READING ESL: Thai tattoos

READING ESL: Thai Tattoos

Foreigners getting Thai-style Buddhist tattoos: good or bad?

Here is a plain English version of an interesting article from the Agence France Presse (AFP) international news agency about foreigners who get tattoos in Thailand. I have linked to the original article published on the Free Malaysia Today online news portal at the end of this plain English version. I have also provided a glossary of the less commonly used English words that appear in the original story.


In a small Bangkok room filled with religious statues and clouds of incense smoke, a master is at work.

With expert accuracy Master Neng repeatedly pushes a very sharp needle dipped in ink into the back of one of his students. Each push of the needle makes a perfect pixel that forms a traditional Thai tattoo.

This is an ancient art full of magic and ritual ceremonies that has been an important part of Thai life for centuries. These days, traditional Buddhist tattooists are becoming more and more popular with foreign visitors to Thailand.

“I’ve been dreaming of getting a tattoo like this for years,” says a tourist from Rome, proudly showing five lines of Khmer script (ancient religious writing style originally from Cambodia) that Neng recently tattooed onto her shoulder. “I’m attracted to Buddhism and all the spirituality that goes with it. And the design is really beautiful and original,”

Ever since American soldiers passed through Bangkok for their R&R (Rest and Recreation) during the Vietnam War, foreigners have returned home from Thailand ‘wearing’ traditional Thai tattoos known as sak yant.

But it was when famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie showed the world her Khmer language tattoo – a traditional Thai Buddhist design – on her left shoulder, that sak yant became really popular across the world.

Now, the people waiting patiently for their appointment in Master Neng’s traditional tattoo shop are just as likely to be foreigners as well as local Thai customers.


Foreign interest in mysterious and unusual Thai tattoos is not always popular with Thai people. In western countries, customers often choose tattoos because they look nice, but Thai customers are given tattoos that have special religious meanings. They are like prayers to protect the ‘wearer’.

People with traditional Thai tattoos often believe that their tattoos give them magic powers as well as bringing good luck and protection from angry ghosts. Some people believe that traditional Buddhist tattoos can even make them ‘bullet-proof’ and protect them from gunshot injuries.

Some Thai people are afraid that westerners are unable to appreciate the true meaning of the images formed by the combination of traditional Thai Buddhist texts and images featured in these tattoos.

Tattoos showing religious figures like the Buddha or the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh – also popular in Thailand – are quite problematic, especially if they are tattooed on parts of the body below the waist.

In Thai culture, the head is the most important and sacred part of the body. Further down the body is less important or sacred, and foreigners with religious tattoos on their legs have caused upset and offense.

On the main highway from the airport into Bangkok city are 15-metre (50-foot) wide signs saying that it is “wrong to use the Buddha as a decoration or tattoo”. Some groups in Thailand want a complete ban on any tattoo of any religious figure.

“The Buddha was a person who was clean from inside to outside, and his mind was free from illusion and uncleanliness”, said a spokesperson for the Knowing Buddha Organisation. To tattoo a Pure One, like the Buddha, on the body is thought to be improper and also lacks respect.


Professor Sukanya Sujachaya, an advisor and former research director in Traditional Studies at a Bangkok university says foreigners should do more research before getting traditional Thai tattoos. “Today it’s about fashion. But these types of tattoo cannot be sold just for their beauty. It also has to be for the belief”, she said.

Thailand is not the only Buddhist country to experience a negative reaction against foreigners adopting religious images.

In April 2014 a British nurse was thrown out of Sri Lanka because she had a Buddha image tattooed on her arm. The nurse insisted that she was a practising Buddhist, and that she wore the tattoo out of respect. Also in 2014, a New Zealander working in Myanmar as a bar manager was sent to prison for using an image of the Buddha wearing headphones in an advertisement for a cheap drinks night at his club.

While many foreign tourists have little idea about the spiritual meaning of religious tattoos, others say they are not being insensitive, and they believe their tattoos are more than just a fashion statement.

“When I look at my tattoos, it helps me and I think back to what my Thai teacher told me”, said an American living in Thailand. “I’ve finally found the perfect teacher for me. He is like a big brother or a mentor”.

When a traditional Thai teacher’s students receive a tattoo, they are often told by their master to follow a certain set of rules to improve their lives. They are also warned that a failure to follow these rules will take away the protective power of the tattoo.

These rules include the five main priciples of Buddhist life (known as the Five Precepts): Do not harm living things, do not steal, do not have unlawful sex, do not lie and do not take drugs or alcohol.

Master Neng says that many of his tattoo customers are thinking about more than just the ‘look’ of their tattoos.

“Foreigners like the unique beauty of the patterns”, he says, “but they have also learnt that believing in the religious meaning of the tattoo might bring them strength”.


to read the original version from the Free Malaysia Today online news portal

I have provided a glossary to help with some of the more unusual English words used in the original article (below)


FLOCK TO (expression) large numbers of people going to the same place

ENTHUSIASM (n) excited interest

EXOTIC (adj) unusual activities or things, often associated with faraway places

CONTROVERSIES (n) scandals, topics or situations that cause people to argue with each other

CRAMPED (adj) small area, not enough space

DEITIES (n) gods and goddesses

PLUMES (n) a rounded shape, often associated with smoke or clouds

INCENSE (n) resins or herbs that can be burnt to make a pleasant smell. Often used in religious ceremonies

PRECISION (n) accurately controlled movement

PLUNGES (v) dives

RAZOR (adj) very, very sharp

DISCIPLE (n) someone who follows a particular teacher

STEEPED IN (v) strongly influenced by (steeped in tradition, means strongly influenced by tradition)

SUPERSTITION (n) a belief in actions to cause good or bad luck (an old western superstition says it is bad luck to put an umbrella up inside the house, or it is bad luck to kill spiders)

BEATING A PATH (expression) many people going to the same popular place

INKED (v) tattooed

SHOULDER BLADE (n) the large flat bone at the back of the shoulder

SPORTING (v) wearing something (sporting a new pair of boots)

UNVEILED (v) put on display for the first time

INSCRIPTION (n) a piece of writing, often at the front of a book or cut into wood or stone

SCRIPTURE (n) a religious or holy book (like the Koran or Bible)

MAINSTREAM (n) a cultural practice or activity that the majority of people enjoy or take part in. Something with very wide appeal.

AESTHETIC (n) appreciation of the way something looks

IMBUED (v) strongly influenced by

GEOMETRIC PATTERNS (adj / n) Mathematically influenced shapes and designs

INTERWOVEN (v) two or more different things being used together for the same purpose

SACRED (adj) holy, religiously or spiritually important

BILLBOARDS (n) large signs along the roadside, or on the side of large buildings that are used for advertising

BACKLASH (n) a strong negative reaction

INSISTENCE (n) strong demand or request

DEVOUT (adj) strong religious beliefs and practises

IMPURITIES (n) unclean or unwanted parts (not pure)

INVALIDATES (v) makes something unusable or unbelievable

PRECEPTS (n) rules that are the basis for a philosophy or way of thinking


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