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Breaking the law in the name of art

“Tattooing is still not really legal”, Yeshey casually remarks, as I sit down for my latest ink. “But it’s also not illegal. It’s more a cultural taboo. People are starting to come around though and I am getting more local Bhutanese people come to me. A few more years and it will be considered quite normal.”

With no formal art training, Yeshey fell into this career. Always an artist, Yeshey would look at thangkas (paintings of Buddhist deities) and then copy them freehand and from memory. “Friends liked my paintings and asked me to translate them into tattoos. Thankfully my first design turned out well. Those friends spread the word and other people started to contact me about.” He’s the first - and only - tattoo artist in Bhutan and as such has a loyal fan base. As well as a network of pilots and air hostesses who pick up tattooing supplies for him in Bangkok.

Yeshey’s freehand tattooing skills have also earned him some prestigious clients. “A great lama came to me because he was seriously ill. A fellow religious man has told him it was a mark on his body causing this sickness. He’d been advised that a portrait of a khandom (angel) on his arm would eliminate his condition. So I designed one for him. He was fully better shortly after. I don’t know if it was my artwork that cured him. Maybe?”

Because tattoos are a relatively new addition to Bhutanese culture, 99% of the people that come to Yeshey come with no real idea of what it is they want. I ask him how he decides on the designs for these clients. “I try to give each and every tattoo a meaning. First I have to ask the biography of that person. Then I build on that to design an artwork that has meaning for them personally. Many clients tell me how thankful they are that I created meaningful artwork just for them.”

I was one of the 99. After meeting Yeshey and hearing about his incredible passion for his work, I showed him an idea of a design I loved - a Bhutanese symbol for infinite love and kindness towards all beings. He left me an hour later, proud of my new design and a little in awe of this humble artist bringing a new type of tradition to Bhutan.

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