Sunday, September 9, 2012

Cedric Arnold: Sacred Ink

Photo © Cedric Arnold-All Rights Reserved

Having just spent some 10 days in Chiang Mai, I'm glad to have found Sacred Ink, the impressive work of photographer Cedric Arnold featuring the tattooing culture in Thailand.

The sacred tattoos in Thailand are much more than just an art form, and with a culture deeply rooted in superstition and spirituality, such tattoos are believed to have magical and healing powers. Thai men and also women have their sacred tattoos done at Buddhist temples, for protection against evil spirits, and as good luck charms.

Cedric Arnold's website tells us that these sacred tattoos can be scripts based on ancient Khmer, and the original Buddhist Pali, along with figures and mythical creatures. Using large-format and Polaroid cameras, formal black-and-white portraits were made of boxers, monks, construction workers, policemen, soldiers, taxi drivers, shipyards workers, a shaman, and tattoo masters.

A few years ago, I photographed at Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple about half an hour's drive from Bangkok. It is here that every March 30 thousands of Thais and foreigners gather to watch or participate in the 'Sak Yant' festival. Sak means "tap tattoo" while Yant translates into "sacred design". 

After being granted permission by a head monk, I photographed during a non-festival day, a couple of Buddhist monks were already busy tattooing Thais. The 'sak yant' is done with a 'mai sak'- a long bamboo stick sharpened to a point. The ink is said to be made from various ingredients including snake venom, herbs and cigarette ash. I was told these was no payment made nor expected, but that gifts of cigarettes and food were accepted by the tattooing monks.

The above short clip is also by Cedric Arnold and I believe must have been filmed during the annual Sak Yant festival at the Wat Bang Phra temple.

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