Thai Culture Ministry to crack down on religious tattoos on foreign skin
Share this on

Thai Culture Ministry to crack down on religious tattoos on foreign skin

By Saksith Saiyasombut

Tattoos have a very special place in Thailand. They’re more than just permanent fashion statements, not unlike amulets they are regarded as spiritual guardians. Tattoos with religious or spiritual motives, called Yantra tattoos, are yet another sign that Thais take their beliefs skin-deep. Philip Cornwel-Smith dedicated a whole chapter in his excellent book “Very Thai” about this issue:

You are what you wear. While apt in fashion, the saying is literally true if it’s a Thai tattoo in which you’re clad. Imbued with magical powers, the arcane roi sak (tattoos) possess their owners – mostly men – at intense moments like combat, love or ritual. (…)

Like all amulets, it requires activation by the tattooist [mostly by a monk], who murmurs incantations in khom [ancient Khmer script] while he wields a two-foot steel needle, (…) It’s the spell that matter. Call it spiritual insurance, for most seek roi sak for invincibility. (…)

With Thailand’s government pledging to bar monks from performing tattooing rituals, roi sak is another tradition on the wane.

From: “Very Thai“, by Philip Cornwel-Smith, 2005

Still to this day, religious tattoos are very popular among Thais (especially young men) to an extent that is probably best encapsulated by the annual tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaisri near Bangkok. And how a simple tattoo can literally turn out the beast in a man can be seen in this video here.


A man showing his back tattooed with ancient scripts at Wat Bang Phra Temple in Nakhon Chaisri, Thailand. The sacred, Buddhist movties are said to grant supernatural powers to it’s bearers. (Image by Flickr user “kPluto”, licsenced under CC)

These tats are also a favorite among tourists, who mostly do it for looks and don’t care much about the mystery behind it. In that light, it is nearly unavoidable that someone would contest that, right?

Enter the self-proclaimed herald of everything ‘Thai-ness’…

Citing a survey in Phuket Island, Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat admitted that a number of foreigners coming to Thailand are interested in having their skin tattooed with Buddha images or Hindu god Ganesh in several parts of their bodies such as arms, legs, ankles or chests. The minister indicated that using religious objects as tattoo patterns is inappropriate according to the Thai tradition and culture as well as affect the faith of people toward those religions.

Religious tattoo patterns are very popular among foreign tourists and can be as expensive as 20,000 baht each. Some of the tourists deem religious tattoo patterns a fashion without any religious respect while some probably have those tattoos because of ignorance.

Mr Nipit stated that the ministry hence asked provincial governors nationwide, especially provinces with foreign tourists such as Bangkok and Chiang Mai to inspect tattoo studios and seek their cooperation not to use sacred objects of all religions as tattoo patterns. The minister then announced that he will ask the Office of the National Culture Commission to issue a law banning people from using sacred objects or holy beings in Buddhism or any other religions in their tattoo patterns.

Culture Ministry alerted by religious tattoo patterns“, National News Bureau of Thailand, May 31, 2011

After having ‘successfully’ restored sovereign ‘Thai-ness’ against the un-Thai drunken, public bearing of bare female breasts by inciting a witchhunt (against what tureds out to be teenagers), Nipit now turns against the non-Thais daring to display the sacred motives of the Lord Buddha without paying respect to the culture, beliefs and moral sovereignty of the Kingdom, just to fulfill their vain pursuit for superficial acknowledgement, a typical Western…. – sorry, I got carried away there…!

Kidding aside, does this mean that Angelina Jolie has to remove some of her tattoos? Also what is evident by that move of the culture minister is the monopoly claim over Buddhism or faith in general and more or less defining what that is and how one should behave within that realm (like they are trying to impose their vision ‘Thai-ness’ in general). If only the Vatican would complain in the same fashion about the countless Jesus and crosses motives…

h/t to @wisekwai for the link and the Angelina Jolie-joke!

Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and journalist still based in Hamburg, Germany. He can be followed on Twitter @Saksith.