I recently saw a woman in a coffee shop with om mani padme hum tattooed on her ankle (for more on this mantra, see my previous post here). There was nothing wrong with the tattoo, per se, but the placement is questionable. In many places in Asia the ground is considered dirty and ritually unclean. (This is especially true in India and Southeast Asia, but also applies in Tibet and other Buddhist areas.) Respected objects, therefore, are rarely placed on the ground, or even on low tables. Shrines and sacred images are often the highest objects in a room. The same applies to body parts, where anything below the waist is generally considered unclean or polluting. Particularly feet. Which makes feet not the best place to tattoo sacred symbols like the maṇi.
Some years ago in Nepal, I remember listening to one young woman ask a lama for help writing out the Kālacakra mantra, which she wanted to get tattooed on her foot. The lama explained that while it was fine to tattoo the mantra, she should get it done on another part of the body, preferably above the waist. Similarly, while Thailand has a long tradition of Buddhist tattooing (often performed by monks), the legs and feet are usually reserved for non-religious tattoos.
Of course, if you live in the US or Western Europe, you may not care too much about what Indian or Tibetan Buddhists consider inappropriate. But if you’re tattooing a Buddhist symbol, it seems like you should at least take note of how it would be traditionally used. So before you go and get that beautiful Tibetan mantra tattooed, it might be worth doing a little research into which body parts are, or are not, appropriate.
This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.
Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.
I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years. The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.
For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.
For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.
A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.
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!
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.
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.