The Rapidly Dying Art of Traditional Khmer Tattoos

The harsh midday sun streams over Soy Kloc’s back, defining his muscular torso and the dark tattoos which undulate over his skin.

“I got my tattoos from a monk in Sisophon,” he says, pointing to the black drawings on his chest. “He used a sharp motorcycle spoke. The black color came from the insides of a battery.”

I was searching for one of these monks, these “magic men” who could kill a bull with a punch and catch bullets in their teeth, or so it was said. Their tattoos would tingle at the approach of enemies, and stop a bullet in its tracks.

The search had brought me to a remote village on the slopes of Phnom Kulen, a sacred mountain about 45 km northeast of Angkor Wat. A few holy men were rumored to be living here, immersed in a quiet life of meditation and spiritual reflection high on the mountain.

Soy Kloc hunches over the deep red soil as his two daughters giggle and peer around their mother and baby brother behind him. He traces a dark rune on his chest. “This one stops bullets,” he says. “The one on my arm gives me a strong punch and makes me never hit the children. But there’s no one here now who can do it.”

The tattoos are the relics of a traditional art form once performed by monks or spiritual teach­ers who attributed various powers and spells to their designs. The process has been largely forgotten as these men have disappeared or have been killed, while the beliefs have fallen out of favor with a new generation of Cambodians.

“Fifty or sixty years ago the tattoos were powerful. When you were angry your arm would prickle like a frog and you would have a very strong punch,” said a monk inside Phnom Kulen park. “Now they are just paintings.”

The monk stood calmly along a riveted clay path leading through the jungle as his companions, a young monk fingering prayer beads, and a small boy clutching a long stick, shifted nervously.

“The meaning, the power is gone. The Khmer Rouge killed the best artists and now there are very few,” he said. “But you might check the next village over.”

At that village, Soy Kloc is equally mystified as to the whereabouts of one of these men. He hasn’t seen a magic teacher here, at Phum Thmei village, since 1987.

Soy Kloc, 49 and a former Khmer Rouge soldier, says his tattoos were applied by a magic man in 1983 near Sisophon, in Banteay Meanchey province. Despite the painful procedure, Soy Kloc says he’s grateful for his tattoos and the powers they afford him.

“If someone wants to kill me I will know. The tattoo on my arm will become very bright and my skin will stand up like a frog’s.”

Soy Kloc and his family gather lychees once a year on Phnom Kulen, literally the “mountain of lychees.” They sell them at a market in Siem Reap town, two and a half hours away by motorbike along a pitted, gravelly road. Soy Kloc saves enough money to survive and feed his family, until the next year’s lychee harvest. Meanwhile, he tends a small vegetable garden and raises chickens.

Soy Kloc smiles wryly, glancing at the chickens pecking around the jungle plants. His tattoos are fundamental to his life, he says. They protect him and his family. But he thinks there are no more magic teachers on the mountain.

At the Preah Ang Tom pagoda, Khmer families and a few tourists begin to trudge up the steps leading to the top of Phnom Kulen. They pause at the summit, resting their hands upon the Buddha. The reclining Buddha is carved into a massive sandstone boulder and housed within a small pagoda. For many Khmers, this is an important pilgrimage site and they fall silent, lighting incense and tracing the sandstone curves of the Buddha.

Young monks chant at the base of the mountain-top temple, bestowing blessings and holy water upon the visitors. The monks frown, puzzled, when asked about the magic men. “They aren’t up here,” they say.

Here at Phnom Kulen, the legendary Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire in the 9th century by crowning himself god-king and by declaring Cambodia independent from Java. Today the area is considered by many to be hallowed ground, and a refuge for those seeking enlightenment.

Peng Lieng, a villager living just below the Preah Ang Tom pagoda, uncovers his tattoos modestly while sitting on a carved wooden plank. A royal lion is inscribed on his chest while his stomach is marked by ritual burns. The five vertical scars take away the pain in his stomach, he says. The lion guides him.

“I always see two paths, one is dangerous but I always choose the right path,” he says. “Someone shows me the way in my dreams.”

He looks back at his wife who smiles, leaning against a wall of their thatched roof house. “I also must stay with just one woman,” he adds.

He says he got his tattoos far from here, from a magic man in Angkor Borei district, in Takeo province. “You need to go to the jungle to find them,” he says. “Magic men always live in the jungle.”

Many of the magic men were ordained as Buddhist monks and their tattoos often represented Buddhist and Hindu deities. Most were killed during the Khmer Rouge regime, along with a large majority of Cambodia’s Buddhist monks. But a few survived, and so did their legends.

“They can bless rice and toss it on the ground for the chickens to eat,” said Luy Kong Heng, a moto driver from Siem Reap. “Then they will hand you a gun to shoot the chickens and you can’t, the gun jams.”

“He [a magic man] can punch a coconut tree and three or four coconuts will fall off…he can kill a bull with a single punch,” said Ponh Pheth, who studies Buddhist and Hindu philosophy.

“He can fire a gun into his mouth and catch the bullets with his teeth, then he spits out the bullets,” he said.

But when asked about the men, Kosaal Joup, a taxi driver from Siem Reap said “people downtown in Phnom Penh, they don’t believe in the tattoos anymore. Maybe guys will just get tattoos to look like gangsters.

“Around here though, in the villages, people still believe.”

•••

Craig Peers, co-owner of Vibe’s Tattoo in Phnom Penh, is covered with tattoos: Sea dragons, a lion, an eagle and a variety of other beasts vie for space on his body. The colorful clutter on his body is in distinct contrast to the antiseptic look of the parlor: In one corner sits a reclining chair, in the other a steam autoclave. Along a far wall, a cart is filled with shiny stainless-steel equipment.

“This is the most important piece of equipment,” he says, indicating the autoclave. The $2,500 machine sterilizes his equipment, eliminating viruses such as HIV and hepatitis, which may remain from the previous tattoo job.

Peers uses anywhere from one to 36 needles to apply a tattoo, depending on its size and the area of the body being tattooed. He uses new needles each time. “It hurts less with more needles,” Peers says. “The pain is more spread out over the skin.”

Peers’ methods may be modern, but he believes in the magic powers of traditional patterns. “I believe in primitive tattoos and [they] will protect me,” he says.

Among Peers’ more spectacular tattoos is the eye on the bottom of his foot—a tattoo given to him by a villager in northern Cyprus: “The Arab man shredded the end of a bamboo stick to make slivers…and connected the stick to his arm with elastic bands. He dipped the bamboo [slivers] in [black] ink. Then he tapped the stick and the elastic drove the slivers into my foot.”

“He said it was the third eye of Allah and it would watch for me in my dreams,” says Peers. “The man said ‘now you will see,’ and the eye is looking for me.”

Peers has traveled to Koh Kong province several times, where he’s seen tattoos on the Khmer soldiers who patrol the Thai-Cam­bodian border. The soldiers have crosses tattooed on parts of their bodies where they don’t want to be shot, “like in the stomach or the leg because it would be too painful,” he says. But they also have small circles tattooed on their necks and over their hearts, he said. “If they’re shot, that’s where they want the bullets to go.” Inscriptions under the circles state that the soldiers would “like to die immediately rather than die in the jungle alone.”

Tattoo artist Kong Sengheurn said he was a soldier at the Kao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand when he met a monk named Uk Thuon. He was the monk’s student for four years, learning the art of traditional tattoos until 1986, when Uk Thuon died at the age of 82.

After the monk’s death, Kong Sengheurn returned to being a soldier and started

tattooing other soldiers in the camp. “Soldiers that live in insecure border areas, like Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces get the traditional tattoos to protect themselves,” he says.

“I believe that my tattoos helped me,” he says. “I haven’t had any accidents since I’ve been a soldier now for over 10 years. I’ve done good things and I haven’t committed any sins so my tattoos work efficiently.”

In 1992 the refugee camp closed and he came to Phnom Penh. Now he gives tattoos out of a wooden shack in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district. A four-foot python slithers in a cage outside his door.

Inside, newspaper and magazine clippings decorate the walls. In sections they have worn away, exposing bare wood. Kong Sengheurn sits cross-legged on a yellow mat wearing only a pair of black shorts. A dragon is wrapped around his left arm while a shuriken covers his kneecap.

Khmer schoolboys, Americans, Australians, and Europeans all come calling for tattoos, Kong Sengheurn says. “Foreigners usually ask for modern tattoos. Sometimes they ask me to do strange humans from outer space.”

He says he learned modern tattoo methods two years ago, after an Austrian tourist gave him a tattoo needle to practice with. Now, he says, he doesn’t care how the tattoo is applied. “The country is far more developed than before,” he said. “Before we would sew clothes using a hand needle, now we use a machine.”

Today most Khmers prefer modern tattoos, Kong Sengheurn says. “Some Khmers want the religious tattoos, but think the traditional process—of piercing holes in the skin with a sharp instrument—will be too painful, so they ask me to use a needle and tattoo gun instead,” he says.

“A traditional tattoo costs less than $10 for the Hindu ceremony plus the tip,” he says. A modern one costs $10 for a small black one, but with color it might cost $70 to tattoo the whole back.”

Most of Kong Sengheurn’s customers are seeking an eye-pleasing tattoo rather than protection from harm, he said. “The teenage schoolboys prefer tattoos for beauty,” Kong Sengheurn says. “They don’t believe in abstract things like magic.”

But Ponh Pheth does. He rolls up his white shirt to display Khmer characters lining his arms and five Buddhas sitting upon his right shoulder. Ponh Pheth says he’s been studying Buddhist and Hindu beliefs under the tutelage of several magic teachers for years.

He points to a black diamond shape on his right arm. “This is a woman’s [vagina],” he states. “It makes you strong and prevents you from being weakened by women’s magic…it neutralizes their magic.”

Ponh Pheth follows the Dharma—the teachings of Buddhism. He says this is necessary for the tattoos to be effective. “You must be good, innocent, and careful,” he says.

Students must prepare everything for their magic teacher before a tattoo ceremony, he says. They offer fruit, a large piece of cloth and incense to the teacher, he adds.

True magic teachers do not charge any money for their lessons or their tattoos, Ponh Pheth says. They “help people in the spirit of humanity and not for any money. You decide if you want to give them any money.”

•••

Large fields of rice paddies stretch to the horizon. The Tonle Sap river meanders slowly in the afternoon heat, past thatched huts and old men napping in the shade. A magic man is out here somewhere, purportedly living near the former capital of Phnom Udong.

“We will see if he can be found,” Ponh Pheth says.

The dusty roads pass clusters of stilt houses. Small children are out playing the sandal game, their feet tinged red by the soil.

“We are here,” says Ponh Pheth, staring at an unremarkable cluster of thatch homes.

Incense wafts from one of the huts, and several Buddhas can be made out just inside. Em Samol, the magic man, emerges to greet us.

He motions us inside and sits on his straw bed. As he rummages through a worn leather bag he begins his tale: His family were farmers in Takeo province. He travelled to Wat Loun, Caroch Chmar district, Battambang province, where learned the art of tattooing from a monk named Chhoy. At 14, he started tattooing people in Battambang province and now at the age of 49, he has given tattoos to over 2,000 students.

His lean arms flex as he draws a metal object from his bag. The faded ink figures on his arms define briefly, then blur as he moves. Hanuman, the Buddhist monkey god, brandishes a sword and prepares to spring from his left shoulder. “Summon the Buddha to protect against evil,” reads the tattooed inscription underneath. The mythical King Rama draws a bow on his right arm. “Rama aim the bow straight,” the tattoo reads

Em Samol is grasping a sharpened radio antenna. This is what he uses to give tattoos. He gets his ink from the market, he says. Red and black. “I don’t use batteries for the black color, but some do.”

Moving outside, he sits in a plain wooden chair. We sit on a mat he lays out before him. The sun outlines the contrast between black tattoos and light brown skin as a small smile plays on his lips. Two of his students stand close, listening intently.

“There are two kinds of people, those that want tattoos just for their beauty and those that want their tattoos to be powerful.”

His students, he says, must be respectful of the four noble truths of the Buddha— —and follow the Dharma, or he cannot teach them. A clever student can learn the art after about a year and a half of study, he says.

“There are some cheating teachers who just show people how to do the tattoos. They don’t teach the main principles of Buddhism, but there are good magic teachers too.”

“If you are a monk it’s easy to learn  because you have good mental discipline,” he says. “You can learn without being a monk, but then your art is not as powerful.”

Em Samol doesn’t want to teach his four children the art of tattooing—he wants them to go to school, he says.

A black Buddha meditates on Em Samol’s back as he leafs through his book of tattoo designs. He stops to light a cigarette. The crosses over his abdomen widen as he relaxes.

“I used to fight Thai boxers in Surin province (in Thailand). But I quit in 1984 because I was getting too old…I never lost a fight. I had over ten fights, but I never lost.”

Em Samol’s eyes twinkle youthfully. The villagers draw close, hanging on every word.

“I didn’t lose because of my belief in Buddha, given to me by my teacher,” he says. “And because of the power of my tattoos.”

(Additional Reporting by Ana Nov)

 

 

 

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