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Although Japanese style tattoos are the boldest and best-known of the Asian tattoo practices, the tradition of Buddhist tattooing has been going on quietly for centuries. Now with tattooing becoming more mainstream in Western cultures, and with increased contact with the various Asian countries and expanding knowledge of their histories and cultures, more people are aware of and interested in Buddhist tattooing.
Unlike Western tattooing which frequently is pursued either to signal membership to a select group, or to announced rejection of mainstream values, tattooing in the Buddhist tradition comes from a place of spirituality and personal meaning. It has one of the strongest histories of written text within the designs, as many of the applied patterns are in fact prayers and blessings with not as much emphasis put on pictorial images. When a Thai or Chinese Buddhist goes to get a tattoo, it is most often being done as part of that person's spiritual work, with supplication a prime component behind the choice of design and placement of the final tattoo. Tattoo artists who do this sort of work are often Buddhist priests or monks.
Most often executed by traditional hand methods, the tattoos are applied using a long, sliding needle that moves up and down inside a metal tube. The finished designs have a pointillist quality to them as all the small dots are left more unconnected than in modern, machine tattooing. Sometimes the tattoo process is accompanied by the making of special offerings to various deities or the recitation of prayers as the tattoo is being inked.
Although the prayers and images are guided by Buddhist tenets, the wishes and motivations behind the skin designs remain universal. Themes such as health, luck, strength, success and prosperity are just as popular as they are in the West, just illustrated very differently. Animals from the Buddhist tradition make frequent appearances: tigers, lions, peacocks, snakes and elephants are among the more commonly seen.
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