advent of tattoing in general in these areas can be ascribed to modern Chinese influence, with Indian forms such as the third-eye tattoo (which is what I think of it as) possibly being a contribution from Tibetans who have visited exile communities.

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