Why Get a Bamboo Tattoo?
Or any tattoo for that matter. Before I get into the reasons for having bamboo tattoos and what makes it special, let’s look at why get a tattoo at all.
Deciding to get inked is an intensely personal act. Because of this, there is no one reason people get tattooed.
Nowadays most people have a tattoo to express their individuality. A unique design makes you stand out and marks you out from the herd. You’re no longer an anonymous individual. But that doesn’t mean you need a full sleeve tatt to show your personality. A small tattoo can easily express something about you. It can be funny, offbeat, artistic or meaningful to you personally.
In the past tattoos were a mark of a rebel. Someone who defined cultural norms. Having a tattoo marked you out from the suit wearing, pen pushing crowd. It was an act of rebellion to distance you from being the person your parents wanted you to be. Nowadays, tattoos are far more culturally acceptable than they were just 20 – 30 years ago. There are tattoo studios in every town and village.
Other people have a tattoo done for cosmetic reasons. For example to cover up a scar.
Once you have taken the plunge and decided to get a tattoo, then most people will go for a normal tattoo for their first inking. Mainly because this is the most common method and also the quickest and least painful option at a tattoo studio. But most people don’t stop at one inking. After some researching many people decide to get a bamboo tattoo (also called stick and poke tattoo). This is a traditional method of tattooing.
Bamboo tattooing has been practiced in Southeast Asian countries for thousands of years. In the past Buddhist monks tattooed sacred designs on followers. This type of traditional bamboo tattoo is called ‘Sak Yant’ in Thailand and is still done today. This type of tattoo is believed to give the people magic powers associated with healing, luck, strength, and protection against evil.
There are many Sak Yant tattooists, although devout Buddhists will only get theirs done by a monk at a temple. It isn’t just the bamboo tattoo itself that has a meaning it’s the whole spiritual process. The inscription or design, which is chosen for you by the monk tattooist and the blessing of the finished tattoo by a senior monk.
Bamboo Tattoos vs Machine Tattoos
How Does a Bamboo Tattoo Differ From a Machine (Pen) Tattoo?
The obvious difference is that one is done by hand and the other by machine. A traditional bamboo refers to an ancient technique whereby the tattoo is made using a fine, sharpened bamboo stick which is hand poked into the skin to create the design. Nowadays bamboo sticks aren’t used. The stick will be made of wood or stainless steel with an interchangeable metal tip.
The tip usually has a line of five needles. This means that a good tattooist can draw extremely fine lines using this stick and poke method. Unlike a pen tattoo, where the needles on the tip of the gun are arranged in a circular formation.
Another difference is how the tattooist moves the tip to create the design. In the traditional method, the tip is manually pushed and pulled out of the skin, the tattooist moving the tip each time to create the pattern. The skin in punctured, but not torn. With a tattoo gun, the needles don’t leave the skin, they are pulled across it, tearing the skin, as the tattooist draws. This is an important distinction. And the reason why it is (usually) far less painful and heals far faster than a machine tattoo.
Consequently, there’s no swelling or scabbing with bamboo tattoos. The tattoo will not peel or get very itchy like one done by a machine sometimes will. They will heal within a couple of days. And, unlike machine tatts, there’s no problem going in the sun or swimming a day or two after getting it.
Are Bamboo Tattoos More Expensive Than Tattoos?
Yes. For a couple of reasons. Firstly, it takes around twice as long to do do a bamboo tattoo compared to a machine tattoo. Secondly, most tattooists will just learn to use a pen. Tattoo shops won’t invest in the additional time and training required to master the traditional bamboo / stick and poke style of tattooing.
Healing Time for Bamboo Tattoos vs Machine Tattoos
Aftercare for both types of tattoos is initially the same. The new tattoo needs to be kept moisturized and covered for the first few hours. You should also wash it if it gets dirty, then gently pat it dry. Once dry, apply anti-bacterial cream to keep the skin moist and clean.
It will take a couple of weeks for a new bamboo tattoo to fully heal. An iron or pen tattoo will take around a month to fully heal, and in that time there will often be some swelling and scabbing.
Which Tattoo Styles are Best Done by Bamboo?
As mentioned above bamboo tattoos are a traditional way of tattooing. Iron or pen tattoos are much quicker, far more versatile and more detailed. Any design can be done using bamboo. But realistically, unless you want a traditional Buddhist design or something very basic, then you will be better off getting a regular tattoo at any experienced local tattoo shops. Simply because the lines will be cleaner, shading more distinctive, colors brighter and details sharper with a machine tattoo.
This style and the associated bamboo tattoo designs take years of practice and experience to master. Not every tattooist can easily learn the stick and poke method to accurately judge the depth the needles go into the skin and ensure that the design is sharp and doesn’t fade.
Getting a bamboo tattoo is a more spiritual experience and so not suited to everyone. A good tattooist will always steer clients towards having a pen tattoo if they feel a design won’t be pleasing to the eye when done in the traditional method. Make sure to always ask to see design portfolios at tattoo shops before having one done.
Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand
Jake, a reader of this site, emailed me and wanted to pass on his recent experience of getting a bamboo tattoo in Thailand during a stay on Koh Chang.
He’s a long time visitor to Thailand and already the owner of three tattoos that he got at various times during his life. These were all simply designs that he liked, with no deep meaning behind them. And all from tattoo studios elsewhere in the world.
And that was something he kind of regretted, tribal designs look cool, but that’s it. There’s no deeper significance. He’d read about sak yant tattoos and wanted to get one done.
On arrival on Koh Chang he headed to Lonely beach, to the tattooists’ row. A side street in the bar area with a dozen hole in the wall tattoo shops. All owned by experienced artists. Several of which specialise in bamboo and sak yant tattoos.
Jake wanted something traditional ad uniquely Thai – hence the sak yant tattoo style. With his Thai partner in tow, to help with translation, they went door to door to chat to the tattooists and see which was the best fit. Boy Bamboo Art Tattoo was chosen due to his specialty being traditional bamboo tattoos and also having a wealth of experience and large portfolio of unique designs. Jake explained his requirements and after agreeing a price, went ahead.
Cleanliness and sanitation are hot topics now due to coronavirus. So at this point I should mention that Jake had his tattoo done in 2019, in the pre-covid19 times. Even so, the same advice still applies when it comes to finding a good tattooist. Make sure the shop is spotlessly clean and all needles and equipment sterilized. The tattooist should wear disposable gloves (and nowadays also a face mask).
A tattoo is essentially an open wound, which is why you must be satisfied with the cleanliness of any shop before getting a bamboo tattoo in Thailand.
Choosing the location on your body for a tattoo is always difficult, but this is simplified for sak yant tattoos. Traditionally they will be on the back. And often between the shoulder blades. The downside of this is that there’s far more pain involved. This is because the tissue is very thin here and so it hurts more than if the tattoo were done on a more fleshy area.
This is a video posted by Boy, the tattooist, of Jake’s tattoo being created.
Done sak yant traditional thaistyle first bamboo tattoo by Boy Bambooart thanks Welcome to Boy bamboo tattoo lonely beach koh chang trat Thailand 🙏#Boybambootattoo #bambootattoo #machinetattoo #Sakyantattoo #thaitattoo #maoritattoo #mandalatattoo #oldschooltattoo #japanesetattoo #newdesigns #firstbambootattoo #smalltattoo #coveruptattoo #tattooforgirl #tattooforman #traditionaltattoo #thebesttattookohchang #thebestbambootattookohchang #lonelybeach #kohchang #trat #Thailand
Posted by Boy Bambooart on Thursday, November 21, 2019
Recommended Bamboo Tattooists Around Thailand
Chiang Mai – Mana Bamboo Tattoo, which has been specializing in this style since 2010.
Pai – Space Bamboo Tattoo. Owned by Adam who’s a highly regarded traditional stick & poke bamboo tattooist in Pai.
Bangkok – BT Tattoo. Long regarded as one of the best places in Bangkok to get one. Prices from 1,500 Baht by award winning tattooists.
Pattaya – Max Bamboo Tattoo. Located on Second road in the city centre. A small shop but with good reputation for clean tattoo design work
Koh Chang – Boy Bamboo Art. Located in the backpackers area of Lonely beach
Koh Samui – The Bamboo Rooms. This expert Thai tattooist divides his time between the UK and shop in Bophut fisherman’s village on Samui.
Koh Phi Phi – Bus Bamboo Tattoo. Located near the police station on Phi Phi island. Check out their Instagram page for huge portfolio of traditional and modern designs.
Koh Tao – There are various tattoo studios on Koh Tao that specialise in sak yant tattoo designs.
Koh Pa Ngan – Ink Point. Professional artists in Thongsala who can create unique designs for you.