Can traditional Sak Yant tattoo art thrive again in the modern era?
The art of sculpting your body with magical ink art has been practised for centuries in Cambodia’s society. But, the traditional tattooing art, Sak Yant, has been usurped in popularity by the modern culture of the practice. But it is on the comeback.
According to the Federation of Khmer Sak Yant, a famed traditional tattoo parlour located in Siem Reap, Khmers got tattoos on the body, dating back to prehistoric times. During the metal age (2500-500 BC), when tribalism was common, tattooing was used to help identify the different tribes.
A majority of the traditional patterns date back to pre-Angkorian times, at the start of the first century AD. Tattooing the Yantra, the pattern of Buddhist and Hindu sacred images, Pali script, Buddhist Sutras, sacred geometry, among others, was a vehicle for the development of religion and belief.
It was believed that the traditional, sacred art had its powerful effects, called parami, which could bring about greatness and courage.
Pum Rem, a former staff of a children’s organization in Siem Reap province, shared his experience of getting a collection of Sak Yant tattoos with Focus.
Five years ago, Rem tattooed his body with an eight-way tattoo with all sorts of Yants, believing it to be a protection mechanism, symbolising courage, attractiveness, and power.
“In the past, I was bullied because I’m small,” said Rem. “So, I decided to tattoo my body to show that I am a brave person and now I would say that I’ve gained more respect and love from others.”
To ensure the Sak Yant tattoos remain sacred and powerful, the traditional belief means that Rem must follow the five main precepts of buddhism – refraining from taking another’s life, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, drinking or smoking, and lying or gossiping. Following all these norms has led Rem to inner peace, while different tattoo masters have different norms to follow.
Rem said that his tattoo master told him to remain modest, if not, danger would follow him. “He encouraged me not to be arrogant and follow the main precepts of Buddhism, in order to keep the power of Sak Yant strong, if not the danger will get back to me,” he said.
Rem still believes that there are still many believers who respect the value of Sak Yant.
“I can see that there are many Khmer people who love Sak Yant, and even many foreigners come to the tattooist for it because they are influenced by famous Hollywood stars,” he said. “Sak Yant can have a good impact on their lives and only a small number of people just get it for fun.”
Believed to bring the wearer luck and wealth, in 2003 famous Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie got tattooed with ancient Bhuddist mantras on her upper neck.
The practise of cultural and superstitious tattoos is not only found in Cambodia, but also Thailand, Lao, Myanmar and Indonesia and there are plenty of reasons that might drive one to get tattoos: attention, self-expression, artistic reasons, rebellion, heritage and visualizing their personal story.
But sometimes the minimalist, modern tattoo art can be attractive to some. Instead of having Sak Yant, Pheng Sopheaneath, a Cambodian television producer, has four different modern tattoos on her arms, dedicating to her mom and utilising the minimalist pattern that she finds so beautiful.
“I once wanted to have Sak Yant, but it became too mainstream thanks to the trend influenced by Angelina Jolie,” Sopheaneath explained. “I find it a bit scary for women so I decided to have minimalist tattoos instead.”
The negative perception of tattoos has been gradually improved in Cambodia society and while the popularity of Sak Yant seems to be outweighed by the modern tattoo, the preservation of traditional tattoos is still implanted deeply within the Kingdom’s culture.
“Modern tattoos have gained a flood of popularity now for both man and woman, but I do think Sak Yant is still popular,” said Sopheaneath. “It won’t die because many shops still introduce people to Sak Yant and the believers are still there.”
There is even a strong belief that the reputation of Sak Yant can strengthen in the future, thanks to work from tattoo masters across Cambodia. The Khmer Tattoo Federation has helped foster the resurgence of the tradition and inspire tattoo masters to adhere to the traditional norms and the originality of Sak Yant.
“In the future, this tattoo industry will be very prosperous,” the Federation told Focus. “There are many tattoo teachers who follow the traditional art and there is a lot of respect from both Cambodians and foreign guests.”