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Tattooing body art

A living art form that demands both manual skills and artistic genius; we take a look at the practice of tattooing.

  Phuket City

February 2009
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Centuries ago, historians say at least six thousand years, men discovered that if there was a break in the skin and a pigment was introduced, a permanent mark resulted. What started off as crude designs developed over the years to the level of fine art - complexity and subtlety resulting from variations in line control, shading and depth.

The word is derived from the Tahitian word "tattau" which means to mark or to brand, and it was the explorer James Cook who in 1769 first observed the practice. For these ancient societies tattoos were more than just decorative. Different designs signaled tribal allegiances, marital and class status, and there was often also a religious significance to the symbols.

The first and most obvious characteristic of tattoos is that they are permanent. The epidermis or outer layer of skin is constantly worn away by abrasion and replaced by new tissue. The tattooist penetrates beneath this layer to the dermis below (about a sixteenth of an inch maximum),which is more permanent and thus explains the longevity of the tattoo.

Originally, Thai tattooists used sharpened bamboo sticks for their work. Later they changed to a method involving a needle which ran inside a brass tube. The artist held the skin taut with one hand and inserted the needle with the other after dipping the tip in ink rather like the needle in a sewing machine. This required a good eye, a steady hand, considerable skill and years of application. The techniques were passed down through the generations, as were the Bali mask designs and images. There are still tattooists who use this method - many are to be found in the Surin Beach area.

Just to bring the story up-to-date, it was Thomas Edison who patented the first modern style, electrically driven tattooing machine in 1876. This was later improved by one Samuel O'Reilly and this design remains essentially unchanged to this day. The hand-held tool penetrates the skin thousands of times a minute, injecting ink particles of microscopic size - maybe two or three millimetres in diameter. The outline pattern is done with a single needle shading uses five to seven thinner needles in a needle bar. This is the machine you will find in use in the majority of shops in Phuket.

We talked to Wichathorn Sonsap who holds many awards for his expert designs. He spends half the year working in Sweden, and the other half here. We asked him for some guidelines on styles. Here they are:

  • These days the only limit to what can be done is the imagination of the practitioner or the recipient. 
  • Like any other artists, tattooists vary in skill so it's a good idea to look at his previous efforts, particularly if you have an intricate design in mind. Most tattoo ists will keep a photo album of past work that you can peruse. 
  • There are also lots of standard images and so on which you can choose from, or you may wish to have an original design. In this case, Wichathorn says, he would recommend that a sketch is drawn first.
  • Most importantly, he emphasizes that you should be sure in your own mind that the design's appeal won't fade over time, because the tattoo won't! Word of mouth is the best way of discovering how gentle is the touch of the practitioner - they do vary. 
  • Obviously, look for a place which is clean and hygienic with new equipment. Don't have a skinful before you go. It may give you Dutch courage but it dims the judgment and thins the blood. So does aspirin, by the way! Try spreading the work on a larger tattoo over more than one session.

Which brings us to the sixty-four thousand dollar question. "Does it hurt?" The short answer is "yes!" To the next question, "how much?" there is no easy guidance. As we've said, much depends on the touch of the tattooist, but people vary a great deal in their perception of what is painful. Generally tattoos on the back and upper arms are popular because there is lots of muscle to act as a pad. Areas which are bonier, with lots of nerve endings like the ankles or face, tend to be more sensitive. Where the design requires that the tattooist works back over a previous line

it does hurt a bit. It's not agony though, so just close your eyes and think of England.

On timing, Wichathorn says, as a guide, that a small tattoo can take half an hour to cover the whole back could take fifty hours.

If the worst were to come to the worst, the cost of removing tattoos surgically is vastly more expensive than acquiring them, and there may be some residual scarring.

If you suddenly feel the urge to emblazon your loved ones' name on your body, you might be wise to use a technique called henna painting. This body decoration allows intricate designs and if your romance fades so does the tattoo.

  Photo gallery : Tattooing body art

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