Going under the needle in Phnom Penh

Going under the needle in Phnom Penh


Phnom Penh is home to numerous tattoo parlours, as well as a range of renowned local and international artists.

Nina Loacker/Phnom Penh Post
A tattoo artist at RSD Tattoo demonstrates his inking technique.

But despite the general high standard of hygiene that many of the places maintain, getting inked in the Penh is still something you should consider carefully. It’s not just fresh needles that need to be used.

The quality of the ink, the artist’s work, and the equipment involved need to be checked out beforehand.

Using a quality ink, anything that is from Japan or the USA for example, can make or break a tattoo. Low quality inks can contain high quantities of metal, which may destroy the look of a tattoo over time, especially if the wearer has to get an MRI in the future. This being said, out of the 20 something studios I visited in the city, more than half seemed up to scratch.

Singapore-born Aesan has been tattooing in Phnom Penh years now. He is a master of the art of the sacred Hindu tattoo and has spent time studying traditional Pali artwork and designs. He works for RSD Tattoo, which I gather is the leading tattoo parlour in Phnom Penh. It has won several awards for varying artists’ work and the general consensus, particularly among the expat community, is that RSD is undoubtedly the most hygienic and recommended place to get ink done in the city.

Aesan has led an interesting life; he has been a crocodile wrangler, a renowned Muay Thai fighter and has spent several years discovering himself in India and living as a hermit in the jungles of Thailand.

But throughout it all he has never let his passion for tattoo art diminish. “I started tattooing when I was 16; I couldn’t find anyone to take me on as an apprentice initially, so in the beginning I taught myself.”

After tattooing in Phnom Penh for over eight years, Aesan is seen as somewhat responsible for the rise of its popularity throughout the city. “I taught a lot of these guys in the beginning,” Aesan said. “But now some of them are overtaking me. It’s a beautiful thing to see passions flourish.”

The history of tattoos in Cambodia is believed to stretch back more than 2,000 years. It emerged as part of a broad cultural inheritance that came from the Indian sub-continent. During various periods of the country’s history, throughout turmoil and peace, the popularity of tattoos has risen and fallen.

Over the centuries, Cambodians have endured endless hours of work to obtain the hand-drawn mystical tattoos believed to imbue them with magical powers. But the tradition seems to be fading.

The word on the street is that it’s much harder these days to get a magic tattoo in Cambodia than it used to be. In fact after days of endless hunting there seemed to be one man left in the whole country that can, irrefutably, provide one with a magic tattoo, along with the required blessing. He remains a nameless monk living in a small temple located in Battambang.

There was one other possibility here in Phnom Penh – a man named Tran Cha – however his studio seemed to lack the hygiene standard one would expect as necessary for a safe tattooing experience.

He is not a monk and he primarily uses a gun to do his artwork and not the traditional long needle that many Khmer tell me is required to pass on a legitimate and effective magic tattoo.

That being said, Tran seemed like a stand up guy. When working on a magical tattoo Chan Tra begins by praying which calls for magic to be transferred to the skin of his customer, before taking out his needles.

Tran told me, “Many Khmer people believe that magic tattoos will help protect them from harm such as disease, snake bites or bullets.”

Despite the loss of much of the original Khmer tradition surrounding tattoos, if you’re happy with creating your own meaning behind a beautiful piece of Khmer prepared art, then Phnom Penh is a city that can provide a beautiful, safe and artistically diverse tattoo experience.


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