Palm trees, blue skies, clear water, sand crabs, fruit shakes, and happy tourists on rented motorbikes. That’s what we found on Ko Lanta, a gorgeous island off the southern peninsula of Thailand.
We also found Mr. Sitt and Wel, two of Thailand’s most talented tattoo artists. Thailand is an extremely popular tattoo destination, especially for westerners: sometimes a chance to get a permanent souvenir of their holiday, other times an opportunity to get a custom design at an affordable price.
We loved chatting with these two. A brilliant mix of talented and humble, we talked to them about how they got started in the field, tattoo culture in general, traditional Thai tattoos, and what makes them tick.
Introducing Mr. Sitt:
Where are you from?
Do you live locally on Ko Lanta?
I live in the shop. Well, when you work as many hours as I do …I might as well live here.
You’re a tattoo artist, where are your tattoos?!
(Laughs) I don’t like so many.
How did you get into tattooing?
I studied Engineering in Bangkok, but a lot of the companies closed so I could not find a job after I graduated. So I have never worked as an engineer. I taught myself tattooing.
Did you enjoy Bangkok?
Yes, for that time it was nice. There are many people and many things to do. Now I go there on vacation for a week, maybe 3 days and it’s too busy for me.
How did you change from engineer to artist?
I couldn’t find a job with my engineering degree. I was looking for one for 3 months and one day I looked in the mirror after a shower and saw my first tattoo (a phoenix on my upper arm to celebrate finishing high school) and realised.. I could do that, and that’s what I want to do. I told my parents about my idea and they said no because I had a degree as an engineer. I didn’t have much money, I borrowed some from friends. One friend 1000 baht, another friend 2000 baht, and bought what I needed with that. My first tattoo was a tribal design that was very small but took 3 hours. I sweated a lot!
Was it easier the second time?
That was 15 years ago, it’s easier now.
So you taught yourself by practicing?
Yes. I read a lot of magazines and learned by doing.
How did you choose Ko Lanta as the place for your shop?
I heard there weren’t too many American and English people here, sometimes they are too loud. There is a lot of Swedish but they are more chilled. Also, there aren’t many French people. I find it hard to understand them which is difficult when talking about tattoos. Sometimes I draw for many hours, when they come back there has been a misunderstanding and I have to re-do the whole thing.
What’s the difference between the normal tattoo machine and the bamboo tattoo method?
The machine is 50 strokes per second and bamboo is just 2.
Does it hurt less to have a bamboo tattoo?
Yes, 50% less than machine.
Do a lot of people scream in pain?
No. Fifteen years I’ve been doing this and no girl has ever passed out. Only men have when they have a lot of muscle!
Is it cheaper or more expensive to have the bamboo method?
It depends on the size as it takes a long time to create it by hand.
Do most people opt for the bamboo, or do they mostly choose the machine?
Bamboo is the traditional Thai method and it’s easier to take care of after too, they are quicker to heal.
Do all tattoo studios use the same ink?
Mostly. I use one that suits us. You have to be careful though as there are fake inks from China that don’t always stay in the skin and can cause infection.
Do people ask you to design the tattoo, or do they normally already know what they want?
Sometimes they ask me to draw but usually they have seen what they want before and come with a design.
Do people ask to keep the line drawings you make when designing custom tattoos?
Not usually. I put them up on the wall for examples.
Do you keep sketchbooks of your work?
I do each tattoo one by one, no books.
Next we spoke to Wel, Mr Sit’s colleague…
How did you get in to tattooing?
I like it. If you don’t like it, you don’t start.
Did you study drawing?
I just learned, I like to draw. When I was 14 I would not go to school, I’d go to my friend’s tattoo shop on Phi Phi Island.
Did you work there before here?
My Mother had a restaurant there so I stayed there when I was young. I saw a lot of the tattoo shops and I liked what they did. Then I came here and learned. At first, I only helped them stretch the skin in preparation for the tattoo, that’s the first stage.
Mr Sitt said that he was really scared the first time he did a tattoo, was it the same for you?
Do you get the same fear every time?
Not anymore, but before. The first, second and third. When they are simple like this (the three crown design I’m putting on the customer now) I don’t get nervours, but the first time I did a dragon I was scared. Now, not anymore.
How long have you been doing this for?
I started at 14 and now I’m 21.
How did you meet Mr Sitt?
(They both laugh) I think he can tell you better.
This sounds like a good story! Mr Sit, how did you both meet?
He worked in the enemy’s shop. Then he followed me here.
When was this?
About 4 years ago.
What do you like best about your job?
Finishing a tattoo and seeing the customers smile. We make dreams, we build a dream. Tattoo artists put the dream on the customer. For my customer, they dream the dream, then they come to me and I draw and put the dream on them. I like this a lot. You can read in the comments book how happy people have been. Sometimes we cry together!
Tears of joy?
Yes yes! A guy last week he came to me and asked for a tattoo of two fists together to remind him of his very best friend. Every time he saw his friend they would do this, like a handshake. They did it for 20 years. He was crying when he saw it finished.
Would you change anything if you were to start over?
Maybe I’d help with the family business–palm oil.
Do you think you’ll do this for the rest of your life?
Well, I like cooking too actually, I’m going to open a restaurant with a Swedish friend down the street, make Thai & Swedish food.
What else do you like to do?
I’d like to make a bar too, we’ll see. Being a business owner is great for making friends.
How is the tattoo scene in Thailand different from other places?
Well in terms of the television shows.. LA ink is quite scripted. London Ink is more realistic.
Why do Thai people age so well?
Its all the chili we eat, contains special ingredient which helps regenerate cells. And herbs.
How old are you?
Who is the most famous tattoo artist in Thailand?
Jimmy Wang, his family also makes tattoos and he even started the tattoo convention in Bangkok.
Do you have any advice for people wanting to start a career in tattooing?
It’s easy! Go to youtube and look at ‘How to make tattoo’ and then go to ebay and get a machine.
Special thanks to Mr. Sit and Wel for the interview, and to Christer Roosk for being a fantastic sport and letting us photograph him being tattooed.
If you’d like to contact Mr. Sitt and Wel for a custom tattoo, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call +66816797805 or visit Lanta Ink in Saladan on Ko Lanta, Thailand.
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