Today on TV, we see so many TV shows dedicated to the stories behind tattoos. In the three years that I have been coming to the Tibetan community of Dharamsala in India, I’ve been quietly observing the tattoos of the people here.
In many cases, these tattoos mark the skin of former political prisoners. In other cases, they amplify the desires of those Tibetans born in exile to return to their homeland.
Here are stories I’ve captured during this trip:
Palden Gyatso was tattooed as a young monk in Shigatse (Central Tibet). Here, he talks about his tattoos, their meaning, and their ultimate removal by Chinese prison guards during the cultural revolution:
Pasang Dorjee had ‘Free Tibet’ tattooed while he was a prisoner in a Chinese forced labor camp.
In this video he refers to the ‘fake Panchen Lama’. In ’95 the Chinese government abducted the Tibetan reincarnate Panchen Lama recognized by the Dalai Lama and appointed their own in hopes of controlling Tibetan Buddhism. Dorjee was arrested while protesting a ceremony to honor the fake appointee, in which the Chinese would have paid his monastery.
Many young Tibetans, newly arrived in India from Tibet, bear tattoos. They are a mix of the cultures that this new generation faces: Tibetan, Western, and Chinese. Here, Pasang talks about the tattoo process, and why he risked his life to flee Tibet.
At 24 years old, Choedon, a Tibetan refugee, tried to peacefully walk with hundreds of others back to Tibet. Here, she talks about her arrests, and her willingness to die for her homeland, which she has never seen. Her tattoos mark this journey.
Lobsang voiced his cry for independence, and was arrested. After his release, he was continuously harassed by the police — so much so he had to close his business, and flee to India. Here, he talks about his tattoo, divided between three friends, in the hopes they can one day stand together.
Tamding is a Tibetan tattoo artist in India. Here he talks about tattoos in Tibet, the different ways he has sen them done, his own tattoos, and his first handmade machine.
Palbey is a ‘new arrival’ in Dharamsala, he only arrived from Tibet four months before this was taped. He and his family are just one of the countless victims of the protests that swept Tibet in 2008, calling for freedom under Communist oppression. He is getting this tattoo by a Tibetan artist who tattoos Tibetan political messages free of charge.
Please consider sharing these stories. Thank you so much…
[VIDEO] Palden Gyatso is the inspiration behind this series. Palden Gyatso was born in Tibet, he was ordained as a monk by the 13th Dalai Lama. Palden was arrested in the 1950s, and spent 33 years in different forced labor (laogai) camps. As a young monk, he had two ‘yundon’ (swastika) tattooed on his hands […]
Several of the tattoos in this series have been referred to as a ‘Rangzen Bracelet’ or ‘Chime Gudril’. Here is the deep-rooted history behind this symbolic image. The Life of Geshe Yulu Dawa Tsering & the Story of the Rangzen Bracelet: Rangzen is Tibetan for freedom or independence. The story of the Rangzen Bracelet begins […]
Tsetan is 35; he was born in Eastern Kham. He studied in a monastery for several years before coming to India; it was his hope to receive a more thorough education at the monastery in Southern India. His initial walk from his monastery to the capitol city of Lhasa took 15 days to walk, after […]
[VIDEO] Phuntsok notes that tattoos became most popular in the 80s in Tibet, especially amongst those who have been in prison, or are ‘strong minded’. He and his friends began getting tattoos when they were still in school, at that time they heard of the riots in Lhasa, and ‘Bho Rangzen’ or Freedom for Tibet, […]
Tashi came to India 20 years ago to receive an education. On his forearm, he has the Tibetan mantra ‘Om Mane Padme Hum’. When asked what reaction people have when they see it, he says it is a positive one, “When I walk the Kora, if someone reads it, then they are in fact reciting […]
‘Tashi’ is 27, and came to Dharamsala from Kham 7 years ago. It took him 12 days to cross the Himalayas, part on foot, partly by Jeep. He didn’t go to school in Tibet – he came to India for an education. He is from a nomadic family; his entire family is still in Tibet. […]
[VIDEO] Tamding is a young artist, he came from Amdo to India to study. He has trained in traditional Tibetan thangka painting, taught himself to play eight different Tibetan musical instruments, and also taught himself to tattoo. In the interviews above, he talks about the tattooing processes that he saw in Tibet (Including tattoos done […]
Pema was born in a nomadic area in Amdo; he came to India in the end of ’95, walking through the Himalayas took 23 days. As a child, Pema recalls his grandmother telling him stories about the 1959 Tibetan uprisings; she was only 15 then and recounted finding her father’s body in the streets, and […]
[VIDEO] Pasang Dorjee was arrested in 1993 and placed in a forced labor camp near Chengdu. A monk at that time, he hung up Tibetan flags, and handed out pamphlets, calling for China to leave Tibet, for the release of political prisoners and the release of the Panchen Lama. In 1996, after the Chinese abducted […]
[VIDEO] Pasang came to India in 2007 with the same aim as many youth, to get an education, and have an audience with the Dalai Lama. His skin bears the marks of Western, Tibetan and Chinese cultures. Pasang got his first tattoos in Tibet, both were done by hand with an thread-wrapped needle soaked in […]
[VIDEO] Palbey is a ‘new arrival’ in Dharamsala, he only arrived from Tibet four months before he got this tattoo. He and his family are just one of the countless victims of the protests that swept Tibet in 2008, calling for freedom under Communist oppression. In his youth, Palbey was a nomadic farmer. Not fully […]
‘Moon’ came to India when he was only six. The only thing he remembers is he spent one year in the border town of Dam, and a local businesswoman walked across ‘Friendship Bridge’ with him (Border between China and Nepal), and he was sent to school. His family is all still in the Utsang region […]
[VIDEO] Lobsang voiced his cry for independence, and was arrested. After his release, he was continuously harassed by the police — so much so he had to close his business, and flee to India. Here, he talks about his tattoo, divided between three friends, in the hopes they can one day stand together.
Kunchok was eight when he came to India. He came with an uncle, there were 18 people in their group, and it took them over two weeks or walking to reach Nepal, they crossed at Shagonpo La. In Tibet, he completed two years of school, his family wanted him to come to India for his […]
Jigme is 23; he came from Kham when he was 18 years old. He had his tattoos done while he was in Tibet, they were done by hand – a needle wrapped in thread was dipped into calligraphy ink. On his upper arm he has a ‘yundon’ circled in flames, a “traditional old Buddhist symbol” […]
Jigme came from Utsang. He got his tattoo as part of a healing process. Before he got it, he says that he was on the wrong path — he was doing a lot of drugs. Last year, he says he ‘saw the light’ in a way, and decided that he needed to have this tattoo, […]
[VIDEO] Dorjee is 29 years old, he fled Tibet for India six years ago because there was “no freedom in Tibet”. He has “Bod Rangzen” (Freedom for Tibet) tattooed on his upper right arm. At first he tattooed both words in blue ink but it faded. Later he redid the tattoo in darker ink to […]
Dawa is 26, she was born in exile in Delhi to Tibetan parents. She is now an American citizen. She chose not to show her face because she hopes to visit Tibet one day. Dawa has one tattoo, a chime gudril on her wrist. The modern meaning for this design is ‘freedom’ – it represents […]
[VIDEO] At 24 years old, Choedon, a Tibetan refugee, tried to peacefully walk with hundreds of others back to Tibet. Here, she talks about her arrests, and her willingness to die for her homeland, which she has never seen. Her tattoos mark this journey.
Choegyal is 32 years old; he came to India in 2004. He has two small tattoos on his hand, a ‘yundon’ and the letters ‘KO’. He had these done in prison as a symbol of friendship among his cellmates. He had the ‘yundon’, or swastika design done because Tibetans consider this as a religious symbol […]
Babs is in his early 20s, he was born in Lhasa, and escaped to in 1995 when he was only seven. He has more tattoos than most of his friends: ‘No Pain No Gain’ on his forearm, his school room number and a woman on his upper arm, an ‘Om’ symbol on his arm and […]
April was born in Tibet, but came to India for school when he was only seven, he is alone in India, all of his family are still in Tibet. On his neck, he has the word ‘Imagine.’ His favorite lyrics from Lennon’s classic song are: Imagine there’s no countries It isn’t hard to do Nothing […]
Comments are closed.
Built on Respect is a non profit dedicated to raising human rights awareness through journalism and hands on action. Founder, Heidi Minx, also works in the Tibetan community of Dharamsala to lend development support to local non-profits.