It took Tamding Tsetan several days, across several years, to tattoo the names of 152 Tibetan self-immolators onto one man’s back. Tsetan and his client met up in different locations around the globe to get the astonishingly detailed job done.
“He wants to be like a pillar for Tibet,” Tsetan said, who revealed the final product — the world’s first Tibetan political protest tattoo, he said — at a hastily called, yet massively mobbed, tattoo exposition in India.
“I respect someone who wants a Tibet tattoo on the skin. Each Tibetan has responsibility to ask, ‘What can I do for Tibet?’” Tsetan said. With a tattoo like that, he said, “Everywhere you go, your body explains” the spirit of Tibet, and the ongoing political crisis there.
The mountainous region of Asia, estimated population 3.2 million, has been claimed by China since 1951, but also granted limited autonomy; since the late 1990s, a revived tradition of suicidal public protest against Chinese rule has occasionally shocked the world — when word manages to get out. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, the current tally is now 155 Tibetans, many of them Buddhist monks and nuns, who have doused themselves with fuel and lit themselves on fire.
Tsetan fled Tibet decades ago, but his homeland is tattooed upon his spirit. Check out a video of his 2013 performance in Daramsala, India, where refugees observe Tibet Uprising Day (March 10) with solemn speeches and music. That annual occasion is always “so sad, just sad and crying,” Tsetan said — until he shook things up.
Tsetan screamed out an original, heavy-metal protest song “like a gunshot,” he said. He didn’t want to mourn, he said, he wanted to excite people — just the way he’d been excited by his first exposure to Western sounds and Western celebrity.
“Michael Jackson. That was my inspiration,” Tsetan recalled. When the nomad and sheepherder first arrived in the city, he said, the King of Pop’s music and videos had been everywhere.
“I want to be like that. I want to sing like that,” Tsetan decided. “I always want to express myself.”
Tsetan, 38, recently helped Makani Nelson express himself, too. They met in late May at Lady Bond’s Temple of Tattoo, the Grand Avenue shop where Tsetan works on two or three tattoo clients per week — and hopes for many more, he said.
Nelson, 24, grew up in Hawaii but has Tibetan roots and lately has become “entranced with my Tibetan studies” at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Association in Portland, he said, which is where he met Tsetan. He examined several Tibetan-script mantras (holy phrases) that emerged on tattoo-transfer paper from Tsetan’s tiny printer, and chose a “Medicine Buddha” mantra.
Translating the mantra’s meaning is complicated, Tsetan said, but he tried to summarize: “Everything is medicine. Everything you eat is medicine. Everything you say, everything you do is medicine. When you say the mantra, you are reminded everything is medicine.”
Tsetan employs a dizzying array of beautiful, intricate Buddhist images and Tibetan calligraphy in his tattoos and other artworks, but he’s done adding the Buddha to people’s flesh, he said. A holy Buddha on someone’s backside? Not appropriate, he said.
Tattooist and client prayed together. Tsetan washed Nelson’s forearm and applied the tattoo pattern, a column of elaborate text. “Awesome, I am so psyched,” Nelson grinned.
Tsetan fired up his buzzing tattoo gun, grinning back: “Cut like a knife! Sound like pain!” Then he got busy with Nelson’s arm, and checked in for real: “Feels like nothing, right?”
After that he vowed to stop speaking while working, but the silence didn’t always hold — he’s a chatty guy, he admits — plus, he also warbled a Tibetan melody in a clear, high voice. Nelson chatted back, joked around and checked his cellphone. He never flinched.
“Looks like he’s going to do a lot of tattoos,” Tsetan said admiringly. “He don’t move!”
There was no buzz of electricity and few clues about niceties like art and music in Windu, the Tibetan village where Tsetan was born. But he always displayed an unusually expressive, artistic spirit, he said. Once when he was a little child, he recalled, he spontaneously picked up two flutes and started “bowing” one across the other while making up a strange new tune.
Everyone thought he was crazy, he said — but decades later, Tsetan wept with joy and recognition upon hearing a real violin in concert. “In my past life, I was a violin player,” he realized.
Orphaned at an early age, Tsetan spent months of each year working for his uncle as a sheepherding nomad. His only artistic inspiration came on the rare occasions when he heard snippets of music on the radio. Becoming a professional artist or musician wasn’t even a dream yet.
“No one believes in career or talent,” he said. “But radio gives you ideas. It tells you about city stuff, and education.”
In 2000, 18-year-old Tsetan and a friend headed for Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. He was destitute and illiterate, but too overwhelmed to beg. That made him an easy mark for a “nice guy” in a sharp suit who approached, fed and housed him — and recruited him into a gang of street thieves. After helping to rob a poor woman of all her money, he said, Tsetan left the gang in shame.
He got a job washing bowls in a restaurant, and worked his way up to cook. He eked out enough of a living to go partying and clubbing every night — until he got arrested by the Chinese police. He spent five miserable days being beaten and starved in jail; when he was released, he started planning his escape through Nepal to India. That’s where he could learn English and connect with the outside world, he’d heard.
Tsetan saved his money and joined a group of 49 people on a trek over the Himalayas. They started out “mashed together” inside big trucks, he wrote later on, but eventually had to trudge through ice and snow.
“We always walked at night time, when it was coldest … and when the Chinese were not looking for us,” he said.
When flashlights did fall on the group, he said, everyone scattered. Some were never seen again. Remnants of the group struggled on for days without food. Once inside Nepal, they tried getting themselves arrested, but police only stole what little they had and sent them on their way. It was only in the capital, Kathmandu, that they finally got taken into custody — and fed.
A refugee center got Tsetan to Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile. That’s where opportunity blossomed for him: he studied English, painting, musical instruments, tattooing and even hairdressing. He joined a music-and-dance group and started teaching at the Norbulingka Institute, which aims to preserve Tibetan culture.
He even blended traditional Tibetan sounds with rock music, recording an original album called “Open Road” that spans the distance between smooth flutes and shredding electric guitars. And, after tattooing by hand for a while, he built his own needle-gun tattoo device out of a cassette-player motor, a ballpoint pen and a battery.
Lots of energy
Tsetan always heard that America was “the best country, the place for opportunity,” he said, but never expected to get here — until he met and married an American woman teaching English in India. The now couple have two children, ages 5 and 3. They hope to be permitted to visit Tibet someday, despite Tsetan’s political activism, and are keeping the rest of the family’s identities as low-profile as possible, they said.
The family lived briefly in Southern California but relocated to a home in Fisher’s Landing, where a tiny “Tibet town” is forming on one block, Tsetan’s wife said. More than anywhere else he’s been in America, Tsetan said, the Pacific Northwest reminds him of his Tibetan home.
“It has forests. It has seasons. Everything is green,” he said. California was hot and dry, but “here I have lots of energy to connect with nature.”
The Tsetan home is decked out with Tibetan imagery and portraits, Tsetan’s paintings and his collection of musical instruments; also on display is crayon artwork, to-do lists, the family calendar. When The Columbian showed up for an interview one day, Tsetan was grumbling cheerfully about a white rug that his kids had somehow managed to “color.”
But he’s not a major rule enforcer, he added. Tsetan’s early childhood in Tibet had its deprivations, he said, but he mostly remembers a carefree time spent running around naked in nature. The one unbreakable rule in that mountainous life, he said, was never to pollute the headwaters of rivers and streams.
His kids attend Sunday school at the Northwest Tibetan Cultural Center, he said, but he plans to delay, by just one year, enrolling them in public school. “Let them play,” he said.
Raising his children in America means steering a fine line between Tibetan tradition and the modern, high-tech world, he noted. “Some things we cannot stop. We are all going to technology,” he said. “But still you can be a kind, thoughtful, warm, compassionate person.”
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