Monday, March 29, 2010

Tattoo You

I went to Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom province today. The temple is famous for its Sak Yant tattoos. These are powerful tattoos said to impart special protective powers to those who have them. They are very popular with people who live in a dangerous world - mobsters, soldiers, and police are frequently covered in these tattoos. The tattoos originated in the ancient Khmer (present day Cambodia) kingdoms and the tattoos still use Khmer script. 

The temple is supposed to be about 30 miles from Bangkok. But it took me two hours to get there, so it’s either more than 30 miles or Bangkok traffic was particularly bad this morning. I think, more likely it’s a combination of the two. 

The process of getting the tattoo is very interesting. People bring offerings for the monk doing the tattooing (some money, but more likely flowers and cigarettes) and sit in a line to the side of the monk. While one person is being tattooed, the person who was just tattooed and the person who is next in the queue hold the tatoo recipient still  while he (or she) rests his head in a pillow in his lap. The monk works quickly and silently tattooing the persons back. He starts by using a stencil of the pattern he is going to use. The tattoo needle is sharpened on a piece of rough sandpaper and the monk quickly dips the needle into the ink and then pierces the skin. The ink is a mixture of oil (usually palm oil), Chinese charcoal ink and, occasionally, snake venom. A typical tattoo requires about 3,000 strikes to complete and the monk replenishes the ink in the needle every 30 seconds or so. 

Needles are rinsed off in cleaning solution between clients. Tattoo parlors in the US are pretty noisy places. There’s frequently some music playing and the tattoo gun makes a buzzing sound. Tattooing at Wat Bang Phra is done in silence. A few whispered words might pass between the monk and the person getting the tattoo but normally the room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. This is a religious experience for the people getting the tattoos. 

There are more photos from Wat Bang Phra in my PhotoShelter archive or available from ZUMA Press. Also, be sure to check out Gavin Gough’s fascinating photos of a festival at Wat Bang Phra

(Don’t adjust your monitor. This is a black and white entry.)