The Ministry of Culture’s announcement last week that a ban would be set up on all religious tattoos in Thailand has sparked great controversy and tense debates regarding human rights, leading to a moderation by the Ministry of its own plans. The initial full-scale ban was therefore reduced to one more narrowly focused on Buddhist tattoos, with Culture Minister Niphit Intharasombat declaring last week that “the first province in which the campaign will bring its point forward will be Phuket, with subsequent expansion to every other province in the country.”
To kick off the Ministry’s campaign, a meeting in Karon‘s Thavorn Palm Beach Hotel was held on Thursday afternoon, where more than 100 tattoo business operators in Phuket were invited to help implement the nationwide plans of making Buddhist tattoos more “culturally appropriate”.
According to Culture Ministry Parliament Secretary Somchai Sianglai, “we need these discussions because there were complaints from worried Buddhists all across the country and including Phuket posted on the Culture Ministry’s website including foreigners who had tattooed Buddhist images in inappropriate places on their bodies.” Although the laws in Thailand do not specifically prevent people from getting Buddhist tattoos, traditional cultural practices frown heavily upon inappropriate commercial uses of Buddhist symbols. To increase the public awareness on the matter, especially among foreign tourists, the Ministry of Culture has ordered a reprint of 10,000 manuals to be distributed among tattoo parlour operators around the country, so that clients are shown what types of Buddhist symbols have been classed as “inappropriate” for commercial use by the Ministry. The books provide the information in both Thai and English.
Nevertheless, this is not the first case when business and religion lines have been crossed in Thailand to the displeasure of the religious.
“Buddhist symbols placed on product logos, shoes and alcoholic beverages for commercial purposes have been a problem in the past as well”, stated Mr. Intharasombat. To the defence of tattoo artists, the Ministry’s Cultural Surveillance Centre’s director Ladda Tangsupachai added that “some patrons may not be aware of the commerce and cultural regulations set in place in Thailand because of the tattoo business being a fairly new market here.”
In preparation of Thursday’s meeting, tattoo operators from Phuket came up in their turn with a list of compromises that would prevent them from losing the significant business they expect to in case the new rules ban all Buddhist tattoos. According to Nontiwat Jantaraprasit, owner of Quality Tattoo Phuket in Kata, “if we can’t make them, then foreign tourists will just get Buddhist tattoos abroad, where the artists have little idea of their significance. It would be more advantageous for both sides if we did them and explained their appropriateness as well, as we will never provide such tattoos on inappropriate body parts, as we ourselves are Buddhists. We always clarify what the meanings and importance of the tattoos are before doing them, and any tattoos made on body parts seen as insulting are probably done overseas, where their meaning ins not understood.”
The list of compromises says that artists will only apply Buddhist tattoos on upper parts of the bodz and without distorting Buddha’s image in any visually negative manner. Furthermore, the importance and meaning of Buddhist tattoos in Thailand will be made clear to clients before their application.
Mr. Sianglai said the information from the artists will be collected and relayed in a report to Phuket Governor Tri Augkaradacha and other relevant officials, but the results will take time to be observed, as a cooperation is currently sought rather than a forcefully imposed solution to the issue.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Public Health has also joined the Ministry of Culture in focusing on the tattoo business, with Public Health officials set to inspect tattoo parlours all over Thailand to ensure that health standards are being respected. This comes amid concerns of infectious diseases being spread by some such establishments.