This article appeared in issue 16 of the Weekly Phnom Penh, which I believe will be the final issue. The author is Iain Donnelly, and I asked Iain’s permission to post it here. Tattoo is an ancient Khmer and Thai art, and it’s changing rapidly in the face of Westernisation and tourism.
The art of tattooing is nearly as old as the history of man. Evidence of tattoo art has been found in the archaeological records of nearly every culture around the globe. While art and tools suggest tattooing was happening in Europe as long ago as 40,000 years ago in Europe, the oldest direct evidence was discovered in 1991 on the border between Austria and Italy when two tourists discovered the frozen and mummified body of the now famous ‘Ötzi the Iceman’ which has been dated to somewhere between 3370 and 3100 BC. On examination Ötzi was found to have over 50 tattoos. The areas where the tattoos were situated were later found to have suffered “age-conditioned or strain-induced degeneration” which has led some to speculate that the tattoos could have been a primitive form of acupuncture or acupressure, some 2000 years before the advent of these treatments in China.
Illustrating the global history of tattooing, mummified bodies with tattoos have been found in sites from Greenland to China, Egypt to the Andes. While the practice seems to have been very common in the ancient world, the meaning and purpose appears to have greatly differed.
In Ancient Egypt, tattoos, primarily amongst women, indicated status, while there is also evidence that they were also used for medicinal purposes as well as a way of marking criminals. Yet in Ancient China, the practice was seen as barbaric and was practiced by bandits or to mark out criminals.
In more modern times, tattoos have served a variety of purposes. British pilgrims to the holy lands in the 17th century often had tattoos done to commemorate their journeys. While after the American revolution, sailors began getting tattoos to be more easily identifiable and to avoid being press ganged. This practice later grew into as much being about self-expression as about identification. Though tattoos are often seen – wrongly – as a sign of being part of the criminal classes, it is somewhat ironic that in the 19th Century it was an expensive process and was thus popular amongst European royalty to show off their wealth.
In South East Asia, the practice dates back some 2000 years or so. Known as ‘Yantra’ – or more commonly as ‘sak yant’ (sak being the Thai word for tattoo and yant being the Thai pronunciation of yantra which is the mystical Sanskrit diagrams found in Dharmic religions) – the common theme of these tattoos are geometrical designs often coupled with animals or deities and accompanied by Pali phrases. These designs seem to combine both Buddhist tradition and the animist beliefs still prevalent in many areas. The script used in these tattoos varies slightly across the region; Central Thailand and Cambodia generally use Khmer script,
These tattoos are designed to offer protection, power or good luck to the bearer much in the same way as the commonly found Buddhist amulets do. From Chinese chronicles of the time, it would appear that the practice originated with the Tai culture of South-western China and North-western Vietnam then spread to the countries that are now Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Still hugely popular in Thailand and Myanamar, the use of yantra tattoos is somewhat less now in Laos and Cambodia, the loss in the latter being partly due to the long period of chaos that would have seen most traditional tattooists – usually monks or ‘magic men’ – lost to war or genocide and also to a Royal declaration from 1920 that forbade monks from tattooing, though many continued to practice the art.
There is a real belief in the magic and power that these tattoos can imbue to a bearer, and a real belief amongst the artists themselves that they are channelling power into the tattoos they make. But generally, in Cambodia at least, these sorts of tattoos are only found on the older Khmers as the younger generation are beginning to embrace Western designs when choosing to ink their body.
While traditionally these tattoos were done with sharpened metal rods or bamboo, the remaining practitioners will also work with modern tattoo guns as they believe the power comes from the design and what they put into it rather than how it is actually done.
What has emerged in both Thailand and Cambodia is the practice of tourists and backpackers wanting to be tattooed with sak yant designs, turning an ancient and meaningful esoteric art form into little more than an almost meaningless souvenir. In Thailand the tattooing of farangs with yantra designs has become a lucrative money spinner for the Wats who offer the service and even in Cambodia the tattoo artists here find that it is the barangs who most often request such work.
At the forefront of the tattoo scene in Phnom Penh is the RSD chain – now with 3 shops and with plans to open 2 in Siem Reap – which has been operating in the capital for 7 years. To find out more about the scene here, I spoke to Din – owner of the chain – and Nico Vanhakartano, a Finnish artist who has been working with RSD for 3 years now, spending half his year in Cambodia and the other half operating his own studio back in Finland.
Nico, how long have you been a tattoo artist and how did you start?
I’ve been tattooing for some 20 years now. I was never interested in academic subjects at school but was always interested in art so was always drawing or sketching. I got to know some tattoo artists in my home town then bought some equipment and began practicing on myself and then on friends. From there I then went on to work as an artist in various shops before opening my own studio.
And how long have you been working in Cambodia. And why here?
I first worked in Cambodia in 2011 but have been working with RSD for the last 3 years now. I visited Cambodia initially back in 2009 and fell in love with the country and with the people. There’s a feeling of freedom here that I feel has been lost in Europe to an extent. I still keep my shop in Finland for when I am back there but a permanent move to Cambodia is very much on the cards.
Have you seen big changes in those 3/4 years? Are more Khmers getting tattooed now than when you started?
Definitely. We have a lot more Cambodian customers now than when I started. Young people are becoming more Westernised through their contact with tourists and expats, their access to the internet and through TV and movies. I get a lot of Cambodians asking for me to do work because they have seen pictures of previous designs I have done.
And what about styles? I usually only see older Khmers with traditional yantra tattoos. Do you find the younger Khmers are mainly getting modern designs?
It’s probably about 70-30 in favour of modern styles. What we do find is that a lot of the younger Cambodians get lettering done as a design; that can be everything from a loved one’s name to lyrics from a song to a tattoo honouring their parents. But I don’t do any of the traditional designs here; we have several artists at the RSD shops who are excellent at doing those type of tattoos.
How would you describe your own style? Or what sorts of designs do you like working with?
I like working with black and grey, tattoos that require careful shading. Design wise, I like working with skulls and other darker subjects. More recently I have loved designing and inking Dia de los Muertos (day of the dead) styles.
Din, you’re the owner of RSD, how long have the shops been going?
We’ve been operating in Phnom Penh for about 10 years now, but for the first 3 years we were only offering temporary and henna tattoos – they were very big amongst tourists – then about 7 years ago I realised there was a growing demand for real tattoos so set out to recruit some artists. I’m not an artist myself, I’m just a businessman, but I love ink and saw that the demand meant there was a good business opportunity. Plus it means I can get cheap or free work done by the guys who work for me! We were the first professional tattoo parlour in Phnom Penh. Before we opened any artist working in the city were just operating from their house.
In the 7 years you have been offering real tattoos have you noticed a significant change in how many of your customers are Khmer?
A huge change. When we first started maybe 80% of our customers were tourists or expats. But over those 7 years tattoos have become more popular – and acceptable – in Cambodia and now I would say the split is probably about 50-50.
And from a Cambodian perspective, how many Khmers are you seeing requesting yantra work?
Not that many. As Nico has said, most Khmers want western designs or tattoos that are only lettering done. The majority of requests that we get for sak yant work is from tourists. If a Khmer gets a sak yant done then it is for protection – they really do see it as magic – but if a barang gets it done they see it purely as a decorative souvenir rather than anything to do with the actual tradition.
A big difference between Cambodia and Thailand is that if you get yantra work done here by a traditional practitioner then it is usually for free while in Thailand it has become a very lucrative money spinner for the temples that offer it.
As an owner of an expanding chain, do you see any patterns in the types of tattoos young Khmers ask for?
Yes for sure. Many western customers often want something unique to them. But with the younger Khmers there can be fashions; a tattoo can become popular and then you will see many people with the same design.
A good example of this is the twin crowns to represent King and Queen; there are many examples of this design in Phnom Penh. Young boys like to get the name of their girlfriend tattooed which can be a huge risk if you ever break up and are left with a girl’s name who you no longer love.
RSD have 3 shops across the city. You can find Nico, their most experienced artist, at the branch on Sihanouk Boulevard, close to the top of Sothearos Boulevard. You can also view more of Nico’s work at: https://www.facebook. com/NicoChAosInk/