Tattoo Quest (Part 1): Tattoos of Southeast Asia

As I’m considering getting a tattoo myself (sorry mom and grandma), I’ve decided to do a series of articles based on the various tattoo traditions of the world. This is the first article of a three article series on tattoos. I hope to inklighten you, our Wondergressive readers, as well as myself, in my attempt to understand the various meanings behind this ancient art and fulfill my quest of understanding why exactly people, myself and others, are drawn to display these potentially permanent designs on our bodies.

Related Read: Tattoo Quest (Part 2): The Spread of Tattoos
Related Read: Tattoo Quest (Part 3): Significance of Tattoos in the 20th and 21st Century

People get tattoos for many-a-reason. These reasons vary from ceremonial rites of passage to proclamations such as “I really like to shop at 7/11 and this is the ONLY way that the world will know.” These days it seems that the reasons are unfortunately more inline with the latter though there are still a few traditions that hold the art of tattooing as sacred.

Traumatic tattoos are unintentional tattoos that happen as a result of injury. These are generally a colored scarring that happens when an outside element is introduced to open wounds. These tattoos are mostly unwanted and rarely resemble anything more than a painful event.

Historically, tattoos have been viewed both as a taboo and as an art form. The Ainu indigenous people of japan view tattoos as a matriarchal tradition where only the woman get inked.

“Until very recently (the last fully tattooed Ainu woman died in 1998), Ainu women retained a tradition of facial tattooing lending support to the argument that the ancient Jomon employed the custom in the distant past. For the Ainu, tattooing was exclusive to females, as was the profession of tattooist. According to mythological accounts, tattoo was brought to earth by the “ancestral mother” of the Ainu Okikurumi Turesh Machi who was the younger sister of the creator god Okikurumi.”

This tradition has been subject to much controversy in japan.

“As early as 1799, during the Edo Period, the Ezo Shogunate issued a ban on tattoos: “Regarding the rumored tattoos, those already done cannot be helped, but those still unborn are prohibited from being tattooed””

Looking at it now it seems awfully mean towards the woman in their culture. Go figure, subjecting women to various pains in order to get married. I am both irked by Japan’s deculturization of the Ainu people and accepting of it. On one had they are stripping an indigenous culture of their practices and beliefs. This is similar to the Romans outcasting pagan beliefs, the United State-ians completely degrading and embarrassing the Native Americans and every other instance of pseudo-westernization.

On the other hand- the left if you will, though it is not important- this practice of subjecting women to pain and permanent staining is both creepy and belittling. Through knife point art they are prepared to be wed.

Tattoos have rooted themselves into the dermis layer of many other southeast Asian cultures as well.  In Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand Yantra tattooing (Sak Yant) is considered to be sacred and… magical!

Traditionally, a Yant is tattooed using a long bamboo stick with a split sharpened point like a quill called a Mai Sak or alternatively a long metal spike known as a Khem Sak. There are many designs of Yant available, each chosen to give either protective powers or good luck in business or in love. Many of the designs are universal but the Mantras may differ according to the Tattooer.


Sak Yant is an art done by Buddhist monks. Different powers are associated with different scripts. Many people believe that these tattoos have magical abilities. Ink seekers from all over the world travel to receive these magical works of body art. Unfortunately there are many people who get scammed out of a lot of money in search for the real thing. So if you’re about to start some crazy vision quest in search of magic, I’d tread lightly-as if on eggshells or spaghetti noodles- when dealing with some of these shady so-called “monks.”

Stay tuned for Part 2: The Spread of Tattoos and Part 3: Significance of Tattoos in the 20th and 21st Century!


Additional Information:

Ainu Tattoos
Yantra Tattooing

Video: The Process of Sak Yant

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A Breakthrough Futuristic Material: Silk
Dome Homes: Virtually Indestructable

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