Permanent Buddhism: Mark Hay’s article on Culturally-sensitive Buddhist Tattoos

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A few days ago, a friend let me know that freelance writer Mark Hay’s piece in Tricycle Magazine about his years-long journey to get an appropriate-and-non-appropriative Buddhist tattoo had come out. Hay interviewed me as part of the piece, and I see that I get more than one mention in the final cut. Thankfully, I’m not paraphrased too awkwardly, and Mark gives a good overview of some of the issues at stake with getting tattoos that involve very culturally-specific imagery or contexts.

As Hay notes in his piece, Tibet does not have a long-established tradition of tattooing in any way analogous to countries like say, Thailand or Japan (about the closest pre-20th century Tibetan practice I can think of to tattooing is the use of special ‘mantra-stamps’, a form of ritual healing sometimes used for neurological disorders which I discuss briefly here). Regardless of this lack of history/precedent, today in exile, a number of young Tibetans (predominantly men) make their livings as tattoo artists. Overwhelmingly, these men are either ex-thangka painters or have at least received some training in the discipline (thangkas are traditional Tibetan iconographical tapestries). Painting Tibetan religious iconography involves a number of quite complex and non-negotiable rules about proportion – while thangka design is far from the slavish, paint-by-numbers process its sometimes been made out to be as a ‘traditional’ art-form, it’s not exactly a wholly ‘free-form’ exercise either. Since the tattoos that foreigners often want are of Tibetan mantras or religious iconography, Tibetan tattoo artists naturally find themselves drawing on principles and precedents from thangka painting to help determine best (and worst) practices for tattooing.

Beyond continuities between thangka and tattoo art in terms of skills required and subject matter, as Hay mentions, thangkas are also a primary example of traditionally religious objects that are today being commissioned and produced for explicitly ‘secular’ markets. Tibetans often distinguish thangkas which are rdzun ma, i.e. ‘fake’ from ones which are authentic. Authentic thangkas are those which have been properly consecrated and ‘animated’ for use in meditation and monasteries; fake ones are those which, although they may be properly designed and quite beautiful, have not been consecrated and are thus more suited for sale as mere objets d’art, as exotic wall-hangings in foreigners’ bathrooms and living areas [let it be noted that putting any Tibetan religious iconography in ones bathroom is generally a very bad idea and liable to be read by Tibetans as strongly disrespectful and inappropriate]. Tattooing remains a somewhat open-ended and ambiguous enterprise for Tibetans. Many Tibetans have tattoos, but in my experience iconographic/deity imagery seems to be a much more common tattoo choice for non-Tibetans than Tibetans. I have heard more than one Tibetan criticize the practice of getting deity or mantra tattoos by invoking cultural ideas about the impurity of the ordinary human body, the inappropriateness of stepping over or lying on sacred objects (all things which are possible when sacred objects are emblazoned on your skin) or in reference to taboos involving tutelary deities and the piercing of the skin. Cultural precedents can thus be used to both justify and denounce newer practices like tattooing.  I have not encountered ‘consecrated’ deity-image tattoos, but I have encountered Tibetan tattoo artists who are extremely uneasy about inking, or who refuse to ink, certain (especially wrathful, Higher Yoga Tantra) iconography onto customers. All in all, Tibetan tattoo art is a developing field, that throws up all kinds of questions and quandaries.

The title of Hay’s piece is interesting too. It reminds me of how once, years ago, I was hanging out with a white Tibetan Buddhist convert and professional tattoo artist in Boulder, Colorado. I told him how I was a big fan of tattoos, but didn’t have any. This was partly because I knew I didn’t just want one tattoo, floating arbitrarily in body-space. I like tattoos best when they form carefully planned, balanced canvases. So, if I were to bother to get any tattoos, I explained, this would take time and money, which I wasn’t sure I had. It was a big commitment. Part of that commitment too, I told him, was the question of permanence. Mine was a common complaint: I change my mind so often about things, life is so ephemeral. How can I commit to inking some symbol supposedly filled with grand meaning onto my flesh, when in a year or few I’ll probably hate it, or have changed my mind? Cradling his pet python in his hands (we were entertaining her at the time), he turned to me, the many tattoos on his head and neck flexing, and flashed me an incredulous look. “Permanent? What’s permanent about your skin, about your body?” He then told me how whenever he does work on anyone he ALWAYS thinks about what their tattoo will look like as their skin becomes more damaged, as it ages, as its collagen breaks down and sags. Tattoos, in their illusion of permanence were for him primary reminders and windows into change and transience. For this reason, for him, a faded tattoo on weathered skin was more beautiful and satisfying than any clean and crisp, perfectly executed design. Momento mori for reelziez. Delivered while rubbing the gleaming scales of a snake that had only recently shed its skin, it was a Buddhist one-upper I wasn’t soon to forget.

Anyway, here’s the piece.