British-born photojournalist Dan White, who passed away last month at the age of 47 from a brain haemorrhage, lived in Thailand but was highly regarded as a veteran of the region. White covered everything from the political to the poetic in Southeast Asia and, among other things, wrote the Frommer’s travel guides on Cambodia and Laos.
It must have been a joy to work on Sacred Tattoos of Thailand, his last book of photography, which despite its title explores an ancient tattoo tradition that also encompasses Cambodia and Laos. Written by academic Joe Cummings, the glossy hardback invitingly leads the idle reader through the mysterious temples and tattoo parlours of sak yan masters and their disciples, and into the world of yantras – the intricate letters, numbers and beasts that make up the magical designs.
In Thailand, sak yan has had a huge resurgence in popularity, partly credited - even by the informed author of this book - to Angelina Jolie. She had five lines of finely inked Khmer script tattooed like a panther’s claw mark down her shoulder blade. Jolie’s chosen tattooist was a master Ajahn who took just 15 minutes to ink the celebrity (for free) in a hotel room in front of reporters.
In Cambodia the tradition is more closed. Men inked with full sleeves and chests of complicated yak san (yak soan in Khmer) quite often have backgrounds - in battle or police work - that require the protection afforded by the powerful yantra.
Packed with colour pictures of heavily tattooed backs and wincingly up-close needle work, the weathered yak san devotees interviewed in the book might themselves be proof of the protective powers of the sacred designs. From a tattoo on the tongue, which guards against poisoning, to a delicate gecko, which attracts lovers, sak yan tattoos draw on a peculiar mix of Buddhist, Hindu and animist beliefs to win favours from the spirit world.
In part, this book is a fascinating travelogue into a rare shared tradition (although the profiles of contemporary sak yan enthusiasts are less interesting); it’s also an insight into an art form thriving in one culture, while gradually fading like an aged yantra in Cambodia and Laos.
Sacred Tattoos of Thailand by Joe Cummings and Dan White is available now from Monument Books for $38.