It’s something on most travellers bucket lists; to get a bamboo tattoo. I have two myself, one of my wrist, another on my back, along with several gun tattoos that I’ve had back home in the UK.
I love tattoos, so ever since hearing about the process and history behind bamboo tattooing, it was on my list of things to do in Thailand. I always swore that I’d never get a tattoo abroad, so it’s something I wanted to research and make sure I got done properly.
A lot of people that I’ve met on my travels that have bamboo tattoos, usually have no idea about the history. It’s just something they heard about, so decided to get done. Which is a shame, because they have no appreciation for the process. The exact date it started can’t be pinpointed, as it’s a technique so old, the history of it has been lost and parts have been mistaken for myths.However, it is generally believed to have originated in the Khmer period around 3000 years ago. It also can’t be pinpointed where the bamboo tattoo originates from, although it is believed to have originated from Thailand. It is believed it started in Buddhist Temples, where Monks would receive religious symbols, which would be tattooed by grand master monks for protection of the scripts. It is also rumoured that soldiers would visit the temples to be tattooed by monks for protection when fighting.
Bamboo tattoos, despite the religious origin, weren’t that popular in Thailand in the modern day, as it became more commonly known to be a symbol amongst criminals. Although, more recently that has changed, with the advanced technology of the gun tattoo, and more people becoming aware of the bamboo tattoo, and travelling specially to Thailand to get the inking done, the traditional way.
Celebrities like Angelina Jolie made the process popular, after flying to Thailand to have a bamboo tattoo.
I’ve had some tattoos in some painful places, but I can honestly say that my bamboo tattoos have hurt the least. I barely even felt the one of my wrist, which I was quite surprised about, as it’s a tender spot. My back tattoo hurt a little more, but I was sat for almost 2 hours and was a much bigger piece. It would definitely have hurt a lot more, had I had it done with a gun. The gun tattoo is scraping the skin constantly in one motion, whereas the bamboo tattoo is just tapping into the skin, so the pain is a lot shorter, barely noticeable. Everyone I’ve spoke to that has had both gun and bamboo tattoos, have all said the same, it barely hurts in comparison. I’ve met people that only have bamboo tattoos and they think they hurt, but trust me when I say, it’s nothing compared to the pain with the gun. Although, I always say pain is part of the process, and it’s almost an addicted pain. It hurts, but a few months later, you’ll be sat back in the chair getting another tattoo!
What to get and when to get it
Research what you want. Please. I’ve seen and heard so many disaster stories, and it’s really not worth it. Don’t turn up on the spot, and pick there and then. Do some research, have a look on Pinterest or Google, and you’re less likely to want it covered the minute you get home. Also if you’re getting a religious symbol, make sure it’s done correctly. The Hah Taew in particular is a popular religious bamboo tattoo. Also known as the sacred 5 lines. After speaking to a local Thai, who used to be a monk, it’s offensive to get this done on your lower body. My friend wanted it tattooing on her thigh, but she was told not to, and to have it done either on the back, ribs or upper arm. I’ve seen so many people with this tattoo on their lower body, unaware it’s actually offensive.
Don’t get the tattoo done drunk, which goes without saying. There’s a reason in the UK, a tattoo artist would refuse to tattoo anyone drunk. Apart from you fidgeting more, alcohol also affects your blood, so it will affect how the tattoo looks and heals.
Where to get a bamboo tattoo
As you would for a tattoo at home, do some research, look at the artist, and decide for yourself who’s good. I’ve been recommended some places, then when I’ve looked through photos online, the tattoos have been shockingly bad. Don’t just take someones recommendation as word, although most of the time, recommendations are great. A lot of places are cheap in Thailand, some are decent, but a lot aren’t. You’ll never pay less than a 1000 baht for a bamboo tattoo from what I’ve found, so if it’s cheaper, ask yourself why. Make sure they’re using clean, new needles. Most artists will stand and clean them in front of you before the tattoo, and open a fresh pack of needles. This can usually take around 15 minutes. If they don’t, just ask them to in front of you for peace of mind. If they refuse to, it’s probably not the sort of place you want to get a tattoo.
How to look after your bamboo tattoo
The great thing about bamboo tattoos is that they heal a lot quicker than a gun tattoo. They don’t scab up, so don’t need as much looking after and they don’t itch for the weeks following. But they still need a little after care and attention. Don’t go jumping into a pool or the sea straight after. Wait at least 24 hours. And make sure when having a shower, you don’t get any shower gel, or shampoo around it. For the first few days, keep it moisturised. Usually the artist will give you a little tub of vaseline to keep you going, free of charge. Don’t overdo it. Just once in the morning, and evening.
A lot of people mistake the fact that because bamboo tattoos heel quicker, they can go diving into a mud pool with elephants the following day. False. Bamboo tattoos are certainly more handy than a gun tattoo while travelling, as within a couple of days, you can go back to snorkelling or having a mud bath with the elephants. But that first 24 hours are crucial. It’s still essentially an open wound. If you want your tattoos to look great for longer, ask the artist for after care advice.
My latest piece of bamboo tattoo