The Tattooing Monks of Wat Bang Phro
Tattoos have been an integral part of Asian culture for centuries. Originally
a Polynesian word, tattoos have been used in Asia since the first century AD.
The Khmer liberally used tattoos during the heyday of their kingdom, and
their use was copied in Thailand to identify serfs. Thai soldiers wore protective
tattoos into battle, and still do so to the present day.
Here in Thailand, tattoos are considered by many to have powerful powers.
Tattoos are said to deflect bullets, to blunt blades, to prevent road accidents,
to improve business fortunes, and to prevent bad luck in general.
The monks at Wat Bang Phro near Bangkok are reputed to be among the
best tattooists in Asia. They use a long metal rod, sharpened to a fine point,
and have uncanny precision in their work. Here, antiseptics range from regular
rubbing alcohol to a local rice wine, and toilet paper paper to blot any blood.
I was told that the ink is made from snake venom, herbs, and cigarette ashes.
The monks’ talents as tattoo artists are available for little remuneration: an
offering of orchids, a carton of Thai cigarettes (preferably menthol-flavored) or
a few Bhats towards the upkeep of the Wat.
The tattoos, inscribed by the Buddhist monks at Wat Bang Phro, are defensive
in purpose since they are supposed to protect the wearer from any harm.
Whether a tattoo is effective depends upon the wearer’s devotion to it. The
wearer must pray to it and follow the basic precepts of Buddhism.
Before being allowed to photograph the tattooing monks, I was ‘interviewed’ by
the senior monk who wanted to reassure himself that I did not intend to defame
the practice in any way.