Tattoos have become commonplace in Cambodia, especially among the younger generations. The sight of tattooed young men and women may still shock some conservative members of society, but it is important to note that today’s tattooing craze was preceded by a far more ancient version of the practice in Cambodia that still persists today.
In contrast to modern tattooing studios that prioritise aesthetics and beauty on the body, ancient Khmer Sak Yant tattooing places greater emphasis on a system of rules for its style that relies on traditions, a moral code and magic.
73-year-old Roeung Sarem is a Khmer Sak Yant tattooing teacher who learned the skill from his parents and his grandfather.
“When we apply a tattoo, we begin to ink the words and start reciting in Pali until the tattoo is complete, despite any interruptions that may occur, we must continue reciting,” Sarem told The Post.
Sarem, who has been learning the art of Sak Yant tattooing since he was a child, described the rules of tattooing.
“Receiving a traditional tattoo is believed to bring peace and happiness, which is enough in itself. However, for those seeking even more potent magical powers, additional ritual reciting may be required,” he said.
While tattooing, Sarem must recite the ritual words in Pali from beginning to end no matter how long the tattoo takes to finish. Different Pali recitations are used depending on whether he uses his hands or a machine to do the work.
Sarem is based in Banan district of Battambang province. He has recently had to stop tattooing due to a health condition, but he noted that he has been training apprentices in this art since the end of civil war and has trained hundreds of other tattoo artists in Sak Yant, though he modestly claims that his own abilities are limited compared to the skills of others.
Nearly a decade ago, the Federation of Khmer Sakyantra was established by Cambodia’s traditional tattoo artists to maintain the art form’s traditions and train new artists in the ways of Sak Yant.
Sim Sotun, 29, a member of the technical committee of the federation, began learning Sak Yant tattooing in 2014. He said the Federation of Khmer Sakyantra was established on July 9, 2014, with four main objectives: To document all of the various Sak Yant-style tattoos and to preserve this part of Cambodia’s cultural heritage by training new artists.
The Federation of Khmer Sakyantra is led by Say Tevin, 35, who learned Sak Yant tattooing from his father beginning in 2001. Currently, the federation has three notable Sak Yant tattoos artists among its ranks: Ouk Roeun, Prum Tuy and Roeung Sarem.
“We aim to re-assemble traditional Khmer Sak Yant tattooing styles, compile all of the rules and impart them to interested individuals to ensure the future creation of Sak Yant tattoos and magic talismans, and to educate future generations.
‘Heritage of all humanity’
“Our main goal is to promote Sak Yant tattooing as an art for both our national heritage and the heritage of all humanity, while also preserving the authenticity of the original style by eliminating the adoption of foreign styles in this particular form and avoiding any innovations that are different from the original practices,” Sotun told The Post
He added that once enough Cambodians understood the history of Sak Yant tattoos and their cultural value, then it would be easier for Cambodia to apply for its inclusion on [UNICEF’s] cultural world heritage list.
Sotun stressed that the understanding of Sak Yant tattoo art among the Cambodian people is very limited today. Some individuals may believe that all Sak Yant tattoos exclusively belong to Cambodia, but he is quick to acknowledge that neighbouring countries share similar tattooing cultural practices as their civilizations are historically linked with Cambodia’s.
Sotun, who has had a passion and curiosity about Sak Yant tattooing since he was a teenager, emphasizes that it’s the styles that matter overall, though the letters in Khmer Sak Yant tattoos use Khmer script, people from other cultures can use their own script and even learn the art from Cambodia and create their style.
He said that the mixture of styles between Sak Yant tattoos and foreign designs remains a murky subject and it can be difficult in some cases to tell whether the design was copied from an original Cambodian design or had some other origin.
Sotun quoted the elders as saying that when foreigners took Cambodian scholars after they won the war, they were instructed to translate and adjust the styles, but were still preserved the original.
He said that the elders taught him that historically, in the distant past, when foreign nations won wars with Cambodia, they would demand that Cambodian scholars translate the text of the Sak Yant tattoos and even adjust their styles, in an attempt to gain the power of the tattoos for their own people, but the Khmer scholars quietly resisted and hid the original designs to preserve them.
“Sometimes these scholars were Khmer patriots and so they translated the texts for them but altered, removed and changed some characters to render them ineffective and keep them from having a translation that was accurate to the original Khmer,” he said.
Sotun, said that following the recent period of war there were some people who did not understand what they were doing or were so desperate that they ended up selling the Sak Yant rules written on sastra sleuk rith [palm leaf scrolls] for creating the tattoos to artists in neighbouring countries for large sums of money.
Playing by the book
Regarding the compilation and training of the next generation, the Federation of Khmer Sakyantra adheres to the principle of not adopting foreign styles or newly-created Khmer styles.
Sotun said that the Sak Yant federation is strict about not adopting any foreign styles or Khmer styles of modern origin. The federation follows the rules as they are written on ancient sastra sleuk rith that are stored at Wat Ounalom, along with guidance passed down from the elders, though as time passes it becomes more difficult to rely upon them in their old age.
“For example, with Sarem’s eight-direction Sak Yant tattooing rules, when we asked him in which year he copied them down from his grandfather’s generation, he could not remember anymore because of his old age and going through the Khmer Rouge era,” he said.
According to the traditions surrounding Sak Yant tattoos, they are believed to have magical powers that can protect against injuries caused by flames or even bullets fired from guns. In past eras, it is said that some tattoos artists took advantage of these powers and used them for criminal gain, which caused society to then hate tattoos and tattoo artists and associate them with gangsters.
Sarem said that the perception that people with tattoos are bad people is unreasonable these days and that in his experience the individuals who possess these tattoos have a strict moral code and are not gangsters or criminals.
He explained that all Sak Yant tattooists must follow a moral code for their tattoos to protect them, which includes not stealing other people’s property, respecting their parents and elders and not disrespecting Buddha or monks.
“The reason why some people with tattoos suffer these prejudices today is that some people in the past were too proud of their supposed magic powers and engaged in bad behaviour and so it was much like how one spoiled fish in the basket spoils all the other fish,” he said.
To be recognised by the federation as a qualified Sak Yant tattoo artist an individual must spend at least two years training with a recognized instructor. The instructors who teach tattooing must also undergo an additional three years of training prior to taking on students. Therefore, to be a Sak Yant tattoo instructor, one must study for at least five years.
Sak Yant tattoo masters must study for three more years to attain that rank. And to become a grandmaster of Sak Yant tattoos, the artist must then pursue their studies for another three or four years beyond that.
Learning traditional magic
Sotun, who is studying to become a Sak Yant tattoo instructor currently, mentioned that in addition to their training on the art of Sak Yant tattoos, all students must learn about traditional Khmer magic as well.
He said that at present there are two grandmasters, five masters and 10 regularly qualified tattooists who are federation members.
He acknowledges that there are numerous tattoo parlours or studios all over Cambodia, but most of them know very little about Sak Yant tattooing, whatever the quality the modern style tattoos they offer might be.
“These establishments may offer various tattoo services, but they do not understand or know about the specific style associated with this traditional form of tattooing,” he said.
“If you just want to make a living and raise a family that’s fine, but to me, if I acquire this skill but I don’t pass it on to future generations, that seems like a waste of time,” he said.
Sotun said that, in his view, tattoo culture – whether modern or traditional – is not negative like some people may perceive it to be, but he admitted that at times he has had to work hard to convince his family members or friends of the cultural significance of this art form and the importance of passing down this knowledge to future generations.
“Sak Yant tattooing does not make people rude or disrespectful towards adults. In fact, a person who has tattoos often becomes a quieter and gentler person if he adheres to the moral code taught to them by the artist as necessary for the power of the tattoos, and their mindset changes,” Sotun said.
Sotun said that he has definitely observed a marked shift in Cambodian people’s mindset on tattoos. Parents are now bringing their children to get tattoos, with hopes they will guard their well-being and more and more people view Sak Yant tattoos as traditional Khmer art.
He said that in past eras all of the tattoo artists were always men. However, the federation now aims to promote inclusivity by providing training opportunities for women interested in becoming tattoo artists.
“We have not yet been successful in training female practitioners, it seems that they may lack interest or are discouraged from it. However, this could be due to differing passions and perceptions, but we will continue to be open to training them,” he said.
Having witnessed a gradually swelling confusion between traditional Sak Yant tattoos and those from other countries, Sarem decided he was ready to abandon the secretive approach that many instructors used in the past when teaching their students.
Now he has sought to make his teachings more comprehensive and all-encompassing as a fitting continuation of this traditional cultural knowledge.
“The tattooists in the old days frequently concealed their knowledge, resulting in the loss of our heritage when disaster struck. In the past, I also considered hiding it, but unfortunately our Sak Yant tattoos are gradually fading away.
“It is deeply regrettable that the younger generation desires to learn this art yet lacks the means to acquire this knowledge and so, some time ago, I decided that, henceforth, I would no longer hide what I know and instead work to share with everyone everything I can,” said Sarem.