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‘Uaaahh! the man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. his bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he’s rushing directly ahead.”
So begins Sacred Skin, an accessible introduction to Thailand’s booming yantric tattoo art, sak yant, which inspired partly by actress Angelina Jolie’s patronage has been drawing more and more international interest.
The opening refers to a man in a trance, taken over by his yantric tiger tattoo at Wat Bang Phra on a day to celebrate Wai Khru, when disciples with tattoos pay respects to their ajarn.
MYSTIC ROAR: Ajarn Thoy’s Tiger yant.
The master-disciple bond is integral to sak yant, as the book explains. when a master applies a tattoo, he also establishes a set of rules that his disciples must follow for the rest of their lives. Failure to follow the instructions will cause the sak yant to lose its power.
The yantric designs and writing have multiple origins and purposes. For many Thais, astrology and the supernatural are an integral part of their lives along with Buddhism, and this spiritual mix finds a welcome outlet in sak yant.
”The ancient Khmer writing system used for the magic spells looks like a language from a lost world and stretches from the lucid to the illegible, from the poetic into the anarchic,” writes author Tom Vater. ”Yet there is more to this than the written word. It goes deeper.”
The tattoos are ”lines of ancient squiggles and magic spells” winding around disciples’ necks, front torsos and backs, written in ancient Khmer script but spoken in Pali. the order of the Khmer letters is also often changed, making the script unreadable even to devotees and ensuring the designs are difficult to copy.
Some tattooists use industrial ink but most have their own secret ink recipes that include oils and herbs blessed with mantras and might contain blood or bile.
Hanuman, tigers, dragons, birds, snakes, lizards, hermits and eels are all common, and infusions of Indian mythology, Buddhism, Brahmanism, animism and common superstition make for a colourful mix that ”may challenge the more formalised approach to celebrating the spiritual life and occasionally enrages Buddhist conservatives”, as the text points out. ”But the world of the sak yant exists through such a bizarre clash of circumstances, of faith and history, of order and chaos, of seekers and charlatans, of humility and machismo, that it has a life all of its own and is unlikely to fade any time soon.”
Sak yant are often associated with gangsters and hit men, sex workers and street children, boy racers and vocational school students, but as the book explains, the sak yant ”appear to be the calling card for bad guys, but many bad guys actually become good guys once they acquire a sacred tattoo”.
SACRED SKIN: THAILAND’S SPIRIT TATTOOS: By Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat, 200pp, 2011 Visionary World. Available from all good bookshops for 956 baht.
The reason for this is that the tattoos come with a number of rules that vary from ajarn to ajarn. the first yant controls the subsequent ones, and they establish the spiritual contract between master and devotee. the first five Buddhist precepts _ don’t harm living beings, don’t steal, don’t engage in sexual misconduct, don’t lie, and don’t consume intoxicating drink and drugs _ are the yants’ most important fixtures.
Rather than being a simple superstition, Vater argues that faith in sak yant is not so far removed from major religion: ”To this day, our established religions peddle the most outlandish truths to their followers. in this context, the belief that a 2,000-year-old, mystical diagram etched onto human skin might protect its wearer is hardly exotic.”
Barely 12,000 words, much of it in captions and profiles, the text can be read in one sitting, though the photos will command repeated perusals as the designs make an impression both immediate and lingering. Aroon Thaewchatturat’s extraordinary pictures do more than capture the tattoos, they capture their wearers’ dhpersonalities, and perhaps even the energy invested in them by the designs.
Though the book has a few unnecessary commas and inconsistent spacings, it is informative, accessible and enthusiastic _ a great introduction to the art form.
Local interest in and acceptability of the art is rising as quickly as it is internationally. Cedric Arnold last month held a photographic exhibition at the Chulalongkorn Art Centre called ”Sacred Ink”, and Joe Cummings and Dan White have a book on sak yant, Sacred Tattoos of Thailand, that will be published soon.
No doubt there will be much more to come, but as a starting point, you can do no better than Sacred Skin.
Photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat
We caught up with the photographer of Sacred Skin, Aroon Thaewchatturat, to ask her about the inspirations and struggles behind the book.
What inspired you to start capturing this art form?
The mysteries of sak yant caught my interest when I was very little. My parents, my uncles and aunts had sak yant and they told me that the sacred tattoos served as protection, and that they respected the sak yant master. They told me that the sak yant wearer is protected from harm, for example sharp objects, bullets or black magic. that explanation was limited but it kept my interest alive and helped me embark on my sak yant photographic journey. What fascinated me as I got older was the fact that there are two components in sak yant, the art and the science. there is a gigantic pool of knowledge behind it. the sacred tattoo masters have that with them. I consider the masters as talking textbooks and living historians.
Are you surprised by the rise in international interest in sak yant?
Sak yant is a unique cultural practice in this region with a strong belief system attached. I’m surprised that people from Europe and North America would want to have sacred tattoos. I wonder whether they want the tattoos for aesthetic reasons. the sacred tattoos are not for fashion. Are they prepared to embrace a new faith after they lost the one at home? or are they just following the trend which started with Angelina Jolie getting sacred tattoos?
How did you find your subjects _ the teachers and disciples?
I started in a tattoo temple in Nakhon Chaisi district of Nakhon Pathom, called Wat Bang Phra. I captured the tattoo festival in Wat Bang Phra as a photo feature piece for my agency, OnAsia Images, in 2006, and I’ve gone back every year since. I thought this was the best place to start. I decided to write a letter asking for permission from the abbot of the temple, explaining that I wanted to produce a book on sak yant. since I got the green light, the resident monk tattooists and their devotees were happy to be photographed. the same process repeated itself with the civilian tattoo masters and their devotees. It is all a matter of trust.
And how did the partnership with Tom Vater for the book come about?
And how did the partnership with Tom Vater for the book come about?
Before capturing the tattoo festival, we collaborated on travel features, guidebooks and photo books on different destinations in Europe and North Africa as well as South and Southeast Asia. the photo feature of the tattoo festival in 2006 got me to work with Tom in Thailand. He wrote the text. He worked on the subject long before me.
Did you come across anything that didn’t make rational sense?
During the research for this book, I came across countless stories that are inexplicable. I watched a devotee clawing after he had a crocodile tattooed, while the master was chanting the mantra. He said afterwards that he wasn’t in control of his body as it moved like a reptile. Another devotee received a small oil-sacred tattoo when he was a teenager. one day he was on a public bus in Bangkok and heard ”click, click, click” six times; once he turned around, a pistol was pointing at the back of his head, but it hadn’t fired. He didn’t know the gunman. After that incident, he went to see his monk tattooist and added more tattoos.
Pho Kae, the hermit
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