Sri Lanka – Tattoo Photoshoot Project

Meanings are not limited to written words but began with thought words and spoken words, signed words, gestured words, pictured words, but not only that, but pictures, on rocks, in the sand, and of course on the skin.

These images much like words carry meaning. And it is within the meanings of these pictures/interpretations that culture and therefore, meaning resides, regardless of whether it is traditional or modern culture. So i think it is fair for us to go forward with the idea that our traditional ancestors, like their modern descendants, learned and shared meanings, whether it be through words or pictures. Traditional and modern culture work in similar ways, both are ways of thinking, ways of relating to people and to the universe. This is no different from the tattoos and ethos behind the work of many young Sri Lankan’s that are beginning to surface, and express themselves on the tiny island in South East Asia.

Sri Lanka is a beautifully diverse and multicultural country, home to many different religions, ethic groups and languages. It is a country rich in Buddhist heritage, but is also home to many other religions including Hinduism and the Christian faith. This factor on its own has contributed to a melting pot rich in alternating ways of thinking and expressing ones self. This is something that has begun to extend itself to the tattoo world, which is something that has begun to pick up momentum in a country that is still trying to find its feet in a modern, liberally thinking world when it comes to forms of self-expression.

We were invited to the island by Total Tattoo Magazine UK, along with writer and tattoo-shop-owner Gema King, who owns Indigo Tattoo in Norwich, England, to investigate life on the island within the tattoo scene, and how this ancient, yet widely unacknowledged/used method of expression was being stated on the island, if at all…


Many forms of expression that have started to surface on the island are a homage to the heritage of the island itself, its inhabitants, as well as the influence that religion has had on the island. You will see through modern styles, motive and patterns have been adopted from the temples and churches throughout the entire island. Whether it is the Ceylon Lion or the tessellating geometric patterns of Buddhist temples dotted throughout the island, you can see Sri Lanka’s rich and diverse history surfacing through these forms of self-expression.

Mans Tattoo sri lanka close up

I spoke with this guy outside a supermarket as i was waiting for my friends, who was more than eager to share with me his experiences of tattoos. Through our travels across the length and breadth of the island it became apparent that the majority of people quite simply did not have the financial means to get professional tattoos, which is why they would use home-made methods. This guy told me how he had seen a Snoop Dogg video and wanted to tattoo a marijuana leave immediately on his own hand, which he proceeded to do. The tattoo on his neck is of religious significance, but i’m guessing i was pretty drunk and don’t recall the exact meaning behind this particular statement.

Two monks in sri lanka with tattoos

Two monks on their way back from college that we met on our way to the beach in the capital, Columbo.

Woman in sri lanka with tattoos

Gema saying a prayer and offering to a Bondhi tree


Even since the end of colonial rule in 1972, cricket is now one of the country’s leading and most popular sports.


This is from the steps of a temple on the south west of the island. Here you can see how certain elements of these ancient markings have been modernised for forms of expressions in the Sri Lankan youth.


This is Benjamin. We met on our train to Polunaruwa. He was 93 years old, and showed us more love, interest and opens than many other people we’ve encountered in other more “developed” countries.


A monk meditation on the train to Polunaruwa. He remained like this for approximately one hour without moving an inch more than the rickety old train carriage allowed him to.


This guy took us 45 minutes off the coast of Sri Lanka to an uninhabited island where we bared witness to some incredible coral reefs and marine life, as well as snorkelling with him, just off the coast, to swim within a couple of metres of some hungry black tipped reef sharks.


With our team one day we decided to explore the North East of the Island, which, up until recently was still being heavily controlled by a military presence that spilled over from the civil war that has plagued the country for many years, and only ceased in 2009.

On our way up the coast we stopped off to get some supplies, and in doing so, met this guy.

He was having a tea, but was more than willing to approach us, inform us of his British colonial knowledge. Not only this, but, he also informed us that he was in fact Mr Trincomalee 1970. So we took his picture.


This was our home and transport for a couple of nights as we made a safari through the plains of landscape in and around Arugam Bay, the large majority of land in this region is protected and the wildlife takes precedence.

The hut that you see was not our first choice, but due to bad weather conditions we had to retreat from sleeping under the stars on the beach. Nonetheless, we made camp and accepted our surroundings. Our friend, cook and local guide Sudu made sure that we had everything that we had.

It was necessary to build fires and to stay awake in shifts in order for the elephants to not encroach on our camp. So we took it in turns to sit by the fire, look up at the stars and have broken conversation with one another while drinking the local speciality Arak, which is made from coconuts, and certainly leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy inseide.


A Buddhist flag flying at the top of a temple in the mountains that are not far from Pasarichenai Beach. One of the three main religions on the island.


“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” Albert Camus



We spent a bit of time down on the South East of the island in Arugam Bay, a location very popular with western surfers. While there we were staying in a hut that was run by this local man, Sudu. An incredibly forthcoming and generous soul, that offered us to spend the Buddhist New Year with himself and his Italien wife, which we did. He introduced us to the incredible local Sri Lankan cuisine at its finest, as well as relaying us horrifying accounts of the tsunami that hit the island in 2004. And his tales of being washed kilometres inland, and then trying to find his family, but to avail.


A lady picking tea on our train ride through the mountains near Kandy.


The local black cab.


At a temple in Kandy, Buddhist hanging out their attire to dry with the most epic of views.