By AROON THAEWCHATTURAT
Many thanks to Daniel for publishing my Sacred Skin portraits. These photographs are part of an illustrated book titled Sacred Skin — Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos, published with a text by Tom Vater. During the course of my project, I was able to explore cultural paths through Thailand that are barely represented in mainstream discourse, yet play a hugely significant role in society as a whole.
My journey into the world of sacred tattoos, called sak yant in Thailand — began in 2006 in a temple outside of Bangkok. Once a year, a festival takes place at Wat Bang Phra to honor well known tattoo master Luang Phor Pen, the late abbot of the temple. Some 12,000 tattooed devotees gather on the temple grounds and provide a field day for photographers.
As I returned regularly to Wat Bang Phra to photograph this fascinating event, I wanted to get closer to the devotees. But it is difficult to become part of this “cult” if one does not wear tattoos oneself. What’s more, sacred tattoos serve to protect the wearer. Sak yant are not supposed to be shown to anyone. Getting devotees to take their clothes off and pose with the tattoos proved to be a challenge. I had to win the heart of the tattoo masters.
The current abbot at Wat Bang Phra agreed to support my project. Over time five sacred tattoo masters’ doors opened their doors and let me into their world. As soon as I managed to build a relationship with the masters, the wearers were happy to talk and pose for my camera.
Masters and devotees form an unbreakable bond that lasts a life time. Besides inking sacred prayers and images, the tattoo masters also provide spiritual and psychological guidance for their devotees. In their respective communities they take on the role of counselors. As the practice of sacred tattoo dates back many hundred years, the network of these tattoo masters stretches throughout the country: the support they give to society is enormous.
Once tattooed, the devotees live in a world of magic and the supernatural. Sak yant are said to protect from knife attacks, gun shots and road accidents. For the tattoos to retain their magic powers, the wearers must follow certain rules. The rules contain the five Buddhist precepts — don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t partake in sexual misconduct, don’t lie, and abstain from alcohol.
I tried to capture not just the devotees’ tattoos but who they were. My models were rather shy at first. Most of them were male and taking their clothes off for a female photographer was definitely a challenge for them. But after I had taken a few shots, their confidence increased and they conveyed a strong spirit.
My journey into the world of sak yant may end when I shoot my last photograph of sacred skin, but Thailand’s sacred tattoos continue to experience a huge resurgence and lend a voice to those who have little space to express themselves otherwise.
+++ You can order the illustrated book Sacred Skin — Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos from Amazon.