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Written on the skin: the story of magical tattoos

Photo by: Heng Chivoan
Magical tattoos in traditional Cambodia use motifs of animals and ancient scriptures. Tattoo artists invoke prayers before inking the designs on the skin.

Magic happens – just ask Phnom Penh tattooist Chan Tra. The 47-year-old is one of the few Cambodian artists still able to ink magical designs on customers.

Before taking to the needle, however, he needs to pray in the ancient Pali language, the traditional language of Theravada Buddhist scripts across much of southeast Asia.

“It depends on our belief. If we believe that a tattoo is magical, it will have a supernatural force to protect us. But if we don’t believe that it has magic, it won’t show us its mysterious power at all,” says Chan Tra, whose customers also include foreigners.

However, his overseas clients tend to prefer decorative images such as temples, buildings or flags, he explains, while his main clientele for magic tattoos are Cambodian.

These normally feature pictures of animals such as tigers, along with scripts written in Pali, an ancient cousin of Sanskrit often used to communicate Buddhist texts.

First Chan Tra prays and calls for magic to be transferred to the skin of his customer, before taking out his needles. Many people believe that magic tattoos will help protect them from harm such as disease, snake bites or bullets, he says.

A similar belief is shared by many Thai people – soldiers of both countries fighting at recent border spats are often tattooed with similar motifs and words to protect them.

Cheymongkol Sokchensry, president of the Khmer Culture Association in Surin, Thailand, says that Thai tattoos feature the same images as Khmer traditional designs of large animals and Pali scriptures.

“They also believe in magic tattoos,” he says.

Professor Soeung Phos, who teaches Pali and Sanskrit to students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, says the Pali language entered Cambodia in the 13th or 14th century, along with the spread of Theravada Buddhism.

Pali was used to record the Buddha’s teachings, he says. “After Buddhism and the Pali language entered Cambodia, people began to learn Pali instead of Sanskrit. And because people really believed in Buddhism, they even thought that Buddha’s words would become magical if they tattooed them on their skin,” says the professor.

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