To many young people in modern societies, tattooing is a social signal for having come of age. To them, a tattoo displays strength, bravery and defiance. Broadly, reasons for tattooing may be classified as follows:
Some people tattoo a foreign landmark or emblem on themselves to remember a trip that has as special significance in their lives. Many soldiers who fought the Vietnam War had tattoos which reminded them of their tour of duty.
Some people get tattoos done to remember a deceased member of the family. These tattoos can vary from simple initials of the person to elaborate portraits that almost look almost photographic.
Sado-masochism & Self-Mutilation
Self-mutilation is described as the addictive, destructive tendency of people affected by it to cope with anxiety, depression, frustration and emotional pain by cutting, burning, hitting and even strangling themselves.
It may seem bizarre and shocking, but for some people, such acts may cause the body to release beta endorphins -hormones which have similar actions as the addictive drug, morphine.
According to various sources, 64-75% of people who report that they self-injure are females. Other researchers postulate that males are equally likely to self-injure but seeking attention is seldom a motive for them. Hence, these cases are under-reported. Famous personalities like Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and the late Princess Diana have been known to cut themselves and engage in masochistic activities.
Broadcast journalist Julia Baird even went to the extent of labelling cosmetic surgery as a form of “normalised” self-mutilation. While it is understandable that some plastic surgery patients have pre-existing histories of depression, many perfectly normal men and women today go under the knife to attain better job prospects.
Nevertheless, it’s undeniable that there is at least some masochistic element associated with tattooing and piercing. Some writers believe that just as body builders endure pain and discomfort to sculpt their bodies to be more muscular, people who tattoo or pierce their bodies enjoy the painful process of body modification to achieve artistic results.
To some individuals, significant good or bad events may make them tattoo themselves. Examples include climbing a big peak, surviving a disaster or getting out of prison with a strong determination to start life anew.
For some, losing a partner or closing down a business or company are examples of life-changing experiences that may be reason enough for them to tattoo themselves to remind them either of a glorious, happy past or a situation they would rather not return to for the rest of their lives.
Tattoos go beyond what funky hairdos and jewellery can do. Some people tattoo a normally covered piece on their backs because they love to admire themselves in the mirror. Some seek to identify with their culture, clan or fraternity. It can also be used as a sign of loyalty. They also see it as a way to show bond and exclusivity.
People who tattoo themselves for such reasons are a total opposite from those who indulge in self-injury as mentioned previously. Unlike those who injury themselves, these people admire their own tattoos even though they may not expose it in public.
People who injure themselves because of low self-esteem or depression do not admire their scars. Experts who think tattooed people are all hollow and insecure should talk to these folks.
Chinese gang tattoos have already been dealt with under history of tattoos in Chinese societies. Not to be outdone by the Chinese, the Japanese Yakuza are also very well known for their tattoos.
Gangster tattooing in Japan is believed to have evolved from criminal tattooing. To hide their past crimes, criminals covered up their penal markings with larger pieces of art. Along with oppressed peasants and other misfits, these people created a subculture called the Yakuza. Many believe that they follow a code of honour not very different from that of the samurai. Tattooing was a way to show loyalty towards the underdogs and defiance towards the authorities.
Not everyone saw the honourable side of the Yakuza. The Chinese classic The Water Margin水浒传was translated into Suikoden in Japanese and it resonated with many oppressed Japanese commoners who idolised the tattooed outlaws fighting against a corrupt government. Kuniyoshi (1798- 1861) was an artist who devoted his life to the painting and making of printing blocks of the 108 outlaws in The Water Margin. Kuniyoshi was eventually charged in court for his subversive works.
It is no longer a crime to carve or tattoo “subversive elements” in Japan and for years, the art has been allowed to flourish. Even though modern Japanese tattoos have nothing to do with the mafia, Japanese high society still frowns on tattoos as unbecoming of respectable individuals. In recent years, some Japanese leaders had gone on “witch hunts” and crackdowns on tattoos have occurred in various organisations all over Japan. Few Japanese celebrities would flaunt their tattoos.
Prison tattoos are tattoos done on inmates by inmates using improvised equipment like pens and paperclips. These tattoos are usually done without the approval of the authorities.
One of the most common criminal tattoos is the teardrop underneath the eye. The most widely accepted meaning of the teardrop is the wearer has killed someone. Sometimes, it can also mean that a loved one had passed away during the incarceration of the wearer of the tattoo. Teardrop or more commonly, cobwebs, clock with no hands would often symbolise a lengthy term in prison.
An unfilled teardrop can mean that the wearer has committed an attempted murder, or alternatively, that a close friend was killed and the wearer is seeking revenge.
Another common prison tattoo is the acronym ACAB which stands for All Cops Are Bastards.
Because of the lack of proper equipment, there is a high risk of cross infection. Some prison authorities have allowed proper tattoo shops to be set up in prisons, but most prisoners can’t afford them.
Doctors sometimes want an inconspicuous permanent marking to indicate a part of the body that is indicated for radiotherapy.
Vital medical information like pre-existing conditions, may also be tattooed on the person’s body so that in case of an emergency where the person is unconscious, rescuers can treat him appropriately. Most of us would carry cards, wear tags or bracelets.
Vitiligo is a skin condition that results in the loss of pigment. Some people have incorporated these light patches into a tattoo design. Others who don’t want that sort of tattoos have inks resembling their normal skin colour tattooed into the patches that had lost their natural pigment. It may be impossible to get a perfect match, but results may still be satisfactory.
Sometimes, tattoos are placed over surgical scars to make them more presentable. Women who have undergone tummy tucks may place a tattoo on their lower abdomen to hide the scar which appears as a horizontal line.
In the case of Thai/Singaporean girl Fon who had a history of self-injury, she tattooed her thigh to hide the scars she got from cutting herself.
Isn’t a tattoo more conspicuous than the scars? Fon shrugs her shoulders, but there is a good explanation for that. Scars are telling. Tattoos don’t require that much explanation.
Religious tattoos can come in the form of a crucified Jesus on the back of a devotee. The pain from the tattooing process shows the wearer’s faith and keenness to experience Jesus’ pain.
The Philippines has the largest number of Catholics in Asia. Not surprisingly, Jesus is the most common religious tattoo in the country. However, not everyone tattoos a crucified Jesus on his back. Some tattoo on their shoulders. Some women even tattoo the religious symbol on their hips!
Tattoos with religious overtones are seldom used by Muslims and orthodox Christians. In most parts of India and Nepal, Hindu ascetics smear their bodies with ash and clay while most laypeople just place a bindi on their foreheads.
However, anyone who has heard of Thaipusam will be aware that piercings – albeit temporary ones, are practised as a religious ritual in Hindu festivals in Tamil Nadu, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. Devotees would bear a kavadi, a 30kg steel structure decorated with flowers and peacock features. It is an offering to Lord Murugan.
Though permanent tattoos are not common amongst Hindus, many Western converts do show their devotion by tattooing images of Hindu deities on their bodies. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see Indians follow their Western counterparts.
The Church of Body Modification in the USA practices various types of body modification, such as piercings, tattoos, scarification, corsetry, hook pulling, reconstructive and cosmetic surgery, fasting, and fire-walking. It states that anything that pushes the flesh to its limits can be included in their list of rituals. The end goal is to live spiritually complete lives. Devotees do not worship any god or gods and it has become debatable whether they should be called a church at all. Some have argued that the establishment of church status was a ploy to get protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Thai Buddhism is perhaps one of the few major religions in the world that actively advocates tattooing. An entire chapter may be written on sak yant.
Thai White Magic – Sak Yant
Indeed, in places like Thailand, traditional tattoos may have supernatural functions. Commonly known as “temple tattoos”, these distinctive tattoos can be found on Thais from all walks of life and they serve different functions.
For the more generic tattoos, the most common part of the body to receive sak yant is the upper back. This is followed by the chest, then the limbs.
Many Thai soldiers, policemen, muay Thai fighters, truck drivers and others whose course of work often puts them at mortal risk seek a kru sak (tattoo master) to tattoo what is best understood as a protective spell on their bodies.
Such “magical” tattoos are also done to protect a wrongdoer from revenge. On a lighter note, managers and office workers get them to help with promotions and romantic charisma.
A surprising number of Thai women believe that only a magical sak yant done on the inner thigh can help them seduce the man/men of their dreams.
Others want their husbands to stay away from other women – common worry amongst Thai women. Not surprisingly, masters who are well known for such tattoos have an 80% female following. In these sessions, the master would first go into a trance, often wearing a tiger-stripe outfit and a tiger’s mask representing the spirit that possesses him. The woman lifts her skirt and the tattooing is quickly done. Once completed, the master would blow on the tattoo and bless it. The masters must work fast as there is usually a long queue of anxious women waiting to be tattooed!
The tattoo master or kru sak is always male. Thais believe that the magical power of a kru sak can only be acquired by a man. Such powers can only be learned through a long apprenticeship under a monk or a layperson believed to possess such powers.
Although all sak yant have magical or religious themes, monks are generally more restricted with regards to the type of themes they can do. For example, aggressive themes like victory over opponents or enemies are usually only done by kru sak who are laymen. Even though they are not monks, kru sak are often held to high moral standards. They are usually dressed in white and observe a strict code of conduct. Accomplished and revered masters are addressed with the honorific title of Ajahn.
A responsible Ajahn would remind any seeker that the magical powers of the tattoo will only work if the seeker accepts and adheres to Buddhist principles. Thus, the relationship between tattoo master and disciple is not just one of customer and service provider. It actually becomes a Buddhist master and disciple relationship.
All tattoo sessions with a kru sak begins with a discussion on the yant that the seeker wants. The seeker then pays respect to an altar which may hold a variety of images including the Buddha, various Hindu deities, royalty, deceased tattoo masters etc. Offerings often include flowers, candles, cigarettes and a cash donation to be kept by the tattoo master. The offerings are meant for protection from the spirits during the tattooing process. For the bigger and more elaborate pieces, pieces of meat or even a pig’s head are offered to the spirits.
Unlike most modern studio settings, sak yant is always performed manually with the master tapping on the skin with long and relatively heavy needles. It’s more the weight of the needle rather than the force of the master’s hands that breaks the skin. All materials used in sak yant, from needles to ink (sak merk) are considered sacred and treated to orthodox or unorthodox chants and seats on the altar.
While the magic of sak yant sounds cool, Thai masters seldom use disposable needles. Even when most masters today use commercially available inks to save time, they still find it imperative to include additives to manifest their individual style. Many old school masters still use homemade inks derived from charcoal, herbs, oil and other “secret ingredients”. It has been rumoured that some of these secret ingredients include substances harvested from temple mortuaries.
While many quarters have insisted that no one has ever contracted HIV infections from sak yant, it should be noted that microscopic skin particles cannot be effectively removed from tattoo needles. Soaking the needles in alcohol may kill most of the bacteria, but will not eliminate hepatitis viruses.
Yant Ha Taew & Angeline Jolie
Just as the island of Phuket was relatively unknown until the James Bond movie Man With The Golden Gun was shot there, sak yant, an ancient practice that goes back more than a thousand years, was propelled onto the international stage only when American actress Angelina Jolie had a sak yant done on her left shoulder.
Angelina Jolie’s first temple tattoo was done in 2003. It was a yant ha taew – 5 rows of Khmer script which was meant to protect her from enemies, help her accumulate wealth and preserve her beauty.
Angelina Jolie’s career took off after that, perhaps more because of the sensation surrounding the exotic tattoo than anything else. Anyway, she returned the next year to have a Bengal tiger tattooed on her lower back.
The tattoo master was someone known as Ajahn Noo, a former hooligan who survived many gang fights on the streets because of his possession wicha or magical powers as the Thais know it. Ajahn Noo became a monk and started practicing his craft. Legends of his protective yant spread far and wide. He disrobed when his family needed financial support.
Ajahn Noo was already a renowned tattoo master in Thailand before he met Angelina Jolie, having tattooed high ranking individuals in the police and military, as well as some well-known local actors. However, it was Angelina Jolie’s yant ha taew that made Ajahn Noo the most sought after tattoo master in Thailand. The tattoo master still claims that he had no idea who she was when she visited him.
However, according to Ajahn Noo himself, Jolie asked him to tattoo her in her hotel room and he agreed. He did not charge her any fees on condition that Thai reporters be allowed to document the procedure which lasted 15 minutes.
That simple yant ha taew shot Ajahn Noo to fame with literally thousands of disciples, many of whom were Thai celebrities. Ajahn Noo moved out of his shanty hut behind a monastery and built a much larger place. He also brought in new assistants. Already a millionaire, he currently commands some of the highest fees in Thailand.
In 2004, just one year after her ha taew, Angelina Jolie looked Ajahn Noo up again to have a second tattoo. This time, it was a Bengal tiger on her lower back.
This time round, Angelina Jolie insisted on no media coverage during the process and she paid him.
Angelina Jolie’s sak yant created not just awareness but also respect for the art form amongst Westernetrs. The ha taew is now one of the most popular tattoos amongst female entertainers in both the East and the West. While many Thais and non-Thais believe that there is really magic in these tattoos, most educated monks believe that they are merely walking placebos and other scientifically explainable instances of “mind over matter”.
Closet Rebels & Hidden Tattoos
Walk down Shenton Way or Raffles Place during the heat of the day and you’ll see hordes of prim and proper office workers waiting for the traffic lights to change, politely queuing for food, conversing in jargon-filled English and Singlish.
Shirts, ties, heels, designer dresses and laptop bags, this is a white collar territory. But very often, when a blouse or dress is pulled aside, when loud heels draw your attention to the ankles of their owners, you may spot a tattoo, an incongruent image or stain if you will, on a proverbial white collar.
Why do it? Why hide it after doing it? There is often a story behind a tattoo. But for now, let’s take a closer look at the repressed Singaporean. As tattooing becomes more popular, it has become a way of expression.
Be it anger, frustration or just a statement, Shenton Way and Raffles Place executives are seeing tattooing as a way to express themselves secretly.
Jane is a 27-year-old executive in an MNC. She hates her job, hates her boss and doesn’t enjoy dealing with any of her company’s clients. She can’t quit her job as she has a mortgage to service and a car loan to repay. She goes clubbing and she drinks herself silly sometimes, but she instead of pinning her boss’s photo on the wall and throw darts at it, she chooses to tattoo her back.
The painful process distracts her from the pain in her work and every time she looks at her back in the bathroom mirror, she smiles, knowing that her boss would hate it or forbid it, but he doesn’t know about it. It’s her way of cheating on her tormentors and getting away with it.
Not every executive or professional who tattoos himself or herself and keeps the image hidden has the same reason for getting inked, but I suspect that though vanity plays a part, some see it as a way of getting back at the system which frowns upon tattoos.