Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.37.00 AMThis 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?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.18.36 AMI’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?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.57 AMIt’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?

Screen Shot 2015-12-28 at 5.16.39 AMWe’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/


Vanishing Act: glimpses into Cambodia’s world of magic

Screen Shot 2015-07-04 at 8.22.58 PMVanishing Act: Glimpses into Cambodia’s world of magic. Ryun Patterson and Ric Valenzuela.

Cambodia’s mystic class of healers, counselors, and fortunetellers channel spirits, read fortunes in numbers and cards, and inscribe enchantments in flesh. But technology and modernity are changing these roles and rituals. Vanishing Act tracks down these singular people to document their lives. It paints vivid portraits of people who live with one foot in the mundane and another in the magical.

The photos, by the way, are glorious. Available for iPad/Mac/Kindle. Available also on paper – contact Ryun Patterson on Facebook or (not available at Monument Books).  See the website at, reviews/interviews at Cambodia Daily and Khmer Times. The interview with the CD is worth reproducing at length:

Mr. Patterson, 40, a Chicago-based journalist who worked as an editor at The Cambodia Daily from 1999 to 2003, said he first conceived of the project in 2011, after receiving an enchanted protective tattoo at Wat Neak Voan in Phnom Penh.

During the 3-1/2-hour process of inscribing an image of the Hindu god Hanuman across Mr. Patterson’s back, the tattooist lamented the state of his magical craft.

“While I was getting that tattoo done, the artist kept talking to me about how his profession was slowly disappearing.

“He said that he didn’t use the traditional bamboo-needle method of tattooing anymore…about how young people weren’t getting holy tattoos anymore, and he worried that he wouldn’t have anyone to pass his skills along to before he died,” Mr. Patterson said in an email. “That got me thinking: what is all of this about?”

His interest piqued, Mr. Patterson began trying to find more information on magical traditions in Cambodia. The only problem: Accessible material on mystic rituals and beliefs, for the most part, was nonexistent.

“[A]side from the typical, lowest-common-denominator ‘Wow, Look at this crazy sorcerer!’ stories that journalists parachute in [to] write about in Cambodia, I really couldn’t find much about it,” he recalled, adding that academic materials did exist, but were difficult to access, and expensive.

“So, I decided to do something myself, to contribute, if even in a small way, to the preservation of these traditions and professions,” he added.

Financed through global crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, Mr. Patterson, Mr. Valenzuela and the rest of the “Vanishing Act” team—chief editorial assistant and translator Sun Heng; translators Mesa Lang and Heang Sreychea; and research assistant Saing Saem—were able to capture viv
id images of the diverse range of people inhabiting Cambodia’s supernatural landscape.

“Is it real? Is it fake? That’s beside the point…. My central aim is simple: I want to show the rest of the world that these supremely interesting, spiritually diverse people exist, and want other people to see these folks through my eyes, through a lens of respect,” Mr. Patterson said.

But is Cambodia’s class of spiritualists “vanishing?”

Mr. Patterson says he doesn’t believe they will disappear in the immediate future, but it is difficult to deny the societal shifts occurring around the country.

“They’re not Irawaddy [sic] dolphins or Siamese crocodiles,” he said, referring to the country’s mystics.
“[T]hey’re still around, for now. Cambodia’s supernatural traditions have survived for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and they won’t disappear overnight,” he said.

“But if these traditions aren’t slowly being supplanted by modernity, then they are at least changing to adapt to a world of Facebook and iPhones, and it’s in our best interest to remember them.”

ch9Chapter 9 – free chapter from

Magical tattoos

thompson_07may15_fe_tattoo_418_teven_say_apos_s_student_copy_ne_copySak yant: photo by Nathan Thompson

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.

_DSF4357Nathan 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.

Interview with a gangster

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 1.07.17 PMI carried out this interview in the course of investigating magical tattoos – what they were, why people had them. I was told that the most likely people to have them were police, gangsters, and soldiers. So I went and found myself a gangster.

Not really a gangster any more, in fact a very nice guy with a touching story. He’s 37 years old, and came to PP from the provinces with his family aged 8. At that time (about 1985) PP was a wild and dangerous place. Aged 13 (about 1990) he left school over his father’s strong objections and joined a gang on Riverside, the tourist strip along the Tonle Sap river. Got tattoos when he was about 16, to attract girls. Also got some amulets to make himself invulnerable to knives and to make himself brave. You can just see a tattoo at the very top of his singlet.

The gang robbed and intimidated everyone on Riverside – vendors, shopkeepers, tourists. Fought other gangs with knives, knuckledusters, bike-chains. The police were afraid of them. Boss of the gang was named Kmao, a very violent young man afraid of nobody.

One day there was a major battle with another gang. The other side had guns, Kmao’s side didn’t. Two of Kmao’s side were shot. Our friend had to jump in the river and swim for the far bank, because the enemy were searching for Kmao’s gang up and down Riverside and would kill him if they caught him. Out in the river he promised that if he survived he’d leave the gang and start a new life. And he did.

That was many years ago. Now he drives a tuktuk. All his friends from that time are either dead, or in jail, or driving tuktuks. Several have become monks, and one is an abbot. He bitterly regrets his wasted youth – he has no education, just a tuktuk driver. He was almost crying by the time I finished the interview, being forced to remember the past. I felt a bit guilty.

Alessandro Vanucci – photos from Angkor

Some rather beautiful photos from Alessandro Vannucci. He runs photo-tours around Angkor and Siem Reap, which look well worth the taking – go to his website to see more of his work (look under the tabs “workshops and travel photography” and “portfolio”).

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.43.16 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.42.39 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.43.04 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.42.30 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.42.47 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.42.57 PM

The tattoos are a mix of magical and simply decorative – generally speaking, magical ones are more schematic, look more like diagrams. The purpose is always either to protect the bearer from harm, or to attract girls. Monks are not supposed to have tattoos, but they do, it’s a sure sign that they’ve led an interesting life. possibly including time as a soldier or maybe a gangster.