My very first tattoo was quite an ambitious half chest/back/sleeve by Sean Parry aka Sacred Knot Tattoo. Sean’s traditional Nordic/European style of knotwork, mythical beasts, ancient gods, and protective symbols are all done in black ink with dotwork (using the needle to add detail with many individual dots) for texturing instead of shading. The piece itself is of Jörmungandr, a child of the Norse trickster Loki, and is a sea serpent which grew so big that it eventually encircled the world. The tattoo was completed in around 12 hours over two consecutive days. Within the design Sean added depictions of stories from Norse mythology such as Thor’s fishing trip with the giant Hymir.
An excellent resource for these stories is Neil Gaiman’s book Norse Mythology which presents these stories in an entertaining format for the contemporary reader and I highly recommend it.
At the time, Sean was a resident artist at Meatshop Tattoo in Madrid. Sean’s instruction to me was “bring a towel”. As it was my first tattoo I figured that this was normal tattoo etiquette, but I discovered subsequently that it wasn’t so. However, for every tattoo session after this one I always brought along a towel as it serves so many purposes, a makeshift pillow for your head or between your knees if you’re on your side, wiping up sweat if the session gets intense, and covering your dignity for those more intimate tattoo areas. Douglas Adams said it best in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.“
Snakes! My mother hates them but I’ve always loved them! They are fascinating creatures, and often very deadly. Snakes have been a part of the mythology of many cultures and are symbolic of healing, fertility and transformation. This snake however is purely aesthetic as I love the style of Mirko Sata, based in Milan, Italy. The white accents didn’t hold on my skin though but it still looks great after healing.
This tattoo was done the day after my first tattoo with Sean was completed, and I had to catch a quick flight from Madrid to Milan to make it happen. One very important lesson I learnt from this session is to give yourself time to recover between receiving tattoos. Having a tattoo done which takes a few hours is physically and mentally draining and without adequate recovery you will struggle to remain composed if you continue to be tattooed day after day as your body uses up it’s energy reserves. Of course, learning a lesson is one thing but actually applying what you learn is not always the case.
No matter how skilled the artist is, sometimes the ink just doesn’t hold within the skin after the tattoo has been completed. After a month of healing I noticed that the ink in my top shoulder had fallen out and after sending a pic to Sean, he confirmed that it needed to be touched up. Now even though any tattoo artist could be up to that job, I decided that my personal policy would be that only the original artist would perform any necessary touch ups. This meant however that, being in the Czech Republic at the time, I needed to catch a flight to Barcelona as that’s where Meatshop tattoo had moved to.
Sean graciously offered to do the touch up at no charge so off I flew and rented a car, and drove for 3 hours, and missed my return flight due to roadworks, for a touch up that lasted all of 10 minutes. Totally worth it 🙂 How well the ink holds in any part of the skin can vary. Generally the thinner areas with less pigment (under hands and feet especially) don’t hold ink very well and may require multiple touch ups. Those areas often require the needle to be inserted deeper which means more pain, as I would later experience on my palms.
While in the Czech Republic I decided to visit Nayana at Hell.cz for my second aesthetic based tattoo. My design for her would be a swallow with the head as a skull. The swallow tattoo was historically used by sailors to show their sailing experience or number of nautical miles they’ve travelled. At my previous job I did many work related international flights and my move from the corporate world to working remotely was considered a type of rebirth to me. Rebirth and celebration of life are two meanings associated to skull tattoos.
Her design encompassed this idea perfectly as what I envisioned was it being done in the style of a medieval woodcut print. In my eagerness to get tattooed by her I chose to do it on the day of my flight back from Prague to Cape Town, let me emphatically state that getting a tattoo when you’re about to get onto an international flight is not a wise idea. Security will pick up the tattoo covering in their x-ray scanner and airports are not exactly the most germ free areas, so you’ll need to apply healing cream numerous times a day which will have to be done in the lavatory for privacy. Needless to say the risk of infection of a fresh tattoo in an airport is high. Fortunately I didn’t get an infection but the discomfort of having to sit on a long haul flight with a sensitive new tattoo made this a learning experience which I will never repeat.
Around 10 years before I got my first tattoo, I wasn’t at a point of even considering or looking for potential tattoo artists. To be honest, I pretty much forgot about the early ink I saw on people around me and the designs which appealed to me. Then I came across a recently released Thai movie (Yamada: The Samurai Of Ayothaya), and it featured what was to become my introduction to traditional Thai tattooing, otherwise known as Sak Yant (Sak meaning “to jab”, Yant meaning “contraption”). These tattoos are hand poked using a metal rod with a sharpened point, called a Khem Sak. These tattoos are meant to bestow the bearer with protection, wealth, charisma, and other powers, and consist of intricate scripts, deities and animal symbolism.
At the time I was working a job which did not allow for me to afford the cost of the trip or the tattoo itself but my interest in receiving tattoos was freshly sparked by this discovery. There was one apprehension I had though, what if I made the trip out there and discovered that my pain threshold was low and that I would not be able to go through the entire process? I had no idea what to expect in terms of the level of pain or discomfort, but my mind had been made up. I wanted this style of traditional tattoo and in 2016 I was on a plane to Bangkok to make it a reality. It was also around this time that I started discovering the traditional tattoo styles from many cultures around the world, I had no idea that tattooing had such a primitive history and I spent many hours researching the designs and methods of these cultures and what tattooing meant to each of them. An excellent resource for historical tattoos is the book Ancient Ink by Lars Krutak as well as the documentary series he produced.
Even though I wanted my first tattoo to be a traditional Thai Sak Yant, this wasn’t the case. In December of the same year in which I got my first tattoo from Sean Parry, I managed to arrange with Paeng at Bangkok Ink to visit one of their resident Sak Yant masters (or Ajarn in Thai, which also means teacher) named Ajarn Ohr Borthong. Bangkok Ink itself is a well renowned tattoo studio and their service included being picked up from my hotel and transported to Ajarn Ohr’s house 2 hours outside of Bangkok. Ajarn Ohr’s home was bustling with other tattoo devotees and after a short wait it was my turn.
Ajarn Ohr is so skilled that he doesn’t need to use a stencil for his tattoos, he just marks off the boundaries of the area the Sak Yant will cover and tattoos from memory. He is also incredibly fast and all the ink done in this session was completed in 4 hours. In terms of the pain, well a tattoo does involve a needle pushing ink under your skin so at the least it will be uncomfortable. But with that said it is bearable for the most part, with my lower back being the area which I struggled with the most especially directly on my spine. Pain will vary from individual to individual though, regardless of the tattoo technique or area being inked. The main difference between being inked with a machine versus being hand-poked is that with hand poking the ink is only pushed under the skin whereas with a machine it’s still being pushed under but the skin is also being torn as the needle is dragged. This means that machine tattoos are a notch higher in pain levels and the healing time is also longer. Many people think that being hand poked is more painful but it only looks that way in application. The less trauma to the skin from hand poking means that the tattoo heals in about half the time of a machine based tattoo. Hand poking is a significantly longer process though, so it comes down to being able to endure less trauma for a longer time versus more trauma over a shorter time period for machine tattoos.
Bangkok Ink is still around but Paeng has moved on to open her own tattoo business, Thai Tattoo Cafe.
The Sak Yants I received:
Hah Taew: The 5 line yant, with each line representing a magical spell. Each spell is determined by the tattoo master and examples are: reversing bad horoscope predictions, protection from evil, enhancing charisma, and bringing good fortune. The origin of this tattoo dates back to over 700 years ago.
Hanuman: A Hindu monkey god whose Sak Yant bestows the bearer with protection from danger, becoming fearless in the face of adversity, increased confidence, and mental focus, among others.
Kwai Tanu: A buffalo whose greatest power is to ward off black magic.
Paetch Payatorn: A boar which grants the bearer strong charisma and business skills.
Many of the regions within South East Asia have a rich historical tattoo culture. In today’s world the younger ink enthusiasts tend to prefer more contemporary tattoo styles and trends, and most tattoo studios cater to this. Some artists, however, are dedicating their talents to the preservation of the ancient ways and one such tattooist is Albar Tikam of Suku Suku Tatau in Bali. Albar started out as a machine tattoo and body modification artist but soon went back to his ancestral roots by studying the traditional tattoo styles of that region.
Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world (with over 500 languages and dialects, and over 17 000 islands) and has the largest Muslim population of any country. The traditional tattoos stem from the tribal regions with the most dominant styles coming from the Mentawai and Iban people. As with most traditional tattoos, their ink represents a much deeper meaning than just the designs. They signify family lineage, wisdom, and social status, among other things such as the transition into adulthood. There are designs for both males and females and the placement of these on the body are very specific. These designs are inked onto the body using a thorn or sharpened bone and the ink is made from fire smoke and sugar cane water. Over time all the tattoos on an individual become interconnected as that person reaches the various stages of their life, so these tattoos truly tell a story of each person. It is also believed that the oldest evidence of tattoos in the world may be from the people in this region.
The piece he did for me was placed around the first Sak Yant (of Hanuman, the semi-divine monkey like figure in Buddhism and Hinduism) and complements it with traditional patterns of protection.
Watsun has a unique style of art in that he creates sigils based off words chosen either by him or the receiver of the tattoo. His style resonated with me immediately but getting hold of him was not easy. In my case, without an appointment, I got on a plane from Cape Town to Maine, USA and just showed up at the tattoo studio he was working at. This proved to be successful and my session was secured.
I only intended to have the three sigils done on my abdomen, but inspiration struck Watsun and a second session was booked. This second session was the first time that any of my previous ink was bound together (the lightning branches he added coming out of Mirko’s snake and Sean’s wyrm) which set a trend for all my future pieces, in that my final goal was now to have a cohesive flow of tattoos from different artists.
On my second trip to Prague I met up with Stanislav Gromov (originally from Russia) who has a style which is reminiscent of urban graffiti although it has evolved into a much darker form of script which leans more towards the style of logos used for black metal bands. The latter style is what got my attention on Instagram and this would be another of my aesthetically based tattoos. What I asked of him was something I have also done with most of my other artists, give them free reign of the design. Unless there is a specific concept I want from them, my approach is to let them come up with the final piece with only the necessary amount of input from me for them to understand what I’m seeking. I am collecting their art on my skin, so it is more about a unique piece from a world-renowned tattoo artist rather than just a copy of something else (although I have also had tattoos which were from pre-existing designs by the artists themselves). I have been fortunate enough to have been with artists who not only provided this but who have also looked at how their work would tie in with any existing pieces I already had.
The lesson I learnt from this piece was not to assume that any specific area on your body will hurt more or less than any other part. The general rule is that the closer the area is to the bone the more painful it will be. For the most part that is true, and I thought that the calf being a very meaty area would not be too painful, but I was very much mistaken. It was a brutal session, and it took a long time for the swelling and pain to dissipate. Again though, pain levels for any tattoo will vary between individuals.
My lesson to you is this: if you want a tattoo in a specific area, then get it there. The caveat to this is to know how your job prospects would be affected by any visible ink. But do not concern yourself over the pain. Tattoos hurt wherever you get them, but it may just be an uncomfortable hurt that is mostly bearable. Or it could be a hurt that is taking you to the point of passing out. But, if there is a specific tattoo which you want in a specific place, you will be mentally strong enough to handle and overcome whatever pain that area throws at you.
While attending the London tattoo convention I met a married Ajarn (teacher/master in Thai) couple who both did traditional Thai Sak Yants. Ajarn Matthieu is originally from Réunion Island (fun fact: as Réunion is part of France but is located off the east coast of Africa, the flight from there to France is considered the longest domestic flight in the world) but moved to Thailand where he met and married Ajarn Rung. After speaking with them and seeing their work I decided that I would like them to complete the sleeve of my left arm. This would be the start of multiple travels to see them which included the Belgium Tattoo Convention shortly afterwards and then a few visits to their home in Hua Hin, Thailand for more Sak Yants on various other areas of my body.
The piece completed in this session was that of a Naga, a semi-divine river beast with supernatural powers which is considered part human and part cobra, and who’s demeanour can vary between malevolent and benevolent. In Sak Yant form it represents kindness, popularity, luck, good fortune and wealth.
There is some controversy here though, specifically regarding Ajarn Rung being a female Sak Yant practitioner. I was told that the magical properties of Sak Yants are invalid if applied by a woman, but I was assured by Ajarn Matthieu that this is not the case. It is not my place to pass judgement on this tradition and I respect the tattoos which were given to me and will honour them and Ajarn Rung accordingly.