Reaction to the government’s war on ink
PHUKET: An announcement from the Thai Culture Ministry last week made headlines around the world, and ignited debate about the right of government to dictate the use of religious imagery.
Friday 10 June 2011, 02:04AM
National Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said he would ask the Office of the National Culture Commission to issue guidelines banning tattoo artists from using images sacred to Buddhism or any other religion in their patterns.
He said he was concerned at the growth in tattoo tourism to Thailand, particularly people obtaining tattoos with images of Buddha, Ganesh and other religious symbols.
The move has been met with mixed opinions, with some praising the proposal, while others challenge a government’s right to control the use of religious imagery, and highlighting more pressing concerns for the country.
Tattoo artist Taweesin ‘Add’ Yodkaew has lived in Phuket for two years after moving from Chiang Rai province in Thailand’s north. He now runs a tattoo business in Kata, and while he agrees that the use of some images is inappropriate, he doesn’t think a government law is the best way to solve the concerns.
Mr Taweesin said he has tattooed a number of religious images in the past, including Bhudda images and Hindu and Christian symbols. But he said he will never tattoo religious imagery below the waist, and said those types of images were not common among his predominately foreign clientele. He believes it should come down to an educated individual choice though.
“I normally explain to customers who want to make a Buddha tattoo how important the image is it to Thai culture, and I do not allow it to be made below the waist,” he said.
He also noted that Thai Buddhist imagery is popular around the world, and it is not only Thai artists who give the tattoos, adding that Thai artists are the only ones qualified to convey the significance of the images, and determine what is appropriate.
Supisara “Pin” Nunta is a tour business owner from Kata beach. She thinks the tattoo industry can draw a lot of tourism to Thailand, but agrees religious sensitivities need to be safeguarded.
“I have no tattoos on my body, but I think a distinction needs to be made here between business, art and religion. Perhaps instead of issuing a blanket ban on religious tattoos, the ministry could certify tattoo artists to provide a guarantee both for their clients’ safety, and to satisfy the concerns of the ministry,” she said.
“The tattoo makers must know the importance of Buddha images before making a tattoo, as must the customer who will wear it.”
Witsarut ‘Rut’ Jaiton, a Kusoldharm Foundation volunteer, has several tattoos. He believes tourists who come to Thailand must accept how important the image of Buddha is for Thai people.
“I really don’t agree with farang receiving Buddha image tattoos if they lack understanding about the significance of those images. The images need to be respected, and put in a respectful area like the back or upper shoulder. If people know what they are getting and truly believe in it, then we should not stop them, but unfortunately that is not the case with many of the farang who wear those tattoos.”
But Mr Nipit is worried that the images could offend Thai Buddhists, and particularly objected to the commercialisation of religious tattoos, noting that some artists will charge up to B20,000 for one tattoo.
He said in a statement his ministry has been receiving complaints from residents that tattoo parlors are etching sacred images of Buddha and other religious images onto the skin of non-Buddhist visitors across the country.
“Foreigners see these tattoos as a fashion,” Nipit said in the statement posted on his ministry’s website last Thursday. “They do not think of respecting religion, or they may not be aware” that it can be offensive.
As a result of that, he said, many foreigners unwittingly disrespect Buddha by wearing the image on improper places like the ankle, shoulders or chest.
Some traditional Thai tattoos, such as sak yant, also carry specific powers such as protection and economic prosperity. They require dedication from the recipient, who must believe in the power of the yant, and follow specific rules to maintain the power.
Mr Nipit said anyone carrying an image of the Buddha on their body has a responsibility to behave appropriately, which includes not drinking and not fighting. He added that under Thai beliefs, it is not suitable to have an image of Buddha tattooed on the body, unless they are on the head or neck.
The Ministry of Culture is now preparing to distribute 10,000 copies of an information booklet both Thai and English, explaining the appropriate use of the Buddha image.
Phuket Provincial Culture Chief Prayoon Noosuk is also looking at the issue, and will deliver a report to Phuket Governor Tri Augaradacha.
A UNIFYING VOICE:
“The image of the Lord Buddha has many owners. So the usage of it should not be the cause of conflict,” advised Phra Visuthithammakanee, the Abbot (head monk) of Wat Taruea and the highest-ranking monk in Phuket Province.
The gentle, quietly-spoken monk was sitting in his small office among the trees, the many happy stray dogs and humble kuti (accommodation) of other monks at the back of the temple ground, near the Heroines Monument.
He said that as it has not heard about the controversy of foreigners tattooing Buddha images on their bodies, the provincial Buddhist hierarchy has not discussed the issue and formed an opinion.
“Speaking personally, I feel that this kind of tattooing should not be done. The only reason to have the images of Buddha around, as statues or pictures on the wall, is to remind people of the Lord Buddha and his teachings,” he said
As Thais don’t put Buddha images on themselves, it has not been a problem for monks.
“Buddha has always taught that nothing should be done to cause conflict. And, as we can see from the fight between Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, no good comes of it. Instead people get hurt or killed.
“There is the question of individual rights for people to be able to do what they want. But if by doing so, one causes resentment and conflict with others, it’s best not to do it.
“Some people may feel that to put pictures of Buddha on parts of the body is to disrespect or devalue them. So then one shouldn’t offend these people,” said the monk.
Buddha images are usually placed high up in places that command respect. When they are found on the body, it raises the question of their purpose.
“Why are people wanting to put images of Buddha on parts of their bodies?” asked the abbot.