What is a Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo?

Thailand's Biggest Tourist Scam

The History of Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo? -Tattoo Studios Modern Take on Spiritual Tradition

The Traditional Thai 'Bamboo Tattoos' is actually a recent (2003) trend, by Tattoo artists trying to cash in on the popularity of Angelina Jolie's Sak Yant. In reality Sak Yant Tattoo's have NEVER been done using Bamboo and Tattoo Artists only started doing 'Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo' 20 years ago

The Allure of the Traditional Thai Tattoo in Thailand

The ‘Traditional Thai Tattoo’ has gained popularity as unique souvenirs, allowing travelers to carry a piece of Thailand’s culture back home. These tattoos are promoted as not just art; they imply a connection to the country’s spiritual heritage, drawing inspiration from traditional Sak Yant designs. However the connection between Traditional Thai Tattoo’s (Sak Yant) and Bamboo Tattoo’s done by Tattoo Artists for Tourist’s has never existed.  In reality ‘Traditional Thai Tattoo” and ‘Bamboo Tattoo’ has become the marketing terms use for one of Thailand’s Biggest Tourist Scam.

When tourist wanted the same type of Tattoo that Angelina Jolie had; tattoo shops attached a needle to a chopstick, and created ‘Bamboo Tattoo’s’. As it was initially the Sak Yant Designs the tourist wanted, Tattoo shops promoted a false history making their new Bamboo Tattoos part of Thailand’s Traditions. This false history is repeated by Bloggers who copy and paste information from websites and the Tourist Bamboo Tattoo Scam went mainstream.

So Let’s examine how Thailand’s Bamboo Tattoo Tourist Scam Developed and how to Avoid it

What are Traditional Thai Tattoo's? - Bamboo Tattoo

The Traditional Thai Tattoo using the Hand Poked method to make a Bamboo Tattoo is advertised and displayed in Tattoo Parlors all over Thailand. So why is this a Tourist Scam?

Bamboo Tattoo Scam
There is a big difference in receiving a Fake Sak Yant at a Bamboo Tattoo Shop and getting the Real thing from a Monk or Sak Yant Master.

Terms ‘Bamboo Tattoo” and “Traditional Thai Tattoo” are used together almost exclusively by

  1. Tattoo Artists and Shops who originally and intentionally promoted the term ‘Bamboo Tattoo’ after it was used in western media to describe Angelina Jolies Thai Sak Yant in 2003.  Tattoo Shops continue to make an association between their ‘modern take’ and ‘art’ and the significance and history of the Real Sak Yant Experience. 
  2. Travel Bloggers/Vloggers writing articles highlighting their Hand Poked Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand experience. Not having the time to investigate they copied and pasted incorrect existing information, confusing the genuine Spiritual Sak Yant Tattoos with the normal tattoo ‘art’ they received at the tattoo shop.

The earliest reference to Sak Yant Tattooing we could find was in 1881 book by Carl Bocke ‘Temples and Elephants’.  He mentions how the ink was made and how the Sak Yant was applied by a solid steel needle. Nothing about the traditional Thai tattoo and bamboo having any association

Recreating a False History of the Bamboo Hand Poke Tattoo

Almost all information you find online about the History of Bamboo Tattoos using an association between  Traditional Thai Tattoo’s or Hand Poke Tattoos are incorrect. Articles, Blogs and various media will mention that in days gone by

1) The Traditional Thai Tattoo was done using a Bamboo Needle using a hand poked method. 

2) That these Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoos were highly prized and magical talismans performed by Monks. And that

3) Using this traditional and ancient hand poked method you can also benefit from the magic powers and spiritual significance because they use the same designs and methods.

Separating Bamboo Tattoo Myth from Reality

Myth 1 - The Traditional Thai Tattoo was 'hand poke' method using Bamboo

Old Bamboo Tattoo Metal Khem
Metal Tattoo tools have been available and used in Thailand for thousands of years. A Bamboo Tattoo was something done in Jail, and not Part of Traditional Thhai Sak Yant's

Hand Poke
Traditional Thai Tattoos (in reality called Sak Yant’s) were and are still done using a metal or steel needle using the Hand Poke technique.  Previous to the adoption of modern tattoo machines and tattoo shops – these were the only option available so essentially all Tattoo’s were ‘hand poked’.

Bamboo Tattoo’s
This probably did happen several thousands of years ago when the art of Tattooing was first developed in Thailand and Cambodia. Bamboo is too light a material, that would required extensive effort to poke hard enough into the skin to make a Tattoo.  Using Bamboo for Tattoo’s is not only painful, but highly unhygienic.   

Thailand was using cooper and bronze 4000 years ago, which were used to make Tattooing tools including the needles. Temples already having brass Buddha Statues and metal utensils, there was absolutely no need to create Tattoos from Bamboo materials, when the metal alternatives were also available. (wikipedia).

There is no accurate historical information to suggest that Traditional Thai Tattoo’s (The Sak Yant) ever use Bamboo Needles or tools.   The only references to Bamboo Tattooing in Thailand have all come about in the last 20 years. 

Myth Two - The Traditional Thai Tattoo is a Highly Prized Spiritual & Magic Talisman

Monk Temple Bamboo Tattoo

This is correct, but only when referring to the Sak Yant Tattoo, and not the Bamboo Tattoo done at Parlors.  Until the advent of modern tattoo parlors, the predominant Tattoos in Thailand were done by Monks and Sak Yant Masters.

The Sak Yant Tattoos done by Monks and Sak Yant Masters (community spiritual advisors who used to be Monks) were the Traditional Thai Hand Poke Tattoo’s which contained a Blessing from the Magical practitioner to empower them with Spiritual and Magical benefits.

The spiritual significance of the real Sak Yant Tattoo’s was prized because of the transfer of the power and strength of the blessing from a specialist in the magical arts. The design used for Sak Yants was not as Important as the Magical script and Blessing done by the Holy Men with knowledge of the magical blessings.

This is a true statement – but ONLY when talking about a Real Sak Yant and not the incorrect replica’s Tattoo artists make.

Myth Three - Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand has Magic Powers and Spiritual Significance

Don't get a Traditional Thai Tattoo Sak Yant from a Tattoo Shop
Not only is it disrepectful to the customer to pretend the tattoo they are getting has special meaning and significance. It is highly disrepectful to the Thai and Buddhist culture to place sacred tattoos in certain locations.

It was not because of the Tattoo’s being traditional or hand poked or even the designs that made the Sak Yant significant.  It is the power of the blessings that accompanied them given by the holy man.  Something that is non existent in a Tattoo Shop replica of the Sak Yant.

The significance and spirituality of a Sak Yant Tattoo comes from understanding the magical system and blessings that like any spiritual discipline comes from a knowledge of that magical system

There is no spirituality or significance from a Tattoo artist making a replica design For a full explanation you can read ‘Why you don’t get a Sak Yant from a Tattoo Shop’.

The bottom line is, that the Tattoo artist knows they are making a fake devoid of meaning.  They understand it is disrespectful to Thai culture and they know they do not have training in the magical arts or the spirituality to bless their fakes.  They rely on the tourist not knowing this and solely on tourists as Thai people would never get a Sak Yant

The Real History of Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Beginning of Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

When modern tattooing first began in Thailand, like most of the world, non sacred tattoos were initially deemed to the realm of the poor and criminal. To combat the low class impressions, an emphasis was made by tattoo artists on modern methods and designs for the modern era.  Tattoo Artists did everything they could to reject the traditions of the past and establish themselves as modern, different and safe.  

Before 2003 there were not too many (if any) Tattoo Shops doing traditional style, Thai Hand Poke Bamboo tattoos. Getting a Tattoo made using a Bamboo Needle was something you received in Jail – not the image the modern tattoo industry wanted to associate with.  

If you check the “establish in” year on Tattoo shop’s advertising Traditional Thai Tattoo or Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand, you will rarely see any Tattoo Parlors established before 2004-2005

So what happened to change this?

Angelina Jolie’s 2003 Sak Yant Tattoo

In 2003 Angelina Jolie received her first Sak Yant Tattoo.  International media coined it a “Bamboo Tattoo”. This brought both the Spiritual seeking and fashion trending tourist to Thailand to have the same experience.

Tourists would approach Tattoo shops asking for a Bamboo Tattoo like Angelina.  Tattoo Artists adapted, attaching a machine needle to the end of a chopstick, and providing what the customer wanted.  Initially it was only the Sak Yant Designs that got the traditional hand poke Bamboo Tattoo method, using machines for other non sacred designs.

Thai people knew this was a essentially getting a ‘prison tattoo’ presented as a sacred part of their tradition and disrespectful.  But the tourist did not know, and already came with the belief that this was somehow related to an ancient and historical tradition in Thailand.

With the high number of people trying to make a living as tattoo artists, it did not take too long before this misconception was encouraged and soon became most Tattoo Shops main source of income.

Angelina Jolies Tattoo Meaning
Angelina's Sak Yant was done using metal Khem, as have every Sak Yant Master for centuries. When Tourist came to get their own – they asked for a Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo just like they had read about.

Thailand's biggest Tourist Scam - The Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo

How Tattoo Shops Scam Tourists with Bamboo Tattoo and Fake Sak Yant’s

Sak Yant Tattoos are a traditional Thai form of tattooing, involving sacred geometrical designs. They are incredibly intricate, and each element will have a specific meaning for the wearer. These tattoos have very strong ties to religion and spirituality.  The Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand made at Tattoo parlors all over the country have nothing to do with the Traditional Sak Yant, despite the attempts to make the connections. The most common methods of providing Fake Sak Yants as Tourists Tattoo are…….

1) Stolen Valor - Associating the Significance of the Real Sak Yant to Fake Bamboo Tattoo Designs

The claims that a Bamboo Tattoo from a Tattoo artist has ANY association to the real and traditional Sak Yant Traditions is incorrect.  Pure and simple this is stealing of Valor and significance of the Sak Yant Tattoo and what represents to Thai culture..

The bottom line is, a real Sak Yant Master spends years learning how to read, write and chant the magic words in a design and the Blessings that is appropriate to each magical spell.  They then are required to live a strict life of rules in order to qualify to administer the Sak Yant Ritual. 

A Tattoo artist has no knowledge of the meaning of the Sak Yant Bamboo Tattoo Designs nor the ability to bless and magically empower the tattoo.  By creating a replica design of something they do not understand and passing it off as ‘traditional’ or having any Spiritual significance is unethical and disrespectful.

confused buddhist monk
Very confusing why anyone would think a Tattoo Artist has the same spiritual authority as a Monk
All Day Bamboo Tattoo Scam Thailand
Tattoo Shops make a point of displaying Sak Yant Designs outside the shops and online in the hopes of luring in customers for a Traditional Bamboo Tattoo

2) Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo Designs and Meaning

Tattoo Shops display on their shop windows, Google Adverts, Facebook Pages and websites, traditional Sak Yant Designs referring to them as Traditional Bamboo Tattoo Designs. Sak Yant Masters purposely make these designs incorrect so that only trained Ajarns can read, spot mistakes and change the magical Text. 

Some Tattoo Artists might say this is their ‘modern take‘ or ‘artistic representation‘ of the classic and traditional design.  But there is no getting away from it, this is an artwork that is devoid of meaning, significance or spirituality. Worse a Tattoo Shop will charge you 2-5 times more for the fake as an real Sak Yant Master will charge for the authentic experience.

Providing information about Bamboo Tattoo designs online to lure unsuspecting tourists to getting that design from you in not really the best ethical practice.  Calling them Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoo’s and knowing there is zero traditional or cultural history to what you are doing – suggests a lack of any real ethics or spirituality they are trying to associate with the tattoo.

3) Tourists can’t read the Magical Text

Tattoo Artists in Thailand are unable to read or alter the script and design elements.  Rather they copy the gibberish and count on the tourist having less idea about the legitimacy of the design and magical elements than themselves. 

Real Sak Yant Masters when they create and make available Sak Yant Designs, usually always include meaningless text that they understand those trained will remove and replace with authentic spells that have blessing chants.

Since it is unlikely that a tourist going to a Tattoo Parlor will know what the text says – it is unlikely that the artist is questioned or has to face any responsibility for also not knowing. 

The lack of knowledge on behalf of the tourist.  And sometimes the lack of caring about the tradition as well. Has allowed Tattoo Artists to continue to make fake replicas, pretending they are part of Thailand’s Traditions without much resistance. 

Fake Bamboo Tattoo freehand script
If your Sak Yant Magical Text is not done freehand - it is a meaningless Fake

The Thai Bamboo Tattoo Scam that became a Modern 'Tradition'

hand poke bamboo tattoo
Thailand's Tattoo Artists have created a new trend and make some amazing looking Tattoos using the Hand Poke Method

While the beginnings of Thailand’s Bamboo Tattoo craze used a deliberate strategy to capitalize on making the non existent associations with Sak Yant Traditions.  Thailand’s Tattoo Artists and industry quickly became very good at producing extremely skillful Tattoo art using the hand poke method.

The Traditional Thai Tattoo Thailand’s new Trend

Without a doubt the popularity of Hand Poke Bamboo Tattoos has become a main staple of Thailand’s Tattoo Industry.  Thailand’s Tattoo Artist quickly developed a world wide reputation for creating beautiful Bamboo Tattoo’s using their skills and the hand poke method of applying them.  Schools developed to teach and increase the skill level for this new and unique method of getting a tattoo for tourists.

Thai Bamboo Tattoo’s however, is to satisfy tourist demand.  Given the choice almost all Tattoo Artists would prefer to use a Tattoo machine as it creates finer lines and better detail in the finished Tattoo. Most will try and push the machine method over the hand poke system once a customer is inside the parlor.

Bamboo Tattoo Scam Conclusions

The Tattoo Artist industry in Thailand have re-invented a new method of creating a unique tourist experience in the form of the hand poked Bamboo Tattoo. The marketing of Bamboo Tattooing by both the Tattoo parlors and Bloggers have created a false history of the art form by association with the real and traditional magical use of tattoos called Sak Yant. 

If a tourists wants to experience getting a hand poked tattoo, it is a unique experience that allows them to take a part of current Thailand tattoo culture home with them. They will not however actually be engaging in any real or traditional methods of tattooing.

The issue of the scam arises when the Tattoo Artist uses this method of tattooing to create sacred and spiritual Sak Yant Designs.  This is not only unethical in Thai society, it is highly disrespectful to both the culture of Thailand and the person seeking a real and authentic Sak Yant Tattoo.

Want to Get a Real Sak Yant Tattoo?

Sak Yant Chiang Mai is Thailand’s leading Sak Yant provider – Over 10 Independent Sak Yant Masters working in Hygienic and comfortable Samnaks

Quick Answers to the Common Questions

1) What is the difference between a Bamboo Tattoo and a Sak Yant Tattoo?

The Bamboo Tattoo is a relatively new development of the hand poke tattoo using a machine needle at the end of a piece of wood. Oddly Bamboo is very rarely used for tattoo Shop Bamboo Tattoos. It is a modern trend and development among Thai tattoo Artists to capitalize on the growing interest in the authentic traditions of the Sak Yant Tattoo.  A Bamboo Tattoo is simply a marketing term used by Tattoo shops to offer an alternative and unique experience to tourists.  Thai people just don’t get Bamboo Tattoo’s – this is purely a Tattoo service aimed at tourists.

The Sak Yant Tattoo is an ancient and spiritual tradition of applying sacred images and magical text by a holy man using the hand poked method. The Sak Yant consists of
1) The Design
2) The Magic Text
3) The Sacred Blessing

For more details you can read ‘What is a Sak Yant Tattoo’

2) Is it Disrespectful to get a Bamboo Tattoo?

It is not disrespectful to get a hand poked bamboo tattoo of a design that is not a replica of the Sak Yant Tattoo.  If you are wanting to experience this new trend as an alternative method of getting the same tattoo design as you could obtain back home.  No Problem.  If you are wanting to put the sacred and meaningful Sak Yant Designs on your body, then you need to use a real Sak Yant Master

3) Can Anyone get a Bamboo Tattoo?

Yes, anyone can get a Bamboo Tattoo from a Tattoo shop since the method is aimed and used exclusively by tourists.  The concept of tourist Bamboo tattoos is only around 20 years old and holds zero cultural or spiritual significance.  If you are looking for a Spiritual Sak Yant design, then the answer is no, you can only get a real Sak Yant design from authentic  Sak Yant Masters

4) Can I Get a Bamboo Tattoo Near Me?

In the last 20 years, the number of Tattoo shops offering Bamboo tattoo’s has gone from almost none, to almost every single Tattoo Shop.  So you can get a hand poked tattoo almost anywhere in Thailand.  Again as mentioned above – there is a difference between what is marketed as a Bamboo tattoo (which was never a traditional Thai tattoo) and a real Sak Yant Tattoo.  You can not get a Sak Yant anywhere – you need to find an authentic Sak Yant Master

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