A while ago at a convention I bought a shirt off of Permanent Mark that had a rad tiger design on it from Thailand, but the shirt was too big for me. While I was in Peru last year I cut it out and sewed it on the back of a flannel, which I brought with me, but it got stolen. So I was excited to come and find that design out here.
I met a real cool, old Thai dude that drives a tuk tuk around Attuhaya, giving tourists trips to see the awe-inspiring Wats (temples) that are strewn about the city, which were erected there around 700 years ago. I met him on the first day and he showed me his tattoos. I told him I was looking for a tiger design, he lifted his shirt and showed me his sternum. It was like I found my Thai uncle.
He set me up with a friend of his that knew a bunch of tattooers working in temples and other spots. The next day I was off to hunt down the design and get it, if the vibe was right. We rode in his friend’s tiny tuk tuk, with the engine between the two of us –hot as the devils cleft foot. I was really hung-over and my mind and my stomach were revolting against me. We looked at each other trying to communicate but it was worthless. All we could do was smile and nod to one another.
He took me to a Buddhist temple, with a couple of buildings spread around the compound. We took our shoes off, opened the gate and walked up the stairs. A golden statue stood at the entrance covered in incense and flowers and he was holding old tattoo tools.
There were four Monks in their orange robes, all tattooing, sitting Indian-style –using long rods with the needles at the end. The client also sat Indian-style leaning forward on a triangular pillow. They were using toilet paper to wipe with and smoking cigarettes with their inky black hands. No gloves.
I looked and saw they were using ink caps. It was incredibly quiet, with maybe eight or nine people sitting waiting their turn or giving support to their friends. The monks paid me no mind as I sat down to look at the books. My tuk tuk driver spoke to them, telling them that I wanted a tiger. I looked through and they did have some tiger designs, one of which I came close to getting but it wasn’t the one I was looking for –and it was hard to find a spot for it to fit –they kept suggesting I just put it over my Grime back-piece.
All the time, as tattooers, we have people coming and asking us, “What’s that mean and what’s this mean?” But with American tattoos we really don’t have much meaning to our designs. They look good and strong and that’s enough. Looking at the Thai designs though, I knew they were steeped in meaning and I couldn’t bring myself to pick one without knowing something about it.
Unfortunately, no one there spoke English, so it was a bust. One kid was just finishing up getting his tattoo done and I asked to take a look, it was done well. All of it just made of little dots. Stippletastic. Other than his new one, the rest of his back looked great –he had THE tiger I was after! It was so good. I got some photos of his work and left for the next place…
Little yapping dogs barked their little yapping heads off as we pulled into the dirt road entrance of the next spot. This was a different kind of place. It looked more like a house. Again we took off our shoes and walked up some stairs to a large room where two men were working in the same style as the monks. But these guys weren’t monks and those little dogs were everywhere.
Neither of the men looked up as we walked in. On the right side was a Thai man getting something on his back and on the left was a dude from Russia getting his back done as well. This place was heavy, the same as the last, very quiet –after the dogs shut-up.
It felt almost as if I was intruding… It reminded me of what a tattoo shop was like for me as a kid. I sat down and looked at this book of designs, which had English definitions –the designs all have different meanings. The majority of which seem to provide the wearer with some form of protection from sharp, and or, blunt objects –protection from catastrophic events etc…
Some also offer blessings such as good will from strangers and financial good luck. Without intruding too much I managed to get a peak at this guy at work, he was also smoking and using toilet paper to wipe with, which he would pick up off of the floor. He was just dipping his point into an ink bottle, no ink caps.
I was close to getting one with this guy –he didn’t have the tiger but some of the other designs were very good. When I walked over to talk to him, one of the dogs nipped at my heel and growled. He laughed. I sat next to him and asked if he would show me his tool, it was two pieces of steel with an opening dividing them in half, running along the center the reservoir for the ink, there were no needles. Then the dog bit my back and my hangover crept over me like a storm cloud, I thought of Greg Irons. I thanked him and left.
I also visited the electric tattoo shop in town. A girl from the guesthouse brought me –it was like time travel. The dude had been tattooing 20-years, you could see he loved it. He was wearing short cut off jean shorts with rock ‘n roll patches sewn all over them and had a full set of gold front teeth, he had a “HEAVY METAL” tattoo on his shoulder.
It was a small shop with photos covering all of the walls. There were clippings of old magazine articles with photos from Tattoomania, Sunset Strip, Purple Panther (the Hollywood shops) –and the pages were sun bleached. Every square inch of wall space was covered with flash or photos or skulls –tons of skulls –all sorts of animal skulls and horns everywhere.
Through the girl, and with some traveler’s sign language I asked if I could see his machines. He brought a key out of his pocket and opened up a little cupboard beneath his workstation. Inside there were five machines, with tubes already in them. Thin tubes.
He grabbed a Spaulding and Rogers machine and showed it to me. I grabbed the obviously dirty tube and checked the contact gap –there was no throw at all on that thing. He was just changing the needles and using the same tube on everyone, rinsing it out after. The tunes might have well been welded into the tube vice.
The girl that brought me to the shop got a tribal piece touched up. He set-up on his workstation (a wooden desk) with no plastic wrap or paper towels or anything… He started to tattoo –the busted capacitor produced a nice blue spark. He grabbed the lamp to adjust it and I heard his hand stick to it. I could hear the latex remove itself from all of the old Vaseline, blood and ink. It sounded like earwax.
Gnarkill, but no matter how gnarly it was, it was still amazing. I would never get tattooed there. Ever. But the people there have no other options. They can get what they can get, maybe they are stronger than us or impervious to Hep –ignorance is bliss.
Thanks for reading
From the border of Laos and Thailand
(Jason Tyler Grace is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. He can currently be found traveling the world and sometimes at Idle Hand Tattoo in San Fransisco, CA.)