Journalist Nathan Thompson has an excellent article on Cambodian tattoos (“sak yant”) on the South China Morning Post magazine. It begins:
He has a monkey on a chain. And an owl – also chained. Teven Say, a master of magical tattoos, strokes both of his familiars and regards me with a proud gaze. He is sitting in a large shed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Stripped to the waist, his muscular torso is webbed with ink. Tangled outlines of gods and sacred geometry weave around his fists and arms like wires in a fuse box, pulsing with an ancient magic.
One of his students connects a tattoo gun to a battery pack. Teven Say dips the needle in black ink and tells me to lay down. I start sweating.
Nathan says that traditional tattooing is dying out. That’s the impression I get too. They used to be very popular with soldiers (they deflect bullets), but now they’re associated with gangsters and criminals and black magicians. Monks especially are not supposed to have tattoos, and the abbot of Wat Sarawan (in Phnom Penh, near the tourist strip of street 172) was most apologetic when I asked how he got his (he used to be a soldier). Links to more of his journalism can be found on his website, and stuff that doesn’t get in Slate and other prestige outlets on the ever-popular Khmer 440.