Believed to keep bad luck at bay, sacred tattoos have been providing Cambodians with protection for centuries. With beliefs steeped deep in tradition, magic tattoos—or sak yant in Khmer—are said to ward off evil spirits, keep danger away, and protect their owners from misfortune.
As an ancient art form, the intricate patterns, which each hold their own unique meaning, were passed on from generation to generation, with monks or Masters (men who have perfected the art of the Pali-script designs and passed them onto others) inking the patterns on those who needed them.
However, as with all traditional arts in Cambodia, this special art form was almost wiped out with the Khmer Rouge, as artists were targeted during their reign from 1975 to 1979.
With a few having survived Pol Pot’s regime, today the art of tattooing is being rekindled so it can survive for many generations to come.
Sak yant is traditionally carried out using a bamboo needle to carve the patterns into the skin, which are typically lines of script, geometric patterns, and/or animal shapes interwoven with Buddhist and animist imagery. Tattoos are selected for the individual by the artist, and bring with them different actions, from dodging bullets to avoiding the spirit of a relative.
For the tattoos to retain their “power,” a set of rigorous rituals must be adhered to by Masters, as well as a strict code of conduct by the wearer. This can include avoiding particular foods, sexual acts, and alcohol. It is believed that if these rules are ignored, the tattoo will lose its magic and may even turn on its owner.
The power of magical tattoos was thrown into question during the decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge reign. Often soldiers would seek the protection of tattoos, covering their entire bodies in them in a bid to avoid death, which found them regardless.
However, their spiritual meaning is dwindling, and while their popularity with Cambodia’s young is on the decline, the West has jumped on the bandwagon.
This is mainly thanks to Hollywood icon Angelina Jolie, who had an ancient Khmer script tattooed on her left shoulder blade in 2003 by a Master Monk. This fuelled a global trend, which continues today, of Westerners seeking to sport a magical tattoo.
While neighboring Thailand has taken a strong stance against this, with some claiming it is offensive to their religion and traditions, Cambodia has a much more relaxed take on foreigners tapping into their traditions.
And for visitors wanting to ink themselves with a protective symbol, there are several tattoo parlors across the capital and Siem Reap offering these services.
Chan Tra in Phnom Penh is probably one of the most popular parlors and has more than 20 years of experience with both locals and foreigners.
After the inking is finished, it must be blessed at several pagodas.