They came by the thousands to gather outside Siriraj Hospital and the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. Dressed in pink and gold, the colors of health and royalty, they prayed for the recovery of their beloved King. After a lifetime of service, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej, King Rama IX of Thailand, was dying. His devoted people, young and old, rich and poor, have known no other King for forty years. After his death on October 13, 2016, they dressed in black, preparing for a mourning period that will last a year or more. Many are choosing to honor his memory in a more permanent way with artistic tattoos.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1927, Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced Pumipon Adunyadet) was the great-grandson of King Mongkut, a progressive monarch whom most Westerners know only through the simplistic portrayal of “The King And I.” Thailand is nominally a constitutional monarchy currently run by a military dictatorship. However, His Majesty still has some authority and is widely seen as a role model as well as a sacred figure and a link to his nation’s proud past.
Body art featuring Bhumibol’s picture, his name in elegant lettering, a prayerful sentiment, the Thai flag, the lyrics of the royal anthem or the number 9 are in high demand at tattoo parlors across the country. People from all walks of life want to commemorate not just his reign, but his kindhearted personality, his creative talents and his search for practical solutions to improve the country. His many socioeconomic and humanitarian projects are well known. The tattoos do not merely honor his memory but serve as a visible pledge to keep his message of progress alive.
Tattooing is respected as an art form in its own right but also has a sacred tradition. Many Thai have holy symbols inked onto their backs or arms. The ancient method, called sak yant and done with bamboo needles, is practiced by Buddhist monks at certain temples. Anyone can obtain one for the cost of an offering such as flowers, incense, cigarettes or candles. If you are a Westerner who respected Bhumibol, ask if you can have a design representing his memory.