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Tibet's Tamding Tsetan
Everybody’s Got To Fight To Be Free
Tamding Tsetan is many things. He’s a tattoo artist. A wood relief painter. He designs t-shirts. He’s a musician. But for better or for worse what defines Tamding is his status as a Tibetan refugee.
After his mother died when he was eleven, Tamding lived with his uncle, a nomad. With no access to education, Tamding made the executive decision to move to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa. At age 18 he found himself working as a dishwasher, though not before spending three days without food or money.
“One day a Tibetan man from India came to my restaurant and he said that if I wanted an education and a good life, I should move to India.”
What’s your idea of a bad day? Maybe it’s missing your bus, running out of credit on your phone or a weak coffee at your local. What constitutes a bad day is determined by your basic standard of living. The very least we can expect is to have our human rights upheld. There are quite a few human rights, thirty to be exact and when you take them away a bad day looks like this:
“There were 49 people to begin with on my journey from Lhasa to the Tibetan refugee reception in Nepal,” Tamding tells, “We met one night all of us with our two guides and paid them each 2500 yen. We drove off in big lorries, mashed together. They took us to outside the city and we talked to each other, learned about our different, but still so similar, backgrounds. Our guide walked with us for three days and showed us the way through the (Himalayan) mountains. On the fourth night, going through a particular dangerous mountain pass, we saw flashlights shining our way. We thought the Chinese army had spotted us. The next morning, only 24 people were left. We did not know what had happened to the rest of them. We tried to look for them but they were nowhere to be found. The guide had disappeared as well, but we knew that if the Chinese police had caught him, he would already be dead.”
A bit of background: Tibet is a long ignored political firestorm. In 1949 China began “liberating” Tibet. Tibet has never been recognized by any country as independent, although it has it’s own language and culture. Before Chinese occupation, Tibet also had it’s own currency, postal and legal system. Tibet’s spiritual leader, His Holiness The Dalai Lama moved into exile in Dharamasala, India in 1950, and it is there that thousands of Tibetans seek asylum. The Chinese has killed over a million Tibetans and thousands of monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed.
“The police come in the night when no body sees and people disappear all the time, no one knows what happened to them,” says Tamding. “His Holiness stands for the Middle Way and a non-violent approach, he has to as he is a religious leader. But I believe if you only aim for the middle you will achieve very little however if you aim high you may reach the middle and be more successful. So we should aim for the most we can.”
Tamding’s story continues:
“Because of the now reduced amount of people carrying food in my group, we now had a shortage of food. We could see the snowline of the mountains and we knew, that we had to keep going across the mountain passes. We had no map or no idea where we were supposed to go, but fortunately in the mountains you can see far away and coordinate that way. On our way we passed police tents but in our luck, it was so freezing that night that the police did not come out.
43 days after we set out from Lhasa, we arrived in the Tibetan refugee reception in Kathmandu. Ten people were arrested and sold by the Nepali police to the Chinese police. Two of them, one was a monk, managed to escape from the vehicle that was to take them back to Tibet, but died in the attempt. A third man escaped and swam upstream a river into safety. Their attempt of escape was solely based on their fear of going to a Chinese prison. They considered that fate much worse than dying. Twelve of us made it safely to the reception center.”
These days, Tamding has his own tattoo studio in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala. His interest in tattoo art stemmed from his study of wood relief painting. “I was very interested in the traditional method of skin art using needles and ink and practiced on friends. This is how it was done in Tibet. At that time, I did not know anything about tattoo machines. Then I thought of making a tattoo machine to deliver ink continuously to the needle. So I experimented and finally made a machine that worked. I used fabric ink at first as I didn't know about real tattoo ink. I did tattoos on all my friends for free. They worked quite well and there are lots of people walking around with these original tattoos.”
Assistance came in the form of a nurse, who saw Tamding needed hygiene training. “She told me I shouldn't be doing tattoos like this, I should be using new needles for each person, proper ink and hygienic methods. She showed me western tattoo machines on the Internet and explained about disease control and hygiene.”
Next, Tamding made the acquaintance of another tattoo artist, Phil Bartell from Rising Tide Tattoo in Colorado. Phil helped Tamding get the hang of the western machines, and Tamding watched Phil work. “I learned a lot from him and then ordered more equipment when I understood what I needed. So now I have everything set up as I like.”
When asked about his creative influences, Tamding sites His Holiness The Dalai Lama as his go-to guy for artistic inspiration. “Even though he is old, he still works hard and makes the best use of each day. He says don't waste time or this precious human life.”
Wise words to live by indeed.
For info on Tamding’s studio in Dharamasala go to:
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