It’s no secret that I love tattoos. By now, you know I’ve been collecting them for quite some time, and I’m always happy to share those stories with others. What’s the point in getting them to begin with if you’re not willing to share the stories? I have two very special tattoos that are different from any of the others I’ve collected over the years. They have extra meaning to me for a few reasons. First off, they were done in foreign countries where tattooing has been a part of the culture for hundreds of years. Second, they were done using traditional methods, rather than using the modern tattoo practices we see in the states.
The first was from Jakarta, Indonesia. I was on a two-week trip to work with some suppliers and distributors and prepare for a restaurant opening that would happen about six months later. Before my trip, I did quite a bit of research to try to find someone in the capital city of Jakarta who did the traditional hand tap method of tattooing. I came across an artist named Durga and emailed him to set up an appointment!
Durga is a great guy who still has family members in tribes deep in the interior of the country, which he goes to visit at least once a year. The people of his tribe often get tattooed to denote significant events in their lives: maybe a wedding, a childbirth, a fruitful hunting season or just a symbol of their material wealth which they believe would be carried to the afterlife if tattooed on their bodies. Durga tattoos in the traditional Mentawai tap method, sometimes called “tatu” or “titi,” which essentially uses one long handmade stick with needles on the end, which is held in different positions against an arm or a piece of foam and then hit or “tapped” with another stick as it is moved ever so slightly along the tattoo lines. It was a lengthy and painful process, and it required a second person (aside from the tattoo artist) to hold and stretch the skin while the other is tapping away.
The tattoo on my leg took about four and a half hours. There were a few breaks in there as well as a beer or two along the way, but with a modern machine, that could have been knocked out in less than half the time. But I’d been tattooed with modern machines before, several times! I was here for the experience, as long and arduous as it may have been.
The tattoo itself is a custom design made by Durga just for me. The head of a dragon attached to a dagger made of the nose of a sawtooth shark. The dragon head to offer protection from mythical creatures, and the blade made from the nose of the sawtooth shark representing strength and perseverance to get through difficult times. Pretty cool, right?
The second traditional tattoo I’ve collected over the years was from this past January in Bangkok, Thailand. I had read about a tradition where Buddhist Monks provide tattoos using what’s known as the “hand poke” method. This method uses a long stainless steel rod with tattoo needles on the end of it. The rod is guided by one hand and pushed into the skin with the other. The tattoo itself is called a Sak Yant tattoo and can only be done by specially trained Monks who recite prayers during the process and bless the person receiving the tattoo as well as the design itself.
The Sak Yant I chose is called Paed Tidt or the 8 directional yant. Some believe this yant is for travelers – to help protect you on your journey both in the physical world: North, East, South and West as well as in the spiritual world. It is also said to pull good luck from the eight different directions. Equally as important as the meaning behind the tattoo is the blessing given during the actual tattooing process.
Ajarn Bpom is the gracious monk who tattooed me and provided the blessing. It was absolutely a unique experience and much faster than my work done in Indonesia. This tattoo only took about an hour and a half. I can best describe it as a completely spiritual experience. The rituals involved included a blessing and an offering from me to the monk. Throughout the process, Ajarn Bpom was saying individual prayers for each of the 8 directions and blowing magic into my tattoo.
Both experiences were amazing and unique, albeit painful. The process is an art form that has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years, and I am humbled, proud and excited to have had the opportunity to be a part of such a great tradition among these people!