Some tattoos in Thailand are administered by high-ranking monks. Tattoos can be sacred or magical. The ink is derived from charcoal, lampblack or Indian sepia and then mixed with herbs, sap, lizard skins, buffalo bile and all sorts. Some tattoos have poems, ancient symbols and spells written into them. Certain images convey certain meanings. Dragons depict strength and wisdom, wild boars fierceness. A lion signifies dignity and strength. A tiger on the chest is for protection from injury. Invisible tattoos written in sesame oil instead of ink are also common, especially for women. The design heals into a feint welt but the magic spell remains undiluted.
Once a year at Wat Bang Phra, 50 km west of Bangkok, thousands of young men gather to be tattooed by monks. The monks do this every day of the year – the tattoos are popular and are thought to afford protection to their wearers; some swear that they can stop bullets – but the big tattoo gathering happens just once a year. Most people attending the event are already tattooed with the Khmer Buddhist prayers and diagrams the monks there specialise in. The monks too, are heavily tattooed. Wat Bang Phra’s tattoos come with promises of protection and prosperity. The hard men come in reverence and expectation and the monks etch images of fearsome animals onto their skins.
Tattooing brings in money too, and Wat Bang Phra is by no means the only one offering a second skin of protective spells. Everybody who gets tattooed has to buy some flowers and incense for the tattooist’s teacher. Amulets are on sale everywhere and are doing a roaring business. Not everyone agrees with this commercial hustle and bustle.