Since the inception of this blog, I have shared posts on Sak Yant or Yantra tattoos -- sacred marks performed by monks in Thailand in which the wearers believe that the tattoos are imbued with magic, offering protection and even bestowing certain powers. Yantra tattoos hold a special fascination for me, not just for the beautiful iconography, but the ceremony, culture and beliefs that surround them.
Every year, at the Buddhist temple in Wat Bang Phra, about 30 miles west of Bangkok, Thailand, devotees gather to receive these magic tattoos at the Wai Khru ceremony. Also present are journalists and photographers seeking to document it all.
One such photographer who has truly captured the power of Yantra and the Wai Khru is French/British photographer Cedric Arnold, who is based in Bangkok. Arnold's "Yantra: The Sacred Ink" is an exceptionally beautiful series of portraits and documentary photography -- a product of four and a half years of travel throughout Thailand to fully explore Yantra, from the festivals to rare tattoos only found in certain regions. Arnold shared with Slate magazine some of what he learned in this journey:
Arnold further captured the tattoos and ceremonies on video: his film, also entitled "Yantra: The Sacred Ink," is currently being screened at the "Tatoueurs, tatoues" exhibit at the Museum du quai Branly in Paris. [For a great review of the exhibit, read Serinde's post here.] Here's the teaser below.
Photo by Sukree Sukplang for Reuters
This past weekend, thousands of gathered at Wat Bang Phra temple (50 miles West of Bangkok) to honor the founders of the temple and "recharge" the magic of their tattoos, as reported by Reuters. Devotees believe that the sacred tattoos, Sak Yant, performed by monks in Thailand offer protection to the wearers and even bestow upon them magical powers.To maintain that magic, the tattooed must obey certain rules and abstain from lying, stealing, drinking and drug use, sexual misdeeds and killing. However, the magic is not lost forever on rule breakers as the festival allows them to reclaim those blessings.
Reuter's Annie Chenaphun describes the scene at the temple this weekend:
Crowds seethed through the temple grounds, with men roaring, hissing and screaming while imitating the creatures tattooed on their bodies, as if they had been possessed by them. One pecked towards the ground as if he was a chicken, others flung up their arms and danced.You can also see video footage from the festival on MSNBC:
To learn more about Sak Yant tattoos, see Father Panik's guest blog on his quest for the magic tattoos, and also our book review of "Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos" by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewehatturat.
There have been a number of posts on this blog devoted to Sak Yant, sacred tattoos, performed by monks in Thailand. The yantras, mystical diagrams, on skin are not only beautiful, but for many, the tattoos bestow upon the wearer super-human powers.
Exploring Sak Yant from its origins to today is "Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos" by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewehatturat.
The book begins with an up-close look into the Wai Khru ceremony at the Wat Bang Phra Buddhist temple: "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." The frenzied text, like the tattooed man, soon calms and the reader is then led into the studio of Achan Thoy (pictured below), "a highly respected Dabot Ruesi, a hermit sage of Hindu origin, known as a Rishi or Yogi in India, a man with the power to apply sacred and magic tattoos to a devotee's skin." The scene painted in that studio is indeed magic, with incantations, katas, and of course blood. It is not a mere tattoo appointment. It is a ritual.
Tracing the roots of the ritual, the first chapter of Sacred Skin goes back thousands of years in describing Sak Yant designs and the beliefs behind them, particularly beliefs that the tattoos protect wearers against physical attack and further their strength -- beliefs that are still commonly held today. According to the book, it's because of this that many Thai people "disapprove of the sacred tattoos, ridiculing them as superstition and branding Sak Yant as part of the perceived backwardness of Thailand's rural population." Moreover, like in so many other parts of the world, the tattoos are heavily associated with Thailand's criminal underground.
Yet, as the authors explain, there are many layers to these spiritual tattoos. Most importantly, the monks who create them see Sak Yant as "silent and powerful reminders of a righteous path that all of us, whether we wear yant or not, should aspire to follow."
Chapter II on these tattoo masters and their devotees is especially compelling. A portrait of each is presented along with a short handwritten note by that person discussing the art.
Chapter III offers close-ups of traditional tattoo designs and their meanings; for example, this elephant below, Yant Chang, symbolizes strength.
Sacred Skin then comes full circle in Chapter IV, with even more intense photography from the Wai Khru celebration. The book itself is almost a seamless journey into Thai tattoo culture. I highly recommend it.
I also suggest checking out the Bangkok Post's review and CNN's interview with the authors. The CNN interview also briefly discusses Thailand's Ministry of Culture cracking down on religious tattoos (which we wrote about in June).
Sacred Skin can be purchased on Amazon for $24 (originally $33). And for a peak inside, click SacredSkinThailand.com.
Father Panik graces us with another tale of his tattoo adventures. This time he returns from Thailand and talks temple tattoos.
See some photos of the tattooing monks in this Flickr set.
I'm looking for meaning.
I'm walking through crowded, polluted 100-degree heat of Bangkok looking for sacred tattoos: Sak Yant. Temple tattoos, sacred Buddhist tattoos.
Tattoos created by monks and infused with holy mantras.
I'm hunting those who wear them.
They are hard to find.
There was a time in Bangkok where you saw them on every corner, on the arms necks and heads of cops, taxi drivers, soldiers, anyone who had a dangerous life.
Now, not so much.
Sure you see lots of tattoos in Bangkok, just as you would in NYC or Berlin or Tokyo.
But that's the problem. They are the same tattoos you see in every major city.
Young Thais getting tattooed today want the ones they see on MTV or bootleg DVDs of LA Ink.
They don't want the tattoos worn by their fathers and grandfathers. They want to be cool.
In a city famous for it's sex industry and Olympic level drinking, I'm looking for old cab drivers. Guys wearing tattoos that will stop bullets, protect you from knives, bring you wealth and prosperity.
So far I haven't had much chok dee. And it's fucking hot.
Still, I hunt.
For centuries, westerners have been going to Asia, finding cool stuff & bringing it back.
I am part of that tradition.
Not because I'm daring and adventurous but because I don't really "fit" in our world.
Most can find their niche at home, I cannot.
My landlord really wants me to find my niche.
I gotta pay rent. I gotta make a buck.
So like a Portuguese trader traveling the Silk Road, I find myself in Bangkok looking for meaning.
I think I can find it in sacred tattoos.
I'm probably wrong.
Something tells me that truth is not found externally.... but I'll skip the navel gazing.
I want the tattoo.
For more on Sak Yant tattoos, see this post on the Wat Bang Phra festival.
At the Buddhist temple in Wat Bang Phra, about 30 miles (50km) west of Bangkok, Thailand, devotees (and spectators) gather every year to receive Sak Yant -- tattoos believed to imbue the wearers with magical powers -- at the Wai Khru ceremony.
Wai Khru translates as Honor the Teacher, and that teacher revered has been the abbot of Wat Bang Phra. In her Globe & Mail article, Jennifer Gampell explains:
These "superhuman" tattoos are featured in a CNN video of this year's festival.
Best illustrating the festival are the stunning photos of Gavin Gough, including the one shown above of an enraptured devotee. Gavin's images move from the intimacy of the monk's needle penetrating skin to the writhing crowds outside the temple. A descriptive introduction and captions offer further context.
I encourage you to explore more of Gavin's work online. [You can also find his photography in Vanity Fair, Nat Geo, The NY Times, among so many other publications. His stock photography has also graced postage stamps and billboards.]
For budding and seasoned photographers seeking to capture Thailand on their own with some guidance, check Gavin's Bangkok Photo School and private workshops.
I'll be checking in on Gavin's blog for more beautiful images of body art and beyond.
[Thanks to Brayden for directing me to the Wai Khru photos.]
Today is President's Day in the US, a day to honor Washington and Lincoln's birthdays, and most of us do so by spending bills emblazoned with their portraits in the big sales going on. And then there are those like DeShawn Stevenson of the NBA's Wizards who just take it a little too far. [I'd prefer the Benjamins.]
But despite the large image I stole above, today's news review ain't about bad baller tattoos. It's largely about insanity like tattooing babies, magic Buddhist ink, augmented reality tattoos and more. Let's get to it...
The most horrific is the news about an Ohio man who tattooed a one-year-old baby. Yes, a baby. The mother was visiting his home, and in some inexplicable moment, he tattooed a dime-sized letter "A" on the baby's buttocks.
We've all heard of shops getting shut down for tattooing minors, most recently in South Dakota, and facing fines like new regs proposed in Maryland -- but never something as mind-blowing as this.
I have no more words here on this -- I can't even wrap my head around it -- so let's cleanse that image with more positive headlines...
Tattmandu Tattoo Studios in Colorado has raised over $5,000 in their "Ink for Haiti" charity as clients lined up around the block yesterday for the studio's heart tattoo special.
Finally, a positive spin on tattoos in the workplace: The Portland Tribune reports that tattoos are becoming more acceptable at work, even in corporate offices. The article goes on to say that Portland maybe be ousting San Francisco as the nation's tattoo mecca. Here are the stats:
"A city-by-city survey of tattoo shop listings bears out Portland's standing. San Francisco has a population of about 808,000 and 70 tattoo shops listed in its Yellow Pages. Portland's population is 580,000 and it has 73 shops. Seattle has only 40 shops and Phoenix 36. Los Angeles lists 167 shops, but its population of 9.8 million is more than 10 times that of Portland. On a per-capita basis, Portland has far and away more tattoo shops than any major city in the country."
Even USA Today is getting in on the art's popularity with their new Tattoo Tuesday column where readers share their tattoo stories.
That's not to say that visible tattoo bans at work will all go away any time soon. We've talked at length about dress codes and tattoos for military, police, firemen, and other public workers in the US but it's an issue discussed around the world. Recently, in Denmark, prison guards were told that "visible 'biker gang type' tattoos on the hands, arms, neck and head are in this way not desirable." The problem is that officials have not defined what exactly is a "biker tattoo" and how new tattoo guidelines would be implemented.
And in Australia, Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard decried the country's "raunch culture," saying that many heavily tattooed women were "making a mistake." She added: "I worry for them. How they're going to feel about it in the future." Well, Gillard should worry about her own political future in underestimating tattooed women as active voters. In many countries, politicians feel they can get away with such statements because they assume our anarchic lifestyles and rampant drug use keep us from the polls. We'll continue to prove them wrong.
In the magical and "augmented reality" front of tattooing ...
Buddhist tattoos are gaining popularity in Singapore, not just for their beauty, but for what some believe are their mystical powers. At least that's what a sales rep from a company specializing in Sak Yant tattooing says. Speaking to the press at the Singapore Tattoo Convention, he added: "Sak yant is now widely embraced by the general population because of people's need for a form of spiritual support, aided by the social acceptance of tattoos."
Finally, the magic of having animated characters come to life on your skin has been created by Think an App in Buenos Aires. Geeky Gadgets explains: "The software technology recognizes AR bar codes on curved surfaces, the tattoo looks like a very simple and boring square until viewed through a camera." Here's video of it below:
And with that I'll leave you to enjoy your own wild reality.