Thailand: Compromise reached in tattoo storm

The Phuket News, 10th Jun 2011

PHUKET, Thailand -- More than a hundred tattoo artists from all over Phuket met today with the Permanent Secretary of the Culture Ministry, Somchai Seanglai, and various other officials, to discuss the high-priority problem of foreigners being tattooed with Buddhist images.

The meeting came after Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat said he would seek to ban Thai tattoo artists from using images sacred to Buddhism or any other religion in their patterns.

The tattoo artists at the meeting said they understood the problem, but urged the government to use persuasion rather than new laws to tackle the problem.

They pointed out that it is not only in Thailand that people can get tattoos featuring religious symbols, so bringing in a law in Thailand to ban such tattoos would not solve the problem of people being offended at seeing the face of the Buddha or Ghanesh tattooed on someone’s body.

They advocated cooperation between tattoo artists and the government as preferable to the imposition of controls.

Saksit “Kob” Narksing, an artist from the Patong Anesthesia Tattoo studio, explained, “Before I create a tattoo I teach the person wanting it about the importance of every religious symbol, especially Buddhist ones.

“I’m Buddhist myself, so I would never do such a tattoo below the waist. But I am not going to stop doing tattoos that include religious imagery, even if you bring in a new law.”

The tattoo artists also pointed out that there are unrecognised or amateur tattoo artists on the island, who would not be easy to control. These included young gang members and even drug addicts, they said.

“Many young people want a tattoo but can’t afford a professional job, so they may ask a friend or someone who is not a specialist to do it for them,” said Weerawat Rachasee, a tattoo artist from Patong.

“I usually refuse to tattoo any Thai under the age of 18. For foreign youngsters, they must have the permission of a parent or guardian before I will agree to tattoo them.”

The assembled tattoo artists agreed to make no religious tattoos lower than the recipient’s waist, and to make sure the customer understands the image’s significance before starting work.

Ministry man Mr Somchai agreed that legislation might not be the answer – though he did not rule it out – but said that the ministry felt it had to discuss the matter with the tattoo artists so that everyone was on the same page.

“A law might be ineffective in stopping this practice, but the artists must be ethical. They must educate their customers and not [tattoo religious images on] improper areas [of the body],” he said.

The tattoo artists also asked that the government provide them with some sort of professional licence to distinguish them from the amateurs. Mr Somchai said, “I accept your proposal and I will discuss it with the relevant authorities in the Ministry of Commerce, Public Health and Culture.”

Related story: Crackdown ordered on religious tattoos in Phuket