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The Controversy Surrounding Buddha Tattoos

The Controversy Surrounding Buddha Tattoos
Tattoo Ideas12 min Read


In this guide to Buddhist pieces, we look at the history, legality, symbols, and inspiring imagery of Buddha tattoo designs.

There is much discussion surrounding the concept of getting a Buddha tattoo. While some see it as a sign of devotion, others see it as blasphemy. Of course, this mainly comes down to cultural differences but it’s extremely important to keep these contrasts in mind so as to empower the teachings of Buddha through respect.

In this piece about Buddha tattoos, we will not only give you a brief intro into Buddhism, but we’ll also examine the legality, controversy, and cultural importance of Buddha representations. Additionally, we’ve curated some of the best Buddha tattoo designs as inspiration!

Why Buddhism and Buddha Tattoos?

The teachings of Buddha reach far and wide. And there are many reasons why so many people resonate with the life that he led, the lessons that he taught. Buddhism may have been split over many different sects over the centuries, but the foundation is much the same: the Four Noble Truths.

These four truths acknowledge the undeniable existence of suffering but they also provide a relief for that suffering...and not just yours, but everyone. The key to freedom from innate pain is The Noble Eightfold Path: a practice that includes compassion, meditation, mindfulness, giving, and other common traits that have a powerful, as well as positive, effect on the world.

Beyond Buddha’s wonderful advice to live a more fulfilling life he also taught us that all sentient beings have what is called “Tathāgatagarbha”: inherent Buddha nature. Meaning that anyone, and everyone, already has enlightenment within them...they just have to uncover it.

Buddhism is, at its core, beautifully inclusive...and it’s all of these things, and many more that have inspired so many people to follow his way or to illustrate their skin with depictions of him whether it be a small Buddha tattoo or a Buddha symbol tattoo. Believe me, there are many ways to show your love...and ink is just one of them that can be highly transformative if done in a way that is pure of heart.

Buddha Tattoo FAQ

What is the meaning of Buddha tattoo?

The meaning of a Buddha tattoo is usually all about love and a devotion to the Buddhist practice. Similar to someone getting a cross tattoo, or a rosary bead tattoo, a Buddha tattoo denotes that a person is serious about their faith and wants to show this on their skin. However, some people simply like the aesthetics of Buddhist culture which may not be the right reason to get a Buddha tattoo, as we explain below.

Are Buddha tattoos offensive?

A Buddha tattoo can be offensive to some people in varying cultures, especially those that keep Buddhism at the core of its religious or value system. The teachings of Buddha, and depictions of him, are considered deeply sacred and holy. They deserve respect especially because they are not meant to be merely decorative or ornamental.

Is it disrespectful to have a Buddha tattoo?

Yes. It can be disrespectful. Yoni Zilber, a tattooist who specializes in Tibetan art, explains, “Images of the Buddha and Tibetan mantras are very sacred and should be respected. It is customary to hang pictures of Buddha at the highest place in your house, and treat it with respect. If you put it on your body, especially on a lower part, it can be seen as extremely disrespectful. You sit on the toilet with this part of the body and lay it on the sand at the beach. The Buddha is not supposed to end up in such inappropriate places.”

Can Buddhist monks get tattoos?

Yes, Buddhist monks can get tattoos! Perhaps the most famous example of this are the monks of Wat Bang Phra. The Buddhist monks of this Thailand based temple practice the sacred art of Sak Yant tattoos. But however, believe it or not, there are many different monks who are also tattooed.

Alexander Reinke, also known as Horikitsune, is a skilled Irezumi tattooist who was ordained as a Zen monk in 2011. Josh Korda, although he chooses not to be an ordained monk, is tattooed from the top of his head to toe, and he is extremely significant to the United State’s contemporary Buddhist community.

They are both great examples of many Europeans and Westerners who have embraced the Buddhist way as well as tattoos….but this does mean that they have training, and appropriate understanding, to get tattoo designs that are respectful and honorable.

Are Buddha tattoos illegal in Thailand and other buddhist countries?

Technically no. Buddha tattoos are not illegal in Thailand nor in Sri Lanka. But they are seriously frowned upon, and both Thailand, as well as Sri Lanka, have called for bans. Myanmar, also known as Burma, is another country where these tattoos are not acceptable. They not only see Buddha tattoos as cultural appropriation, but also as highly disrespectful to their religious values, icons, and history.

Can you get arrested if you have a Buddha tattoo?

Yes, you can get arrested in certain areas if you have a Buddha tattoo. In an article by Mark Hay for Tricycle Magazine, he gives a few examples, “In 2013 and 2014, respectively, Sri Lanka deported British tourists Anthony Ratcliffe and Naomi Coleman, both of whom had Buddhist tattoos on their arms. In August 2015, 15 state officials arrested Jason Polley, a Canadian tourist, and his girlfriend, Margaret Lam, at their Myanmar hostel after photos of Polley’s Buddhist tattoos went viral.”

What are the most acceptable body parts to get a Buddha tattoo?

The most acceptable body part to get a Buddha tattoo is anywhere above the waist.

Should I cover my Buddha tattoo while traveling in Buddhist countries?

Yes, you should definitely cover your Buddha tattoo while traveling in Buddhist countries. It is a sign of respect, and will ensure that you don't incur any unnecessary trouble during your stay.

Why is getting a Buddha tattoo bad?

Getting a Buddha tattoo may be bad if not done in a respectful or pure hearted manner. Some people who hold these beliefs as sacred see it as cultural appropriation or simply blasphemous. While others argue that because Buddhism is a “universal belief system”, or because Buddhism embraces nonattachment and the integral emptiness and transience of all things, that the imagery really doesn’t matter.

But, regardless of your belief, if your tattoo causes pain to others then it may go against Buddhist values. In short, your ego-based choice to do something that you know specifically may hurt others emotionally, can invert a piece that you meant as something beautiful.

What can I get instead of a Buddha tattoo?

Instead of a Buddha tattoo, you can get many Buddhist symbols that are also very meaningful and indicative of your strong devotion or beliefs. So much of Buddhist art is absolutely beautiful. If you’re in New York, make sure to check out the Rubin Museum of Art. Or you can also check out books like those by Robert Beer or Dagyab Rinpoche. But you can also create your own symbols and designs with meaning!

Buddhism is a personal journey for all of us...for me, a vision of a still lake reflecting the sky perfectly represents my Zen practice. For others, an endless knot may merge their Irish and Buddhist histories together. Or perhaps, a motorcycle wheel can be an homage to your love of bikes and the Dharmachakra.

Buddhism is about being authentic, pure,, what does that mean for you and your personal visual language? If you don’t know yet: play with it! Create it! Be spontaneous and have fun with it. It also truly helps if you find an artist who knows about these things and can help you on a journey to find a Buddhist tattoo with unique meaning just for you.

Advice on Buddha Tattoos from Yoni Zilber

In an interview with Ross Howerton, Yoni Zilber spoke of a significant experience he had in relation to tattooing. “I met a very high ranking Lama in India, and I asked him what he thought about sacred Tibetan images tattooed on people’s bodies. He said tattoos are beautiful, but he’s not so fond of seeing mantras and Buddhas tattooed on people,” Zilber recalls.

“But he also acknowledged that if it’s done in a respectful way, not on your butt or close to your crotch, he sees it as a way that you can show respect in a meaningful way. Because of this, now I won’t tattoo any sacred image under the waist, and I believe, if you put it on your skin, then you better respect it.”

“If someone wants to get a tattoo of a Buddha, please know that the image is sacred to many people, and they don’t look at it as only a decorative thing,” Zilber says. “I would get something else if it’s just for the look, but if you’re going to, don’t get it under your waist. Position it on your arms or upper back, that way if you travel to the Far East you don’t get weird looks or, worse, in trouble, depending on who you encounter.”

Tattooists Who Work With Spiritual Iconography

Properly Placed Buddha Tattoo Design Ideas

Buddha tattoo sleeve

A Buddha tattoo sleeve involves the whole arm and is a great way to show people that you are truly devoted to your path. This is also a great chance to include many different symbols from Buddhism as well.

Buddha back tattoo

Though you may not be able to see it yourself, think of a Buddha back tattoo as a way to carry him with you always in a very special place!

Buddha tattoo forearm

Similar to a Buddha tattoo sleeve, a Buddha tattoo forearm placement is great because if you want this piece as a permanent reminder to keep to the Buddhist way, he’ll always be there to guide you.

Buddha tattoo arm

The torso is the best place to put a Buddha tattoo in general, especially because it means that you can easily cover them if you're in the company of someone you don't want to upset! Upper arm is best but truly anywhere on your torso is a good spot.

Buddha chest tattoo

Many people choose to get a Buddha chest tattoo because this placement is the closest to the heart. You’ll see him everyday, as will others you choose to show your piece to.

Fun piece- chest piece on André. Not my usual style, but I thought I’d share it anyway ? laughing Buddha healed from 3 weeks ago. Using @cheyenne_tattooequipment @dynamiccolor @barberdtssupplies @yayofamilia super cool amazing aftercare ? . . #trashpolka
Fun piece- chest piece on André. Not my usual style, but I thought I’d share it anyway ? laughing Buddha healed from 3 weeks ago. Using @cheyenne_tattooequipment @dynamiccolor @barberdtssupplies @yayofamilia super cool amazing aftercare ? . . #trashpolka

Here are some Buddha tattoo ideas that may help you find something you feel comfortable with. Many people get these sorts of tattoos to help them remember their chosen path and devotion to such a loving and compassionate way of life!

Buddhist symbol tattoo

A Buddhist symbol tattoo is the perfect way to go if, after reading all the stuff above, you’d love to demonstrate your devotion to the Buddhist way but are concerned about hurting or disrespecting other peoples values and culture. Plus, even if you aren’t worried about that, there are so many beautiful Buddhist symbols! Perhaps the most popular are: the om symbol, prayer wheel, conch shell, victory banner, treasure vase, parasol, dharma wheel, endless knot, lotus, stupas, and the triratna.

Buddha hand tattoo

Also known as a “hand of Buddha tattoo”, people are usually looking to get a Buddha hand tattoo in a particular mudra, which is a gesture of the hand. There are mudra’s that are used for meditation, teaching, empowerment, balance, etc.

Fat Buddha tattoo

So, funny story, but the Fat Buddha tattoo isn’t actually Buddha! He’s a highly venerated Chinese monk named Budai. For many people who praise or worship him, his big belly represents abundance and contentment.

Laughing Buddha tattoo

Many laughing Buddha tattoos are also not Buddha, but Budai. However, don’t let this stop you from loving him! His big smile was meant to attract people and show that Buddhists come in many different shapes, sizes, personalities, and backgrounds. A happy Buddha tattoo, one that is laughing, is a great way to help break that stereotype some people believe that Buddhists are ultra serious and no fun!

Gautama Buddha tattoo

A Gautama Buddha tattoo is referring to a version of Buddha’s historically accurate name: Siddhārtha Gautama. Pretty much any Buddha tattoo is depicting a Gautama Buddha tattoo...cuz that’s his name! But if you’d like to know more, check out the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse or Osamu Tezuka’s thrilling manga series.

Buddha elephant tattoo

Many people, when asking for a Buddha elephant tattoo, are speaking of the deity Ganesha. Worship of him spans Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. He is known as a remover of obstacles, an intellectual, as well as a patron of the arts! There are many festivals that celebrate him, such as Ganesha Chaturthi.

Female Buddha tattoo

There are many Buddhist deities that make for beautiful Female Buddha tattoos. Guanyin, sometimes referred to as Kuan Yin, is the Buddhist bodhisattva that stands for compassion. Similar is Tara, the Tibetan bodhisattva that is also affiliated with compassion. Tara actually comes in different colors such as green, red, black, and white. Each hue reflects a different form and subsequent meanings.

Buddha lotus tattoo

A Buddha lotus tattoo is a truly beautiful symbol in Buddhist iconography. Remember how we spoke about every sentient being having Buddha nature? The lotus flower partly symbolizes the journey to uncovering this inherent quality. Though it rises from the mud, the lotus flower blooms show no sign of the dirt that formerly covered its beautiful bulb.

Buddha head tattoo

A simple portrait, like a Buddha head tattoo, is a straightforward way to demonstrate your belief in Buddhism. Just like many people get portraits of their loved ones, you will be showing your devotion and care for this sacred icon. By the way, that little top knot you see on Buddha’s head? That’s not his hair or snails taking a nap. That’s his “ushnisha protuberance”, which historically symbolizes both a crown and his powerful enlightenment.

Buddha mandala tattoo

A Buddha mandala tattoo celebrates not only Buddhism, but Sacred Geometry as well...which you can find within the Buddhist symbols of the conch shell and eternal knot as well! The mandala is also a sacred motif that can mean wholeness, balance, and even circles of connectivity.

Simple Buddha tattoo

A simple Buddha tattoo may mean finding a tattooist who does Fineline or tiny tattoos. Of course, your piece doesn’t have to be big or intricate to mean something important. Great things come in small packages may be slightly a cliche, but it’s still certainly true! A small Buddha tattoo can still be a very strong and powerful reminder and symbol. Just make sure that it really resonates with you. That’s what’s most important.

Zen Buddhist tattoos

Believe it or not, although Zen Buddhism may seem like a very stoic way of life from the outside, it is full of many different art forms. From tea ceremonies, to silk and scroll painting, pottery, and woodblocks, Zen philosophy permeates daily life with mindfulness and meditation...even when creating art like those for Zen Buddhist tattoos. Perhaps the most iconic being an enso, which is a circle of black ink created in a mindful, but spontaneous, moment.

Thai Buddha tattoo

A Thai Buddha tattoo would probably be done in the traditional artistic style of Thai art. However, keep in mind, because a tattoo of the Buddha would be frowned upon in Thailand, perhaps check out sacred Sak Yant tattoos or, even better, other Thai symbols and deities that would be less detrimental to their culture.

Buddha eyes tattoo

A true favorite of mine, a Buddha eyes tattoo is a really powerful reminder to stay the course. Symbolizing insight, these eyes see inside and out, covering our world, and the spiritual worlds. It can also mean seeing the light through darkness. When I first got into Buddhism, I got a Buddha eye tattoo on my middle finger to remember not to indulge in anger or thoughtless action. Funny, but it truly helped! That’s the power of these pieces.

More Buddha Tattoo Inspiration

We truly hope that this guide on Buddha tattoos has been informative, enlightening, and inspiring! If you’re looking for more visual inspiration, however, please make sure you check out Tattoodo’s tattoo search if you’re looking for something specific but there’s also tons of other visuals out there that you can check out!

Personally, I love looking at Thangka paintings, which are incredibly vivid, sometimes ultra surreal, traditional Tibetan works of art. There’s tons of books out there that can be inspiring too such as The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, Buddha Mind in Contemporary Art, and tons of others that will show you how truly diverse and rich Buddhist culture is.

And, of course, if you’re just getting into Buddhism and want more information than found here, I’d suggest checking out Lions Roar Magazine, the work of Alan Watts, Shambhala Publications, and Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. You can even sit on a virtual meditation sitting with Plum Village! There are also apps such as Belfast’s Zazen App and Headspace.

There are so many resources out there! I truly hope you find something that resonates with you and puts you on the path to greater peace, compassion, and mindfulness. Make sure to share your Buddhist tattoos with us too! We always love to see where our inspiration takes you.

Anatta Vela
Written byAnatta Vela

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven