Getting a bamboo tattoo in Thailand has become somewhat of a rite of passage for many backpackers and travelers.
I got my first bamboo tattoo while on the island of Koh Phangan. It was a spontaneous call (like all the best and worst tattoos usually are) and I'm glad I did it. The bamboo tattoo that I got on my chest in Thailand is my favorite of my small collection of tattoos and I would absolutely get another one.
However, bamboo tattoos differ from traditional tattoos and there are a few things I wished I had known beforehand. In this article, I'll explain everything you need to know about getting a bamboo tattoo on your travels in Southeast Asia.
My Bamboo Tattoo - The Enso Circle
I chose to get the Enso Circle tattooed on my chest for its deep roots in Zen Buddhism and its representation of the enlightenment, universe, and the void. Buddhists create this circle in one brush stroke with black ink.
I personally was drawn to the simplicity, yet at the same time, the complexity of depth that shows contentment with the imperfection and impermanence of life.
It is said that the act of drawing the Enso Circle is a way to express an inner state of being and achieve a state of mindfulness.
What is the meaning of Bamboo tattoos?
Bamboo tattoos, also known as "Sak Yant," originate from Southeast Asia, particularly in countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. The practice has been around for thousands of years and is still very popular today.
Traditionally, bamboo tattoos are created by skilled tattooists or monks using a bamboo rod, dipped in ink, and hammered lightly onto the skin using a mallet. The designs often feature ancient scripts, mystical symbols, or animals with spiritual significance.
The tattoos are considered to have magical powers that can offer protection, good luck, and strength to the wearer in Buddhist and animist traditions. Soldiers, Muay Thai fighters, and people seeking strength or protection frequently get Sak Yant tattoos in Thailand. However, the practice has become popular among backpackers and others interested in traditional tattooing as well.
Bamboo tattoo vs machine tattoo
There are a few key differences between bamboo and machine more commonly used machine tattoos. However, the main difference is the tool and method used to apply the ink to the skin.
As mentioned, bamboo tattooing involves using a sharpened bamboo rod or needle to puncture the skin and deposit ink. The tattooist manually taps the needle into the skin, creating a series of dots that form the tattoo design. This method of tattooing is often slower and more painful than machine tattooing, as it requires more precision and can take longer to complete.
Machine tattooing involves using an electrically powered tattoo machine, also known as a tattoo gun. The machine uses a cluster of needles to puncture the skin and deposit ink, creating a continuous line. The process is generally faster and less painful than bamboo tattooing, as the needles move rapidly and penetrate the skin more quickly.
Another difference between the two methods is the style and appearance of the final tattoo. Bamboo tattoos tend to result in thinner, finer lines, while machine tattooing can create bolder and more detailed designs.
Bamboo tattoo method
When I got my bamboo tattoo I was not exactly sure of the method about to be used. While I had a vague idea of the manual process, the raw, authenticity of getting the tattoo was a surprise, as I thought the experience would be closer to that of a machine gun tattoo.
As I laid back in the chair, the artist used a sharpened bamboo rod, dipped in ink, to manually tap the design into my skin. It's a slower and more precise process compared to machine tattooing, and it hurt quite a bit. As my tattoo required deep black shading, the artist repeatedly worked over the same lines constantly - while the pain is manageable, if you're getting deep, dark shades - be prepared.
At the end of the day, it was an awesome experience, and I was stoked with the final tattoo. I would do it again.
How long do bamboo tattoos last?
Ultimately, the lifespan of a bamboo tattoo varies from person to person and depends on how well it's looked after.
Proper aftercare, including keeping the tattoo clean and moisturized, avoiding prolonged sun exposure, and avoiding soaking the tattoo in water, can help prolong the life of a bamboo tattoo.
Generally, bamboo tattoos tend to last as long as machine tattoos, which can be anywhere from a few years to a lifetime.
Is getting a bamboo tattoo painful?
I can only speak from my own experience, but my bamboo tattoo was quite painful. However, I believe this was due to the repetition required for my Enso Circle tattoo, which required deep, dark shading.
My bamboo tattoo also took a very long time, which added to the pain. I was in the tattoo chair for about 6-7 hours.