“A man without tattoos is invisible to the Gods.” –Asian proverb
I have always enjoyed photographing people with tattoos, and my interest in going to Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple located outside of Bangkok, Thailand, was to experience a unique and sacred practice in Southeast Asian culture.
Tattoos have been part of Southeast Asian cultures since the first century A.D. Wat Bang Phra is famous for its magical tattoos and for the monks—reputed to be among the best tattoo artists in Asia–who ink them. Of Thailand’s 300,000 monks, only a few qualify as tattoo artists. Tattoos created at Wat Bang Phra are believed to have the power to bring luck and prosperity and to protect devotees from illness, evil spirits, and even bullets, knife blades and road accidents. Whether a tattoo is effective depends upon the wearer’s devotion–the wearer must pray to it and follow basic Buddhist principles.
To create the tattoos, the monks skillfully hand tap the chosen designs–mythical creatures (often heroes from the Ramayana epic, like Hanuman) and animals (such as tigers, birds and dragons) surrounded by Pali Buddhist script, the Khmer alphabet, magical signs, numerology charts, and symbols from Hindu mythology–onto the backs, necks, shoulders, arms, and shaved heads of devotees, using long and sharp metal rods dipped in an ink infused with a mixture of snake venom, herbs and ash. The monks rhythmically and repeatedly puncture the skin in order to form the designs, chanting special prayers to give power and activation to the tattoos.
The devotees pray before and after receiving these sacred tattoos. The atmosphere in the room is quiet and peaceful–obtaining new tattoos or having old tattoos blessed and recharged is a spiritual experience.