Wearing a loose T-shirt and shorts, 50-year-old Ros Sereyvuth shows off a tattoo covering his entire right arm. Smiling, he says the tattoo gives him the energy and good luck that carried him through war, and now through his normal day. A soldier at 18, he needed the tattoo’s magic to protect him from bullets and landmines, but most importantly, to give him strength and spirit.
“When I was a solider, I lived in the jungle. It was extremely dangerous. I did not have that much confidence at the time. Nevertheless, after getting this tattoo, I felt much braver,” Ros Sereyvuth said.
“I can guarantee that it has saved my life and continues to protect me. I also feel more powerful after getting it. If someone just glances at my tattoo, they will respect me.”
According to Dr Ros Chantraboth, an expert in Cambodian history, there is no research on when body art began in the country. However, we can see them on the armies’ statues in Angkor Wat or Bonteaysrey temples. The sculptures have tattoos on the chests, backs, arms and even the foreheads. It can be implied, then, that tattoos have existed in Cambodia for at least as long as these ancient sculptures.
From a personal point of view, Dr Ros Chantraboth found that having a tattoo on the body is similar to having magical clothes or papers (amulets). A tattoo is still different though, because in line with belief, the magic of a tattoo on the body can last longer with the person. Tattoos are used mainly to protect the user from evil but can also be used to attract a lover, or even bring success to a business.
Tattoos now are fashionable and trendy. It is relatively easy to find somewhere to get a tattoo, but a professional and hygienic parlour can be harder to find. A tattoo usually costs at least US$15, depending on the size.
Mao Thavry, 27, is the owner of Thavry tattoo shop. After 10 years of experience, he has noticed that tattoos are becoming increasingly popular in Cambodia since the country had modernised. As a result, more people are getting tattoos of designs they find on the Internet.
In the past, he said, customers had to explain the tattoo that they wanted, but could not really show the artist.
“My customers are both locals and foreigners, but the foreigners mostly come from Europe,” Mao Thavry said.
“The majority of my local customers are youth. About 70 to 80 percent of my clients are young men and women. [Young clients] choose to get tattoos because it’s in fashion.”
Mao Thavry confirmed that his shop does not allow teenagers under 18 to get a tattoo.
“People under 18 are very curious. They are eager to get something up-to-date, but those feelings do not last forever. Therefore, they may regret getting a tattoo later in life,” he said.
19-year-old Phan Chantha, a high school student in Phnom Penh, has a 15 centimetre-long tattoo on his neck in the shape of a vine. He said that he has had this tattoo for about three years, and got it because it is stylish.
“At the time, I did not focus much on my studies. I spent my time going out with my friends and classmates. They also had tattoos. I wanted one as well because it was cool to have a group tattoo like that,” Phan Chantha added.
“I also got the feeling that I was handsome and attractive because of my tattoo.”
The 32-year-old Pich Navy, a market vendor, has seen many people with different tattoos on their bodies throughout her work. She said that she has an interest in people with tiny tattoos on their hands, shoulders or waist. But she feels uncomfortable with those who have full body tattoos.
“One day, I felt scared when I saw one of my customers with a tattoo covering his entire body, especially since he was wearing a tight shirt. To me, it felt like the guy was a gangster,” Pich Navy explained.
“But, I do like those who have smaller tattoos because they look stylish and attractive.”