The entrance to You Hak’s cramped tattoo studio opposite Sorya Mall is signposted by a raunchy mannequin plastered with transfer stickers. Its interior is uninspiring, sticky with heat and wallpapered with photographs of the still-sore designs that he has inked on his customers.
Dotted among the internationally recognisable tribal sleeves and inspirational quotes in Gothic lettering, a dozen-odd designs stand out: combinations of wiry, tapering spirals, gods, mythical beasts and spidery lettering.
These are sak yant: tattoos whose form and application are believed to protect the wearer against everything from bullets to a mother’s vengeful ghost, depending on the design.
The unusual and somewhat other-worldly aesthetics of the sak yant mean that the designation “magic” does not come as a surprise, even to the uninitiated.
But this is not the place you’d expect to find them.
The application of sak yant tattoos has traditionally been the purview of a dwindling number of monks and “masters” – men who have passed the meaning of the Pali-script designs down from one generation to the next, and perfected the art of administering their magic using long sticks and homemade ink.
But You Hak doesn’t trouble himself with this.
“I know how to make the magic tattoos as pictures, but not to bless them,” he said on Tuesday, putting down the laser gun he had been using to remove a line of stars from a young woman’s wrist.
Like most modern tattoo artists in Phnom Penh, his education in the symbolism of sak yant has come mainly from his customers – often Westerners – who bring him printed-out designs.
“Now is the time of technology and people just want to get tattooed for fun,” he said. “They don’t believe in magic or abstract belief.”
Sak yant have been a source of fascination for Southeast Asian scholars and visitors for centuries: an intriguing intersection of aesthetics, Buddhism and “spiritual” traditions rendered all the more exotic by their imprecise roots.
In his 1998 book on the subject, Yantra et Mantra, French researcher Olivier de Bernon documents the rigorous rituals he observed among Cambodia’s few remaining tattooing masters: an apprenticeship in moral behaviour for the recipient, followed by an intricate application ceremony and blessings for the new inking – ideally at several different pagodas.
The wearer is given a strict code of conduct that includes a prohibition on drinking, certain sexual acts and particular foods. If the precepts are ignored, the tattoo’s powers are lost. It can even turn against its wearer.
In the past, sak yant have most frequently been sought out in Cambodia by soldiers, who would cover their body in the life-protecting designs. But among the young, the tradition is losing popularity in favour of picture-based designs, and it is now as common to see the magical tattoos being sported by Westerners – most famously Angelina Jolie – as it is by Cambodian citizens.
For De Bernon, the transformation of sak yant to fashion statement is to be regretted. “Tourists [or] foreigners having Cambodian tattoos for fun, just because they think it is nice, this amount to the trivialisation of a tradition. It is not interesting,” he said via email.
“I doubt the foreigners and non-Buddhists getting traditional Cambodian tattoo[s] have any influence on the preservation of this tradition.”
But on the ground there is lenience – and money to be made.
Chan Tra, a 52-year-old tattoo master, operates out of a studio close by Kampuchea Krom.
The fleur-de-lis papering only reaches halfway up the grubby walls, a pipe leaks onto the floor and the only new-looking items in the room are an ink-jet printer and Chan Tra’s iPhone 6. But according to one former customer, the shop must be “raking it in”.
Chan Tra’s dingy studio is the most popular destination for Westerners and Khmers alike looking to get sak yant tattoos.
“Most customers book me to do tattoo online or by phone,” explained Chan Tra, whose own tattoos he says were applied using invisible oil. “When they come to Cambodia, they come to my place.”
On Chan Tra’s slick website, a price list enumerates the type and quantity of offerings that are required to bless a new tattoo: cigarettes, candles, incense and betel leaves and nuts. Cash is included in the offering and ranges from $30 for a small sak yant to hundreds of dollars for full-back designs.
This exchange is facilitated by Sok Thy – Chan Tra’s constant companion – who uses the near-perfect English taught to him by missionaries to explain the significance of the sak yant to the many foreigners who seek them out.
“Often, they don’t understand the meaning,” Thy said. “We try our best to explain [the tattoos] before they make a final decision.”
Sok Thy is himself a prime example of the kind of master-student relationship that De Bernon describes as having once been typical.
He has been with Chan Tra for three years, and credits the relationship with saving him from being a “bad guy” with a penchant for getting into fights.
“He taught me right from wrong; he taught me how to be a good man, so I follow his footsteps,” he said, before stripping off to reveal a huge dragon sak yant on his back.
For most of Chan Tra’s visitors, the spiritual relationship is more perfunctory: a consultation where aesthetic considerations are generally permitted to prevail, and ideally a return visit for a blessing.
Olivier de Bernon, author of Yantra et Mantra, will be speaking on Cambodian ritual tattooing on Saturday February 6 as part of the French Institute’s upcoming exhibition Adorned Body, Transformed Body. The exhibition – first shown at the Perfume Museum in Grasse, southern France – charts the complex and varied history of make-up, body paint, tattoos, piercing and other bodily transformations around the world.
According to Gregory Couderc, one of the exhibition’s co-curators, the magical function of bodily adornment no longer plays a role in Western countries. “In the Occident, tattoos are more or less devoid of magic, even though they may well have emotional significance for the wearer,” he explained via email. “The aesthetics of the pattern outweigh the profound meaning.”
But he said that Southeast Asia was by no means the only place where spirituality and superstition played a part in getting inked: in Papau New Guinea, the Iatmul ethnic group perform scarification during a coming-of-age ritual that mimics the scales of the crocodile god, and in India and the Maghreb, kohl make-up is believed to protect against evil attacks.
And in Europe, Couderc pointed out, tattoos continue to act as important social signifiers, particularly for communicating sub-culture affiliation among punks and goths. The same is true the world over: in New Zealand and Polynesia, tattoos are strictly coded in ways that announce social hierarchies.
Couderc said that while “borrowing” between cultures had always existed, globalisation had accentuated this trend. “In passing from one civilisation to another, bodily markers lose their traditional significance, their magic, as well as the beliefs that surround them,” he wrote. “Only the aesthetic persists.”
Adorned Body, Transformed Body opens at the French Institute, #218 Street 184, on Thursday, January 28 at 6:30pm.
He sees no issue with the prevalence of sak yant-like designs in modern studios around the city.
“Other places just do it like a normal picture without magic. It is normal for them to do this business,” he said, adding that he could also perform blessings that would transform these everyday etchings into protective charms.
Erik Davis, a scholar who recently published Deathpower: Buddhism’s Ritual Imagination in Cambodia, describes the international popularity of sak yant as “definitely an appropriation of sorts, but not an appropriation Cambodians get particularly pissed off about … I think.”
“Buddhism is the fetishised international religion par excellence,” he said, referencing pronouncements by the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh that seem to present it as a pick-and-choose faith. “But if anyone has the authority to make such pronouncements, it would be those two guys.”
But, Davis continued, “A tattoo will always have meaning for you, right? It’s painful. People tattoo names of children, dead relatives, friends ... That’s going to have a meaning to them far more significant that the simply lexical.”
Among foreigners who get sak yant, the sense of personal significance is clear.
“It was cleansing,” says Carla Mason, the Australian owner of raucous local bar Show Box. Mason visited Chan Tra two years ago when she first moved to Phnom Penh.
“I’d come away from Australia with some bad stuff. I felt like I needed protection,” she explains.
“I know it sounds like that placebo thing. But I felt protected,” she continued. “I’ve never seen any trouble here. I know it happens – I’ve picked up the blood from it – but I’ve never actually seen it.”
Mason was not told of any rules to follow after the blessing, but returned a couple of days later for a ceremony that involved having gold dust sprinkled over her new tattoo.
There is variation to this ritual. Nathan Thompson, a journalist who has two sak yant tattoos – one from Chan Tra, and one from a man in Siem Reap, said that neither of his blessings involved any gold dust, but did involve the laying down of strict conditions.
“Any Westerner who has a sak yant and goes out drinking and partying, they’ll lose their power,” said Thompson, who is a follower of Buddhism.
“Me, I don’t drink, and I generally abide by the precepts, so technically mine is still supercharged.”
But if sak yant tattoos are being commercialised, it is not only in the case of foreign recipients.
Ryun Patterson, author of Vanishing Act: A Glimpse into Cambodia’s World of Magic, received a sak yant in 2011, from a monk of particular renown: Wat Neakovan’s Kong Kea.
“[He] would barely talk to me last time I went out for my book,” Patterson recalled last week, speaking over Skype from his home in Chicago. “He’d got a bit too fancy – his price kept on going up to $500, $800, $1,000. He’s like: ‘I don’t do tattoos for regular people any more – you’ve got to have a Mercedes.’”
Speaking from an ornately carved, raised seat at Wat Neakovan on Wednesday, Kong Kea agreed that tattoos blessed by him were in high demand among important bodyguards and military men.
“It is true that rich people or high-ranking people came to get a magic tattoo from me,” he said, between simultaneously picking out ear wax with cotton buds and slurping a mix of betel nut and Red Bull into a spittoon. “But I welcome all people who want to have magic tattoos.”
Like Chan Tra, Kong Kea said he took no issue with the popularity of sak yant among non-Buddhists.
According to Patterson, the high prices commanded by monks such as Kong Kea were the result of “supply-and-demand” market forces, because of the scarcity of practitioners who could reasonably claim links to the historical lineage of tattoo masters.
But he’s not overly concerned.
“I was just happy that I didn’t get any infections from him, so he’s good in my book,” joked Patterson, whose personal blessing involved Kong Kea spitting large quantities of holy water over his freshly needled back.
Patterson has himself been involved in the commercialisation of the magic designs. One $500 perk available during the crowdfunding campaign for Vanishing Act was the author’s help in arranging for a monk to apply and bless a sak yant for the donor.
Patterson said that he consulted with his Cambodian in-laws and monks at his local temple in Chicago as to whether the perk was appropriate. “Cambodian spiritual practices are so adaptable,” he said. “Sometimes I think foreigners take it more seriously than Cambodians do.”
At his small studio opposite Sorya Mall, You Hak explains that he is used to navigating the intricacies incurred by the sak yant’s magical status, even at a commercial studio.
In the past he has administered tattoos for discerning monks who like his style and will then return to their pagoda to have the design blessed. He has also removed sak yant from young men who believe the magic has turned on them and is bringing bad luck to the family.
And although he personally prefers the power of Chinese symbolism – as evinced by the large Chinese dragon coiled around his arm – some rules have stuck: he is unwilling to administer sak yant designs featuring tigers if the recipient wasn’t born in the appropriate year.
“If the person is not matching, they will face bad luck,” he warns.