MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In the kingdom of Thailand, perceived slights to Thai culture and morals have been a recurring theme in the news this year. In several cases, the government has tried to intervene and to punish the alleged offenders. The latest scandal is over something foreign tourists sometimes do after trekking through Thailand's jungles or bumming around its beaches: They get a tattoo.
As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, the problem involves certain tattoos below the belt.
ANTHONY KUHN: On Bangkok's Khao San Road, tattoo parlors nestle among the Internet cafes, noodle stalls and backpacker hangouts. On the backpackers, tattoos vie for attention with beads, dreadlocks and nose rings.
Apprehension rippled briefly through the ink-and-needles crowd here last month when Thai Culture Minister Nipit Intarasombat called for a ban on foreigners getting religious tattoos that offend Thai people.
Pongsuk Tammaget runs the Max Body Tattoo Parlor in an alley off the main road.
Mr. PONGSUK TAMMAGET (Tattoo Artist): (Through Translator) Some tattoo parlors only care about money. They have no ethics, and they'll give foreigners whatever tattoos they want. We're Buddhists, and when we see a Buddhist image tattooed below the waist, it offends our sensibilities.
KUHN: Minister Nipit later clarified that the problem was religious tattoos below the belt, not above it. Thais consider the head sacred and the feet profane.
Nearby, a man from Melbourne, Australia, who goes by his Buddhist name Tao Jaiphet, extends an arm adorned with sacred tattoos known as Sak Yant. He says he'd never get these etched below the belt. His window on Thai culture, he explains, is the art of Thai boxing.
Mr. TAO JAIPHET: I was a boxer here. I was living here in the late '90s, and it's quite common for Muay Thai fighters to get Sak Yant. I think they were kind of like the first, before Angelina Jolie got on the bandwagon. A lot of the boxers would get Sak Yant to protect them while they're fighting.
KUHN: Did it help your boxing any?
Mr. JAIPHET: Actually, I retired soon after, so not really.
Mr. NOO KAMPAI: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Master Noo Kampai bestows his blessings on two female visitors. This former Buddhist monk says he goes into a trance and channels the force of the Buddha into his magic tattoos.
Master Noo illustrated the back of actress Angelina Jolie with sacred scripts and a crouching tiger. He agrees with the government's injunctions against improper tattooing. He counsels his more casual customers to think before they ink.
Mr. KAMPAI: (Through translator) My advice for those who want to get tattoos is to think it over repeatedly. First, will it affect your job options? Second, do you want this thing indelibly inked on your skin? And lastly, are you getting it for good luck or just to decorate your body?
KUHN: A similar debate over public morals erupted in April.
(Soundbite of chanting)
KUHN: Amid the water-splashing revelry of Songkran, the Thai New Year celebrations, three young women got up on parked vehicles in downtown Bangkok, stripped to the waist and started dancing. Someone posted a video of it to the Internet.
In the ensuing uproar, Culture Minister Nipit called for the trio to be fined and made to perform community work.
Professor Pavin Chachavalpongpun of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore says that the minister was apparently not concerned with Bangkok's red-light districts.
Professor PAVIN CHACHAVALPONGPUN (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies): I just wish that, you know, we just be honest about what happening in Thailand. And as a Thai, I mean, I find it frustrating because we know that in reality, what I see every day in Thailand is just not what the state want foreigners to see.
KUHN: Pavin says officials' selective outrage suggests either double standards or political motives or both.
Observers also notice that even as Culture Minister Nipit fulminated about the topless girls, his ministry's website was adorned with festive folk art images of bare-breasted ladies. Netizens pointed out the irony, and the images were quickly deleted.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.
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