The practice of bamboo tattooing goes back nearly 3000 years, and is thought to have originated in Cambodia. For centuries, it remained an exclusively Asian tradition, but that has begun to change. The rich history, spreading of Eastern religions, and celebrity endorsements have piqued interest in it all over the world in recent years, with a handful of bamboo shops opening in North America and Europe, particularly.
Although the practice has branched out into more modern, “new school” tattooing, its history is steeped in spirituality and symbolism. Originally a tribal animist ritual, it evolved into a Buddhist and Hindu practice called sak yant or yantra in which a master would choose a protective symbol and phrase and tattoo it on a body part of their choice (generally the back). The one receiving the tattoo had little to no say in the process, as it was believed the master could sense what specific symbols the individual needed to protect them. While yantra is still practiced in some parts of Asia today, bamboo tattooing has become a lot more mainstream, allowing customers to choose any design they desire and not requiring tattooists to be monks or magic practitioners.
What has not changed much over the centuries is the process itself. One or more needles are attached to a thin, long piece of bamboo, dipped in ink, and tapped into the skin. While masters can move incredibly quickly, for most, the process is a bit lengthier than machine tattooing. The healing time, however, is greatly reduced compared to machine tattooing, with many clients claiming no scabbing at all, and a healed look after just a few days.
We sat down to talk about ancient tattooing in modern times with our resident bamboo artist, Tamara.
Bamboo tattooing is still rarely heard of in Canada. How did you become interested in it?
“My sister was teaching in Chiang Mai, Thailand, while I was was living in Seoul and I went to visit her. There was a shop nearby with a great artist named Poom who we got some bamboo done by. He told me about how they include the natural elements and the elements of design. I was really impressed with the simplicity of it. A few years later, I went back and studied under him.”
What is it about bamboo work that appeals to you?
“I love traditional materials and methods like charcoal drawing and stone carving so this practice really appealed to me. At one point my teacher (while holding a bamboo stick) said "I am a tattoo machine." That was probably one of the coolest things I've ever heard...”
Besides the obvious, how does it differ from machine tattooing?
“It differs from machine by being much older, more delicate on the skin (think sewing by hand vs. sewing machine) and healing faster; the redness is usually gone by the second day. On the other hand it takes longer and is more suitable for lines than lots of shading or colour. Both are possible it just take a long time.”
What styles and designs do you most enjoy?
“Linear designs work best. I like to mix traditional Thai style mixed with American Traditional.”
To see Tamara in action, click here. Interested in getting a bamboo tattoo? Give us a call at 604.532.1188.