The Illustrated Men

by Kenneth Champeon, Apr 28, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand / Nakorn Chaisri

What do Hell's Angels, Green Berets, and Popeye have in common? Until a few years ago, they were among the only Westerners sporting tattoos. Then suddenly everybody had one, along with navel rings and Indian bindis. The decorations were stripped of their social and mythical significance. A tattoo became little more than a pretty picture, a sex symbol, or a merit badge for masochists.

Not so in Thailand. Here tattoos can stop bullets and blades, prevent road accidents, improve your business, induce trances, and calm your mind. In a word, they act as booster shots (needles and all) against bad luck. Or so some Thais believe.

Their tattoos are not voluptuous ladies or the word "MOM", but animals, hieroglyphics, special numbers and characters, and figures and symbols from Hindu mythology: Hanuman the monkey-god, Ganesh the elephant-god, the phallic linga of the destroyer-god Siva. They cover backs, necks, arms, and they don't wash off with warm water. Instead they require an occasional "re-blessing" by Buddhist monks.

Hence the annual Thai tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra in Nakorn Chaisri, about an hour's drive west of Bangkok. Thousands of roughnecks - laborers, drivers, mobsters - descend upon the temple to honor its octogenarian abbot and archtattooist, Luang Phor Pern, in a ceremony known as wai kroo, or bow to the teacher. They also receive new tattoos, revitalize old ones, and go completely bananas.

"Tattoo spirits" possess a man wearing tattoos and put him into a trance. He screams and hisses, clenches his fists, rolls his eyes, and runs around. Entranced men take on the characteristics of their tattoos: a snake tattoo will cause him to slither, etc. Occasionally, onlookers get knocked down by one of these raging bulls. But bulky temple custodians are on hand to knock him to the ground. The custodians exorcise the spirit by whispering into his ears. They then slap him back into consciousness. The man dusts himself off, tends to any wounds he may have received, and saunters over to his family or friends. The men under trance insist that the trances are real.

The festival reaches a climax as the audience rushes the temple stage. Here they snatch at offerings of flowers and string, the string to be tied around their wrists as a blessing. The monks turn hoses on them, drenching them with holy water. The festival then addresses the more mundane business of tattooing and the usual activities attending a Thai fair: eating, shopping, and merrymaking.

The tattoos are made in a traditional way. Tattooists use a long metal rod, antiseptics ranging from rubbing alcohol to lao kao (a potent rice moonshine), and tissue paper to blot the blood. The ink is said to be a concoction of snake venom, herbs, and cigarette ash: Thailand's monks are notorious chain-smokers. The monks work for cheap - they will even work for Thai cigarettes -- and all the funds that do not go into their lungs go into the temple coffers. Monks revitalize tattoos by blowing on them and muttering prayers.

Different tattoos do different things. A tattoo called sah riga lin torng brings adoration. Suk roop seua pen, a tiger tattoo for which Wat Bang Phra is famous, will cause its wearer to be feared. "Offensive" tattoos, inscribed by black magicians, destroy opponents in fights and battles. "Defensive" tattoos, inscribed by Buddhist monks, protect the wearer from harm. And the effectiveness of a tattoo depends upon the wearer's devotion to it. He must pray to it and follow the basic precepts of Buddhism. He should also pray for his tattooist.

Tattoos have been part of Asian culture for centuries. The word "tattoo" is a word of Polynesian origin. Historical documents have shown that the Khmers used tattoos as early as the 1st century AD. Thailand's King Rama I used tattoos as identification markers for freemen. These IDs included the person's hometown and the name of his master. And the Thai epic poem Khun Chang Khun Paen refers to soldiers wearing protective tattoos into battle.

But as this yearly festival demonstrates, tattoos in Thailand are not just ancient history, nor a passing fad.

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