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.
Tattoos themselves draw a very mixed reaction: fond admirers or staunch critics, geography, generation, and religion all play a role. Regardless of these factors, tattoos are like the proverbial picture which is worth a thousand words.
Here are three stories I’ve captured from the past week:
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 1995, 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.
Photo credit: Built On Respect, 2011