The new sky train in Bangkok runs in a North South axis from Mo Chit to On Nut through one of the craziest cities on earth. It quietly loops its way over the relentless traffic and intrigue that churns below 24-7. Compared to the oven heat and humidity outside the window, the sleek car interior feels like a refrigerator.
Noom is a 37-year-old young man who has been tattooing since 1995. He spent some time working Carnival cruise line ships that toured the world and started to tattoo on board to make extra money from bored crewmembers and passengers. He is now home again in Bangkok working in the Prakhanong neighborhood where he grew up.
The streets are cluttered with daily commerce: his sister’s restaurant located downstairs from his shop at street level, serves home made soup spiced with sweet curry and coriander. Young kids riding small-scale motorcycles weave through the congestion, spewing blue smoke from their exhaust pipes. They pause for a moment, slurp down a bowl of noodles with pork and race off into the traffic wiping their mouths.
As a young boy, Noom enjoyed art and liked to draw but his family could not afford to send him to a school that taught art. Instead he went to a practical trade school where he learned how to be an electrician. He stares mystically at the exposed electric wires running across his shop wall and chuckles, “I did all the wiring here when I first got the place. The landlord here is bad, he doesn’t do anything for the tenants. He just collects the rent…”
He has seen tattoos since he has been young. The blue-black protective charms traditional to Thailand have always been a part of his day-to-day world. His boyhood friends got tattooed with the traditional marks of his culture. The monks (Arjan) blessed the tattoos and blew on them to empower them. He had seen Western style tattoos over the years and was always curious about tattoo magazines from the USA. The images looked modern and vital to him, like exotic messages from a distant land. The images seemed like the future to him. There was color; the drawing techniques were sophisticated, and western.
Western style tattooing has become very popular in Bangkok. Kids are clamoring to wear a piece of the west on their arm. Until recently there were few places to get a tattoo in Bangkok; now like other major cities around the world, everyone is tattooing. The new competition has changed the flow of business into Noom’s shop. “I used to be the only person tattooing in this section of Bangkok,” Noom explains. “Now there are many people that people can go to. Very few of them know what they are doing but nobody cares. They want to get marked in a modern way. Not like the monks.”
He tattoos a lot of tribal work on neighborhood people. They have seen it in tattoo magazines from America and want the mark. “They don’t know what any of it is,” he comments. “They’ve seen it in magazines and think its cool. I find the whole things strange. Mostly boys get the tribal and girls get small flowers with a lot of color on their ankles and hips. Few woman get big tattoos, it goes against the nature of the culture.”
“In the old days people who got tattooed at a certain temple could identify others who got tattooed there too. They could see the particular work of an Arjan. They would identify with the others who got tattooed at the same temple. If you got into a fight in the street and saw the work of your Arjan, you would stop fighting immediately because you were in the same group.”
“People continue to get tattooed from the monks but it is fading,” Noom laments. “Different monks specialize in specific marks. Some tattoo a dot on a woman’s tongue for good business. Others tattoo the crown of the head to prevent accidents. Others put a tiger on the chest, Hanuman the Monkey King and protector of Lord Brahma on the arm. People like Hanuman because of his sincerity to protect his boss. He is selfless and devoted.”
Noom’s photo albums show the assortment of work he does. The tattoos are well done and the art is well drawn. He does not feel sentimental about the shift in tattoos in Bangkok away from the traditional. He is immersed in an increasingly shrinking world and the international scope of his tattoos describes this process well.