History of Tibetan Tattoos

by Mark Henderson

A Brief History of Tibetan Tattoos

For anyone interested in tattoos and in particular the history of Tibetan tattoos, which are closely linked to the Buddha, this article provides valuable insight into how tattoos came into being and their history and symbolism in Tibet, the rooftop of the world.

The word tattoos it is interesting to note is derived from the Polynesian word ‘ta’ meaning to strike something and the Tahitian word ‘tatau’ meaning to mark something. Tattoo history dates back some 5000 years and has a diversity that is unsurpassed. A tattoo is created by inserting colored materials underneath the skin surface to form a particular design or pattern.

The Tibetan people are one of the most courageous and friendly races – a people who have lost their country but not their hope. The Tibetans are a strong race that have not given up and a country that has embraced the teachings of the Buddha, closely weaving them into the very fabric of their existence. The Tibetans’ use of symbols and tattoos to integrate culture and tradition into Buddhism is a thing of beauty indeed.

While the Buddha discouraged the use of images, over the years different cultures interacting with Buddhism gave rise to a rich and varied Buddhist iconography which includes tattoos. The Tibetan people have adopted the Buddha tattoos for their own and created a history of Tibetan tattoos that blends their culture and traditions to give new meaning to them.

The history of Tibetan tattoos shows intricate and fanciful designs and depicts the teachings of the Buddha. Some of these Buddha tattoos are discussed in detail below to bring to mind the richness of history and tradition that lie behind them.

Mandalas are geometrical designs which symbolize the universe and are used by Buddhists in meditation.

Mantra tattoos are traditional Buddhist tattoos depicting luck, wealth and blessings.

You can find tattoos that are geometric designs of the images of Buddha and the style of the tattoo helps to avoid harm and evil spirits.

The Mudra representing the seated Buddha symbolizes the setting in motion of the wheel of teaching.

The Time wheel relates to the cycles of time in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Dharma wheel which has eight spokes which represents the eightfold noble path and symbolizes the wheel of truth and law. Spinning the Dharma wheel is believed to change destiny’s course and the spokes represent thought, speech, actions, livelihood, understanding, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Lotus blossom tattoos have meanings that vary based on the colors and the drawing style. Pink signifies the Buddha himself, white signifies purity of mind and body, red signifies purity in matters of the heart and blue signifies wisdom and the triumph over physical desires.

According to the Tibetans the body is not clean and therefore religious tattoos which are sacred should not be placed on the body or anywhere unclean. Furthermore, the Tibetan mantras and letters are also considered sacred and as such should not be placed on the ground or stepped on.

In ancient Tibetan culture names, words and mantras of the Buddha were not tattooed on the body; this came about only after the Chinese invasion.

The history of Tibetan tattoos portrays beautiful works of art, intricately drawn and colored, however, you should be careful not to insult the Tibetan people by putting the designs anywhere below your waist.

Tibetan tattoos are gaining in popularity and with a vast array of designs and scripts available, all linked to Tibetan Buddhism and Tibetan culture, you can choose from Buddha tattoos that include prayers, mandalas, mantras, mudras and auspicious symbols in several different scripts – your options are endless.

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