By Tom Vater
The man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. His bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he’s rushing directly ahead. He salutes unknown devils, his voice a hysterical siren. He turns on the spot and performs wild body contortions that render his face the color of blood. He rolls in a puddle. He’s bleeding from his left ear. His eyes are blood-shot, his tongue flops from his mouth. Suddenly, he pushes his chest out. The most prominent tattoo on his glistening torso, a tiger, appears to strain away from its owner in an attempt to jump into the crowd and devour the gathered disciples.
The man begins to run again, this time towards the bronze statue of Luang Pho Poen in the front yard of Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple and a major center of Thailand’s sacred tattoo tradition.
Today, Wat Bang Phra celebrates Wai Kru, or Teacher’s Day, in honor of the temple’s tattoo masters, a decades-old tradition started by former abbot Luang Pho Poen. A phalanx of army privates patrols the front of the stage. As the man races forward, head-butting into the soldiers, they grab and lift him off the ground. It takes five men to restrain him. He shakes madly and screams, not at them, but at the world. A soldier gently massages the possessed man’s earlobes. Seconds later, he snaps out of his violent trance and becomes one of us again. Humbly, he puts his hands together and bows towards Luang Pho Poen’s statue. The tiger is back in its cage.
Sacred tattoos, called sak yant in Thailand, have been around Southeast Asia for centuries and are said to bestow protection from accidents, misfortunes and crime. Young women have themselves tattooed with love charms to attract better partners, while adolescent males seek the protective power of their yant in fights with rival youth gangs. For most though, the tattoos serve as reminders to follow a moral code endorsing positive behavior.
When a tattoo master applies a sak yant, he also establishes a set of rules that his tattooed disciples are expected to follow for the rest of their lives, usually starting with Buddhism’s first five precepts. Failure to observe the guru’s instructions causes the sak yant to lose their power.
Every day, young men and women gather in temples and countless tattoo masters’ studios around the country to get inked: Tens of thousands of teenagers, motorcycle and taxi drivers, construction workers, night club bouncers, street vendors, factory employees, boxers and working girls – an entire strata of Thai society – are having a second, magical skin applied.