02 October 2010

Magic Tattoos

Today's Independent has a feature on Cambodian 'magic' tattoos:

The Girl with the Magic Tattoo.
Even with Angelina Jolie's approval, Cambodia's mystical body artists are struggling to survive.

These tattoos often feature texts in Pāli, written in the Cambodian script (aka Khmer) which itself ultimately derives from the Indian Brahmī script.

This is the one Buddhist culture I know of which has a tradition of tattoo. Although the story suggests that the art is dying out in Cambodia, it is alive and well in the rest of the world - as an internet search will reveal - partly because of celebrities getting this kind of tattoo.


  1. It's still quite common in Thailand. The esoteric tattoos are called Sak Yant. It's easy to find a trained priest, but they say the most powerful ones come from secluded monks who live in the mountains. The Thais actually use Cambodian mul script for the tattoos (leading to heated contention between Cambodians and Thais about "stolen" culture).

  2. Thanks for that Barry. It's funny isn't it how nationalism in the present, often ignores history, and especially historical boundaries. I know one 'Thai' man whose first language is Lao.

  3. The interesting thing is, there are more Lao speakers in Thailand than there are in Laos! Nationalism is a pretty strong thing in south east Asia. There are constant accusations of "culture stealing" by all groups, despite the fact that national borders don't represent the historical ones nor that the old Khmer kingdoms are not the same as the modern Khmer ones.

    Regardless, there's a broad continuum of culture across south east Asia (and I've read that the iconic style of SE Asian temples is Indonesian in influence. I might be wrong on this). The old Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms had a huge sway even to the remotest regions. There have even been Buddhist sculpture and art found out in the Philippines (the Golden Tara found there is one item). Sanskrit words even made it into Philippine lexicons, such as salita (cerita) - speak, balita (berita)- news, karma, mukha - face, guro (guru) - teacher, dalita (dharta) - suffering, diwa (jiwa) - spirit, diwata (devanta) - fairy, maharlika (mahardhikka) - nobility.

    It would however be nice if south east Asians would recognize the similarities rather than infighting about who stole what.

  4. Jayarava, you may be interested in visiting here: http://www.sak-yant.com/

    They have links to images of the various Sak Yant, as well as scans of the Khmer style used in these tattoos.