Posts for category ‘tattoo’

Can a tattoo stop a bullet?
| November 13, 2007 | 12:50 pm

Today NPR is running a story a trip I took to Thailand last week where I searched out several famous tattoo artists who have mastered the art of Sak-Yant. The tattoos they put on people’s back are said to be able to stop bullets. At the end of one interview with Ajarn Sua blessed me. Then he took out a standard issue box cutter and started slashing away at my arm saying that his blessing had protected me from harm. When I left there were lots of cat-like scratches on my arm, but no blood.

Click here to listen to the NPR story

Click here for more photos

For centuries Thai soldiers have covered their bodies in protective tattoos called Sak Yant. Today, the ancient ritual is booming and thousands of people, in Thailand and beyond, are flocking to master artists to have the powerful designs inked on their bodies.

The Wat Bang Pra Buddhist temple, about 30 miles west of Bangkok, is one of the most highly esteemed locations for Sak Yant. Dozens of monks and master artists, who have spend years perfecting the art, can be found there.

One afternoon, a group of men – many already covered head to toe with tattoos — discuss, in the courtyard, how best to use the canvas of their skin. The dirty, dilapidated campus, covered with cobwebs, may not immediately invoke an aura of prestige, but these Sak Yant devotees are less interested in the buildings than the designs that will soon cover their bodies. Many have traveled from far reaches of Thailand. A tattoo from this temple, they say, can protect them from danger or even death.

Chakkrapad Romkaew, one of the devotees, says that his first tattoo altered his outlook on the world, made him braver and encouraged him to become a soldier. His back is covered in elaborate geometric patterns and Buddhist prayers. In a week he’s being sent to the south of Thailand as part of an anti-terrorist squad. He wants to get another tattoo so, he says, he will be more fully protected before the bullets begin to fly.

“There are so many dangers waiting down there,” he says. “Before I got a tattoo, I never wanted to be a soldier. But when they got into my skin, my desire to be a soldier got stronger.”

The Process

Master artist Ajarn Sua prepares to place a tattoo on the young soldier by sharpening a two-foot-long needle. Often, the tattoo is simply a series of dots created when the needle passes through the skin. After the pattern has been drawn, the monks rub ink into the wound and say a prayer to empower the charm hidden inside the tattoo.

There are hundreds of traditional designs, many of which revolve around animal figures. One of the most powerful, according to the tradition, is a tiger that spans the whole of a person’s lower back. An unprepared person can suddenly find that their whole life is turned around after being inked, a monk named Suntotn Prapagaroe explains.

“If a person has a tiger spirit, he will act like a tiger. He cannot control himself, the spirit controls him,” Prapagaroe says. “He will spread his hand like this, and roar.”

Although the tattoos may ultimately protect believers from suffering, pain is an inherent part of the process.

“It’s like being jabbed by a needle a thousand times,” says Paul Davies, a British Internet entrepreneur who also has come to the Wat Bang Pra temple for a tattoo.

Modern Technologies

Not all Sak Yant masters rely on the traditional needle methods. The master Ajarn Sua, who has a studio just north of Bangkok, says that a number of people coming to him for tattoos have urged him to adopt the electric tattoo needle.

Modernization does not necessarily mean canceling out tradition, however. After inking one man’s back, Sua places his hand over the man’s face and forces his head backwards. He draws a ritual knife across his neck and then stabs him lightly in the back.

“No person with this tattoo will ever be hurt by bullets or knives,” he says.

The Parlor to the Stars

Although Sak Yant has existed for thousands of years, it began to expand in new directions several years ago due to one extremely famous devotee: Angelina Jolie. In 2004, the actress flew to Bangkok to meet with venerated tattoo master Ajarn Noo Kanphai, who placed a large tiger on her lower back — and a string of Thai script on her left shoulder.

Ajarn Noo’s studio — known as the parlor to the stars — contrasts sharply with the Wat Bang Pra temple. Simple worn walls are replaced with photos of high rolling Thai celebrities and American CEOs. One recent afternoon, two well-known Thai comedians and an actor from the Cannes film hit Om Bhat waited for designs.

Tattoos, Kanphai says, can give a person courage to face the difficulties of their life. They can multiply wealth and protect from harm. “Many people have come to me with drug problems, but after I give them a tattoo, the problems go away,” he says. A tattoo can really change your life.”

The Writing on my Arm
| March 13, 2007 | 12:28 am

When I was younger tattoos scared me because they were permanent. Sure it may look good now, but when I’m sitting in my rocking chair in my dotage perhaps I will have second thoughts. I watched as friends of mine back in the United States couldn’t stop at one tattoo and steadily started marking up their bodies like grade school kids fill up note pads. What is the fun in being a human doodle?

In the last couple months, however, I began to change my mind. What if a tattoo was more than just a drawing, but meant something special? Padma has long advocated me marking up bodies and has a large tattoo that snakes up her back. The main problem was that I couldn’t think of anything right.

And then I began thinking about an incident that happened to me about a year ago when a student of mine I was taking through India on an abroad program died while we were in Bihar. I was charged with bringing her body back to Delhi so she could be shipped back to the United States for burial. As many of you already know the three days I was stuck in Gaya preserving her body against decomposition and negotiating with police and consular officials were quite difficult. The only respite came from some very good friends who arrived in my hour of need. One of whom, Joel Lee, pretty much showed up out of thin air and spent the entire time by my side. At one point while we were sitting beside the student’s coffin we started talking about a sufi saint in Delhi named Nizamuddin.

In the 14th century Nizamuddin was building a mosque in Delhi at the same time that the sultan Tugaluk was constructing a fortress on the south side of the city and the two were in constant competition for workers. Tughaluk was often out of the city waging wars and expanding the empire while Nizamuddin was expanding his spiritual practice. On one of Tugaluk’s military excursions Nizamuddin took away all of Tugaluk’s workers and set them to building his mosque. Eventually word reached the sultan as he was finishing a campaign in Bihar and he sent a message back to Delhi that said that he would “deal with” Nizamuddin when he returned. This of course meant that Nizamuddin’s days were numbered. But when Nizamuddin heard of Tugaluk’s plan he was not concerned. Instead he sent Tugaluk a one line note in Urdu that read “Hanoz Dilli Dur Ast” or, “Delhi is still far.”–meaning that Tugaluk had to be in Delhi to exercise his powers. Tughaluk headed back to Delhi while riding on a war elephant and had started to set plans in action to kill Nizamuddin. However, when he was only a day’s ride outside the city his elephant was crossing over a bridge which gave way under the animal’s weight. Both Tugaluk and the elephant perished and Nizamuddin was safe.

I have heard dozens of different versions of this story recited over the years but this one has always stuck with me. At the time we were in Bihar sorting out my student’s remains the saying seemed to take on yet another meaning–we were headed to Delhi but had been unable to get there—Delhi was still far away. I am told that in Delhi the saying is often repeated as meaning “You don’t know as much as you think you do.”

I started dreaming about getting the line tattooed on my arm a few week ago. I knew that I had to get it done after I found myself wandering through the Muslim area of the city and came across one of the last communities of professional Urdu calligraphers who were running the only hand-written newspaper in the world. These were the people who would design it for me.

I asked them to write out several versions of the saying (and triple checking for spelling since I don’t read Urdu) I went to a very posh tattoo parlor in Chennai called Irezumi. A woman in a salwar kamiz named Nisha tattooed it on my forearm. She had never gotten a tattoo of her own, but stencils on about 20 permanent markings onto people every week. She says she likes drawing. I think she did a pretty good job.

At first it was difficult for me to get used to the writing on my arm. The night after I had it done I woke my wife up at three in the morning and thought I had made a horrible mistake. It was my inner conservatism coming to the surface. I searched out different tattoo removal companies in India and discovered that it is pretty easy and cheap in Bangalore. Could I get it removed the next morning, I thought.

But since then I have grown into it a bit. It is healing well and I am really starting to enjoy it. I’m not so worried about being marked. The script and the story behind it means something to me. I might have to worry about airport security in the future, but I will always remember that Delhi is still far away.