Search form

Inked in Asia

Inked in Asia

121018 12a

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.


  • Breaking: PM says prominent human rights NGO ‘must close’

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has instructed the Interior Ministry to investigate the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and potentially close it “because they follow foreigners”, appearing to link the rights group to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party's purported “revolution”. The CNRP - the

  • Rainsy and Sokha ‘would already be dead’: PM

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday appeared to suggest he would have assassinated opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had he known they were promising to “organise a new government” in the aftermath of the disputed 2013 national elections. In a clip from his speech

  • Massive ceremony at Angkor Wat will show ‘Cambodia not in anarchy’: PM

    Government officials, thousands of monks and Prime Minister Hun Sen himself will hold a massive prayer ceremony at Angkor Wat in early December to highlight the Kingdom’s continuing “peace, independence and political stability”, a spectacle observers said was designed to disguise the deterioration of

  • PM tells workers CNRP is to blame for any sanctions

    In a speech to workers yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen pinned the blame for any damage inflicted on Cambodia’s garment industry by potential economic sanctions squarely on the opposition party. “You must remember clearly that if the purchase orders are reduced, it is all