I don’t have a tattoo because I am British. For us, tattoos are the mark of thieves, perverts, ne’er-do-wells; men who spend a lot of their time at sea with other men, circus freaks and long-term guests of Her Majesty. A tattoo is a mark of disgrace even the bible warns us against: Ye shall not make any cuttings on your flesh… nor print any marks upon you. God damn it! – Leviticus 19:28.
Tattoos in other cultures, not quite so hung up on their bodies, have been around for millennia. Whether spiritual, symbolic, protective or cosmetic the tattoo has been an important physical expression for peoples ranging from the Vikings to the North American Indians, from Polynesia to Peru and from New Zealand to a small, walled city in the north of Thailand.
So why is it lily white westerners come to the land of a million paddy fields with the intention of getting a bit of a tan and going on the Flight of the Gibbon, only to leave with a bloody great picture of a naked dragon-rider, wielding a flaming-spear, etched indelibly onto their back?
The simple reason is probably that people tend to lose their inhibitions when away from the routines of home, or have had a few too many Chang Classics. Getting tattoos done in Chiang Mai, by a chanting monk, in the sun-bathed courtyard of a temple is a slightly different experience to getting inked by a large, pierced man called Dave, in a Soho dive, in the London drizzle. In Thailand one can at least fantasise that one is having a spiritual experience.
For many with tattoos who choose to stay in Chiang Mai, it seems the lure of the needle is a constant, pleasant spectre. Internet message boards are crammed with those intending to return from around the world for more ink from ‘their’ tattoo artist.
Getting ‘ink done’ becomes an obsession. Not quite an addiction, like crack or Korean soap operas, but an obsession all the same.
Asking one gentleman, who has already had twelve tattoos completed whether he will have another: “there’s always room for another”, he said, eyes slightly glassy, gazing off into the middle distance.
But it’s painful isn’t it? “Oh yes. It can be. It depends where you get it”, he explained, returning from his reverie. “But there is a state of euphoria that comes with the pain. There is definitely a feeling of achievement and satisfaction afterwards, and that feeling is addictive.”
Most people seem to get tattoos which represent something meaningful in their life: a lover, someone they have lost, a phone number, time spent in a foreign country.
“I’ve thought long and hard about it. But, when my time is up in Thailand, I will definitely be leaving with a sak yant (sacred tattoo) on my back,” said one western teacher who has been in Chiang Mai for several years, has never had a tattoo, and says he will have “just the one” before he leaves.
These sacred tattoos are traditionally applied with a long, sharpened skewer. The monks, who so often apply these tattoos in and around Chiang Mai, do not do it for aesthetic reasons; these traditional designs are meant to be imbued with mystical power and are just as potent when done with invisible oils. Indeed, if a monk suspects that vanity might have anything to do with your asking him to apply ink via a sharpened stick, he might deliberately mix the Pali words of the spell up, thus making the whole thing a rather pointless, but painful, exercise.
Nakom Pratom’s Wat Bang Pra is the place to see tattoo obsession in full swing. At the end of March, the annual Wai Kru festival attracts thousands who have their bodies adorned with sak yant. Paying homage to the monks responsible, many in the crowd will enter a trance like state: leaping into the air, or writhing around in the dust, possessed by the animal spirits their tattoos represent.
The hysteria is quelled by a liberal dousing of holy water and it is then time for those needing a bit more protection from the spirit world to present some flesh to the gently chanting monks with their long metal needles.
One western aficionado told me his first tattoo – the first of many – was etched in Chiang Mai to his own design: “I got it done as a tribute to my sister, and I was hooked. The others I collected because of their spiritual meanings.” Asking him whether he considered he was obsessed he thought for a moment and said: “Whenever I’m in Tesco and hear the buzzing of the strip lights, I immediately have the urge to go back for another tattoo. Is that obsessive?”
According to another devotee, the experience of getting ink done can be close to orgasmic. Maybe just the one, discreet, naked, spear-wielding dragon-rider then…