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Travel journalist Ian Neubauer recently visited a tattoo school in the heart of Bangkok that has opened its doors to travellers keen to learn the ancient, sacred art of tattoos in Thailand.
In the ancient days of Angkor, when Cambodia ruled over vast swathes of Southeast Asia, soldiers covered themselves from head to toe with sacred tattoos called yantra. Today, yantra tattoos are still popular among the Cambodian military, though neighbouring Thailand has emerged as the world centre of the art, with schools such as Bangkok Ink opening their doors to travellers eager to learn the art of applying sak yant, as the tattoos are called in Thai. Vee, a graphic designer, doesn’t flinch as a new sak yant is applied to his back at Bangkok Ink, a studio and tattoo school that’s trying to raise the bar for the ancient art, in a city where the Khoa San Road tourist area is otherwise known for notoriously cheap ink. Each year, two or three dozen foreigners spend a few months at the school, learning the skills needed for both sak yant and modern-day tattoo styles.
Pictured here, on the left forearm of Martin Kendall, owner of Bangkok Ink, are the hay taew, or five lines, the most popular of all sak yants.
Regardless of tattoo style, most tattooists don’t draw freehand straight onto the skin. At the turn of the last century, tattoo stencils were etched into wood, and carbon powder was rubbed into the grooves to create a black outline. Pictured here, Belgium-based graffiti artist Waf Alosta, another student at Bangkok Ink, uses a tattoo gun to apply a butterfly on the torso of a Thai volunteer.


In this photo, Krittirat applies a serpent tattoo to Kendall’s arm, while an assistant stretches the skin to prevent it from moving. Featuring Khmer script that spelled out abbreviations of religious incantations, sometimes accompanied by images of serpents, tigers, elephants and other powerful animal spirits, yantra were believed to make the wearer impervious to arrows, furnish them with mystical powers and bring them luck. At first, students practice on pig skin, and when their confidence improves, they move onto Thai models, who receive tattoos for free. Each line represents a spell which, when chanted 108 times, can take the wearer to a high level of meditation. They start with stencils – outlines drawn with felt tip pens onto greaseproof cooking paper – which are then transferred by pressing the paper onto dampened skin.
The wood would then be pressed against the body, transferring the carbon powder from the stencil to the skin. It’s a modern-day version of the tool used by early Southeast Asia tattooists: bamboo sticks sharpened to a point. Every 15 seconds or so, he dipped the needle into a small inkwell, in the same manner as a sketcher using a quill. In order to post comments, please make sure JavaScript and Cookies are enabled, and reload the page.


In fact, the tattoos’ magical powers are said to be strongest if applied to the top of the head – the most sacred part of the body for Buddhists.
The first row prevents unjust punishment, cleans out unwanted spirits and protects the home.
Both sak yant and modern-day tattoo styles can be applied using the bamboo tattoo method, but it’s a technique that takes students a lot longer to learn. But the inside of the arm where I’m getting tattooed now is one of the most painful areas of all.
With a strong psychic energy and creative power, the serpent is said to offer protection against religious persecution.



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