Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: My Experience on Koh Phi Phi

Should I Get a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand?

I’d wanted to get a bamboo tattoo in Thailand for quite a while. But after living in Bangkok for two years, I still hadn’t gone through with it. I delayed at first because I was unsure of what to get, and didn’t want to just get anything to say I’d done it. I’m not a tattoo fiend and the choice of image and meaning is really important to me

But by October 2014, I knew the design that I wanted – an infinity symbol. A way to always remember Thailand and how it changed my life, and a symbol of my relationship and love for my fiance Ran (who also decided to get the same bamboo tattoo).

Then, fear of the pain was keeping me away from the bamboo tattoo I wanted. I’ll admit it – I’m a baby when it comes to pain.

But on one fateful night, we’d had one too many several questionable booze buckets, and it was our very last trip to Koh Phi Phi. I had less than two weeks left in the country that had stolen my heart.

I was leaving Thailand, perhaps forever, and moving to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

After a night of drink-downing with my fiance, our bucket-fueled courage further inspired us further.

We went into a nearby tattoo parlor to get a quote and the design drawn up.

We wanted the bamboo tattoo to be all black, in the shape of the infinity on our fingers.

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand on Koh Phi Phi

Looking happy and confident with my design drawn on and approved (no needles yet!)

The guys at the tattoo place offered to give us the bamboo tattoos for 1500THB (50USD) each.

I said (or maybe the bucket did), LET’S DO IT!

The tattoo artists tried to convince us to do the bamboo tattoo on the outside of our hands as they advised that it would fade rather quickly on our palm.

I declined and decided to keep it inside, as I was working in a professional position with many clients from cultures that do not respect or approve of visible tattoos, especially on women.

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand on Koh Phi Phi

The process begins (the bamboo tattoo artist is wearing gloves, his assistant is helping hold me)

It started okay and was all very hygienic. He showed me the new needle and new ink, and wore gloves.

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand on Koh Phi Phi

Then it started hurting

It huuuuuurt.

BAD.

I wanted to give up about 10 times.

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand on Koh Phi Phi

Crying (yes, I’m a wimp)

Luckily, it was over in less than 30 minutes, and looked great!

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand on Koh Phi Phi

Me and my finished product and my artist (apologies for the blurriness – I think the photographer was just a bit tipsy)

It was cheap, it was safe (important to double check and be sure of this), and I would definitely do it again.

Now, almost 6 months later, the bamboo tattoo still looks awesome (no fading even though I did go with the palm side location!)

Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand Infinity Finger

My tattoo today

BAMBOO TATTOO FADING UPDATE: June 30, 2017 – Almost 3 years after getting our bamboo tattoos in Thailand, my now-husband’s tattoo is VERY faded, while mine looks basically the same as when I first had the tattoo done.


My Tips for Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: Think before you ink

(and even more important – think before you drink and ink)

Have a good, long, hard brainstorming process about the tattoo that you want. You’ll either have to look at it forever on your body, or pay for an expensive and painful process to have it removed. Best to do it right the first time.

Also think about bamboo versus regular machine. A machine tattoo is faster and lasts longer, but a bamboo tattoo is done by hand and is more traditional. Bamboo will fade quicker, but also heals quicker (because less layers of skin are punctured). For me, the idea of it being a traditional, cultural process was very appealing.

Talk to friends and get their recommendations. If you’re a major pain wimp (like me), maybe it’s better to go for something smaller and in a less painful place than a huge rib piece, for example.

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: Choose your parlor carefully

Check out a couple different places. Which one looks the cleanest? Do they have actual photos of previous work? What do they recommend for aftercare?

I wouldn’t recommend doing what we did: stumbling into the first tattoo parlor we saw while sauced up. We should have at least gone the day before, scoped out a few places, and made our parlor choice soberly.

The more professional and knowledgeable they seem, the better! You should be comfortable and confident with your choice, not nervous from the get-go.

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: Double check that everything is NEW

Make sure you get a new needle, new pot of ink, and that your tattooist puts on a fresh set of gloves.

Reusing needles is a major risk factor for contracting HIV and other blood borne diseases, and even double-dipped ink has its risks including hepatitis.

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: Listen to the after care advice

Apply the provided lotion/jelly (or bring your own) on the tattoo for as many days as you’re told, or more. Keep it out of sunshine, out of the water, and out of the dirt for as long as is prescribed. Sand is especially bacteria-filled. You’ve gone through all that pain – don’t ruin it now!

If you’re a bit tipsy (guilty as charged), ask for it in writing, or write it yourself so you don’t forget.

If you KNOW you’re getting a tattoo, it might be wise to bring your own tattoo aftercare kit.  And be sure to wear that sunscreen!!

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand: Think twice about sak yant

While I had always wanted the traditional Thai protection tattoo, after researching further into it, I dropped it. To get the most authentic and ancient version, the monk performing the tattoo will NOT use a new needle – meaning that the transfer of communicable diseases such as HIV or Hepatitis could take place.

Even the monks at the more modern wats who use new needles do NOT use new ink – meaning that again, you are exposed to the risk of contracting communicable blood-borne diseases, though the risk is low.


Pros and Cons of a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Pros of Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

  • Bamboo tattoos heal quicker 
    • Because the tattoo needle pierces fewer layers of skin, the healing process is faster
    • Quick healing means less possibility for infection, which is REALLY important especially in humid and not always super sanitary Southeast Asia
    • You can swim and shower normally
  • Bamboo tattoos (supposedly) hurt less
    • This is debatable because I have a machine tattoo and a bamboo tattoo and I thought the pain was pretty similar
  • Bamboo tattoos are more “authentic”
    • Because the bamboo method has been around for centuries, it is considered an artisan practice and a part of the ancient culture
  • Bamboo tattoos are harder to severely mess up
    • Because each dot/skin puncture requires a tap, the process is more under control than a constantly moving needle

Cons of a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand – and in General

  • Bamboo tattoos take a lot longer
    • Because the artist needs to “tap tap tap” each little dot, the process can take a lot longer than a machine tattoo, where the needle moves continuously
  • Bamboo tattoos fade faster
    • Bamboo tattoos puncture fewer layers of skin (causing them to heal faster, as above) but they also fade faster, as the design is therefore less protected and prone to wear

Read more about my time in Thailand here


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Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand  Getting a Bamboo Tattoo in Thailand

Would you get a bamboo tattoo in Thailand?

Or if you already got a bamboo tattoo in Asia – what did you think? Any other tips, tricks, or must-know advice?

10 Comments

  1. May 4, 2015 / 11:08 am

    You look like you’re in so much pain! I was thinking about getting one of those Thai protection (sorry, I have no idea how to call them!) tattoos made by monks..mainly because I like the idea of getting a tattoo by a monk haha. But I think it will have to wait until next time we’re in Thailand..and I feel like I’ll probably change my mind about it.

    And your tattoo looks really nice 🙂

    • May 4, 2015 / 11:20 am

      Don’t take my experience as standard 🙂 – my friends who got similar tattoos were fine.. I have a low pain tolerance and am admittedly a baby!!! Retrospectively it was a cool experience and SUCH an art, that the artist makes each little dot by hand!

      Yes I know exactly what you’re talking about – sak yant tattoos! I wanted one also but when I checked into it, the same ink is shared amongst all participants which means the risk of contracting a bloodborne disease (such as hepatitis which is very common in Asia) exists though it has not ever been officially reported (according to the monks you can’t get ill from the ink because it is sacred) and also sometimes the same needle is shared as well, due to the tradition.
      My friends have sak yant tats and nothing bad happened – but I worked in healthcare in Bangkok for two years and experienced the real-ness of Hepatitis and HIV.. And couldn’t convince myself to take the risk, however low it may be.

      And thanks! 🙂 I still love it!

  2. Agen Sabung Ayam
    February 12, 2017 / 7:31 pm

    I love Thailand, the islands, the people, the foods, …., fantastic!

    • February 14, 2017 / 11:08 am

      Me too! 🙂

  3. Kaitlin Kenny
    April 24, 2017 / 2:31 pm

    Do you remember the name of the parlor you went to? Looking to get a bamboo tattoo when in Koh Phi Phi in a few weeks and would appreciate the recommendation!

    • April 24, 2017 / 9:20 pm

      I don’t remember it, I’m so sorry! It was right on the main street though, I think across from a pharmacy (though I’d had a few buckets and the memory is pretty hazy!)

  4. November 25, 2017 / 8:55 am

    Wow!
    I really want to get this done!
    How is the pain level compared to normal tattoos?

    Kelly

    • Steph
      Author
      November 25, 2017 / 9:23 am

      I have both, and I think the pain level is pretty similar, but the bamboo tattoo takes muchhhhh longer because it’s by hand. My husband got a mediumish bamboo tattoo on his shoulder, which would normally have taken maybe an hour max with a machine, but it took hours and hours with hand-poke.

  5. Lauren Timsuwan
    July 8, 2018 / 5:14 am

    Hello.

    I feel the need to correct you on a few things. Whether a tattoo takes longer will depend on the style of the tattoo and the experience of the tattooist. Also bamboo tattoo in fact lasts a lot longer and doesn’t fade when all factors are the same. Why? Because there is no blood pushing the ink to the surface of the skin which is what happens when a machine tattoo years through the skin. However the quality of the ink plays a massive role and cheap ink will and does fade faster, irrelevant of the tattoo method. You also should have been advised to not tattoo the underside of your fingers. This tattoo will fade and look messy relatively quickly. A decent tattoist will never tattoo the palm of the hand on under the fingers as this skin is being constantly worn down.
    When looking for an artist for a bamboo tattoo they should be able to do the tattoo without anyone holding the skin for them. This is a sign of experience. However you did raise some interesting points and it would as a good read.

    • Steph
      Author
      July 8, 2018 / 12:05 pm

      Hi Lauren!

      Thanks for sharing your perspective. In terms of speed of tattooing, a bamboo tattoo takes much longer than a machine tattoo, if comparing the exact same tattoo in terms of complexity and size. A traditional bamboo tattoo tool is manipulated by hand, while a machine tattoo’s needle is automated (and machine-driven), making the needle capable of doing more punctures per minute than a hand-done tattoo.

      In terms of what lasts longer, several dermatologists I spoke to confirmed that machine tattoos last longer, but I didn’t mind and still decided to proceed with bamboo for the experience.

      I was advised that I should do the tattoo on the top of my finger rather than underside, and told of the risks. I wanted it where it was placed, and insisted despite being told of the high likelihood of fading. It’s been years now, and the tattoo looks the same as the day I received it. I guess I’m lucky, but I do appreciate that my tattoo artist gave me the information and allowed me to make my own decision, rather than simply refusing.

      The person holding me was doing it because I was moving (I have a very high pain sensitivity). They weren’t holding my skin for the tattoo artist and I appreciated the help.

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