In Search of Magic Ink: Part One When I was asked by the big boss to write a piece on bamboo tattooing, I ended up at a bar, with a pirate, drinking a tequila shake, wondering if that was what he had in mind. How I got there was unexpected, but certainly not unwelcome. Let me start from the beginning...
As for how the pirate comes into the story, well, that’s just Mr. Long. He certainly doesn’t aim to emulate a pirate, but his luscious locks and affinity for headscarves might indicate otherwise. If Jack Sparrow were Thai, he’d be Mr. Long. It’s fitting that he was a barber in Bangkok for almost 30 years, which explains the great care he gives his tresses. He eventually gave up barber-dom and settled in Ao Nang with his family, opening up what is now known as Mr. Long’s. As his wife holds down the kitchen, his son Zeff and his best friends since primary school work alongside each other everyday. Not a bad set up.
BAMBOO TATTOOING is undoubtedly popular in Southeast Asia, and Thailand remains one the most famous places in the world to have them done. The art is believed to have originated over 3000 years ago, during the Khmer period. One can appreciate the organic quality of using an ancient method in modern times, in addition to preserving a cultural experience. But perhaps unbeknownst to most visitors, its popularity runs much deeper than skin, paralleled with the historic tradition of Sak Yant.
Mr. Long and his family are a constant reminder of what I love about Thailand – its people. When I first set foot in Mr. Long’s to watch Lene get inked, I distinctly remember Zeff casually inviting me to grab a soda out of the fridge if I needed it. My relationship with them had gone from stranger to someone worthy of trespassing the counter within minutes of our meeting. Mr. Long later told me that as a good judge of character, he had surmised that I was “crazy, but not stupid.” This coming from a guy who once fought a Muay Thai fight for some toothpaste.
Anyone who’s been in Thailand has likely caught glimpses of the exotic tattoos emblazoned in black ink with Thai script and geometric designs. Sometimes these tattoos depict deities, sacred animals, or even mythical creatures. What is so alluring about these tattoos is the intention behind them. Although elegant and eyecatching, Sak Yant is of a magico-religious tradition with mystical purposes of bestowing powers, protections or good luck. A quick gander at the myriad tattoo shops in Thailand and you’ll likely see a plethora of Sak Yant designs plastered on the wall, waiting for a committed customer. Delving into the world of bamboo tattoos quickly translated into ferreting out everything there is to know about Sak Yant.
In the days after Lene’s six hour tattoo affair, I found myself repeatedly returning to Mr. Long’s, unable to avoid the pull of his smile and the warmth of his place. I wasn’t making headway on any Sak Yant leads, so I took a pause for the cause. It became synonymous with dropping by a friend’s house, with the bar portion feeling only like an afterthought. The most telling things of all have been the patrons, with arsenals of stories about Mr. Long and family, usually culminating in laughter and appreciation for his generous spirit. I’ve since spent many an evening getting to know Mr. Long, Zeff and his friends Beer (tattoo beer), Spy, Men and Beer (Muay Thai beer)…still with or without coincidence that there are two Beer’s working there.
It became apparent within the first few days however, that my search into this art would prove challenging. Sak Yant tattoos are normally done by wicha (magic) practitioners and Buddhist monks, and after chatting with a few local artists, they kept pointing towards Bangkok and the north. Being in the South of Thailand, a Khru Sak (tattoo master) is a bit scarce.
Interestingly enough, as I sat and chatted with Zeff one night, I learned that Mr. Long took him to a Khru Sak to receive a Sak Yant tattoo with oil when he was just a kid. A common practice for children, parents will oftentimes do this in belief that the powers that be would endow them with protection, and all the things in life a loving parent could wish for their child.
So how did I end up at Mr. Long’s bar? Well, back to the bamboo tattooing, my friend Lene had casually mentioned that she was planning to get a bamboo tattoo while living in Thailand. I invited her to invite me, and a date was set. To say Lene has a few tattoos would be an understatement; her newest addition makes 23. Lene’s love for ink lead her to start taking permanent mementos from her extensive travels. And so I found myself at the tattoo parlor conveniently located within Mr. Long’s, watching as Beer (pronounced Bee-uh, with and without coincidence that he works in a bar), tapped a sharpened needle attached to a bamboo rod into her thigh in the design of an elephant. A really big elephant. Maybe a bikini wax with melted crayons and duct tape sounds more appealing, but I’m sure Lene would disagree. Having never seen a bamboo tattoo in progress, I was in awe of the dexterity it requires. Whereas a machine tattoo appears like writing with a pen, bamboo tattooing needs two hands: one hand pulses the rod into the skin, depositing ink with the sharpened, bifurcated end of the bamboo, while the thumb and index fingers of the other hand guide and stabilize. Albeit slower than machine tattooing, bamboo tattoos are said to be much less painful, and heal almost three times faster since the skin is only punctured, not torn. That also means little to no blood or scabbing.
was terrible, and I immediately pictured some very angry bacon. It’s safe to say he’s come a long way since then – seven years to be exact – and judging from Lene’s reaction, he’s quite good at it.
According to Beer however, these days Sak Yant has become more of an accessory than a plight to control one’s destiny. What is not intended as simple decoration has become just that, even amongst Thais. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious explanation for this at the moment, other than the changing tide of time. Not long after my introduction to Mr. Long, I caught up with an old friend and somehow the conversation steered toward Sak Yant. Turns out, his personal spiritual guide/monk is a Khru Sak practicing the Sak yant tradition, and inquiring minds have been known to ride bikes to the temple and spend the night. He accepted my invitation for him to invite me to meet and learn from his master (see how I did that again?). Of course, I would not be able to speak to his master directly because I have lady parts and it’s forbidden, but it sounds like an adventure nonetheless. Manifestation at its finest. Like most artists I’ve come to know, Beer simply learned by watching and doing, without formal training except for the occasional practice on pigs. He admitted that his very first tattoo
So my Sak Yant inquisition wasn’t a complete failure after all. With a new spot, new friends, and a promising new lead, the quest continues. Next month is going to be an interesting one...
STAY TUNED IN MARCH FOR: PART DEUX