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The three young men get off the bus at a leafy rural spot just outside Bangkok. They follow a grassy track through orchards until they reach a plain wooden house. They have picked the day carefully — it is a Thursday.
One of the young men carries lotus flowers, joss-sticks and a candle. He seems a bit nervous, and his two friends joke with him to cheer him up: "It was your own idea, you know! Come on — there's nothing to be afraid of!"
Inside, the house is filled with statues of the Buddha and of the 'Reusi' or Hermit. The Thai word ('Reusi') comes from the same Sanskrit root as the Indian word ('Rishi'). The Hermit is revered in Thailand as the archetypal teacher of all the arts; according to legend, he learned them from the god Indra, committed them to memory, and passed them on to other men. And among the arts, a humble one perhaps but nonetheless a living part of Thailand's folk culture, is tattooing.
The occupant of the wooden house in the orchards is a skilled tattooist. Because of the reputation which his skill has brought him over the years, he is regarded as a 'kru' or "teacher". He charges his visitors only a nominal fee, but the flowers, joss-sticks and candle must first be presented to him in a ritual ceremony, in which homage is really being paid to the 'Reusi' through his pupil the tattooist.
After the young visitor has knelt, offered the three items and 'waiied' in homage to a statue of the 'Reusi' on a raised platform and to the tattooist, the latter gets to work. He uses a long, gold-tipped metal needle weighted with a copper knob at the other end to provide the correct balance. He dips the tip into black ink, then, the right hand controlling the knob and the left hand guiding the tip, he deftly pierces the skin on the young man's back. The boy, who is only 17 — the youngest age at which a Reusi will tattoo anyone — winces with the pain as blood spurts out. Maybe he shouldn't have had it done after all he thinks; but biting his lip he knows that having started, he must go through with it.
The sympathetic kru will only do a small part of the design today. Later the boy will come back again and again, and the kru will gradually fill up the design, piece by piece, until the whole of the young man's back is covered. This may take as long as a year.
The designs on this young man's back will consist mainly of magic symbols and passages of Khmer writing. These are believed to be the 'Reusi's' teachings, originally handed down in Khmer script (known in Thai as 'Khorm'). A particularly popular design is the 'gao yod', literally "nine peaks," a cryptogram consisting of a triangle or pyramid of small squares formed by crossed lines, each little square containing a Khmer symbol.
It is the kru or tattooist who decides on the most appropriate design; the boy cannot make his own decisions. Besides the 'Khorm' writings there are other designs, such as characters from the cornerstone of Thai culture, the 'Ramakien' story. Hanuman, the white monkey commander-in-chief of Rama's army, is very popular as a tattoo design because he symbolizes courage and manliness. There are also the 'hongsa' or mythical swan and 'nang fah', a female angel symbolizing peace and love. The kru, whose years of experience have also made him something of a psychologist, can size up the character of each "client", and he chooses the symbols which he feels best portray the "client's" character.
The 'goo yod' design, and in fact tattooing as a whole, are believed to confer a magical property on the person who is tattooed: it makes him 'nang niao', literally "sticky-skinned" — that is, immune from harm by any weapon. No sword, knife, bullet or other weapon can pierce his skin. The main reason why men are tattooed in Thailand is to protect themselves from bodily harm. (The other reasons are personal vanity, or simply for 'sanuk' or fun). So strong is the belief in this protective power of tattooing that even occasional schoolboys, younger than the prescribed age, come and beg for the tattooist's services. If he agrees, he uses invisible oil instead of ink, so no one will know; and the boy will feel he is now protected from harm.
But it's believed that the magic protection conferred by tattooing may "wear off' or disappear if the tattooed man does certain acts considered bad or wrong, and forbidden by the kru. Such deeds usually include speaking evil of one's father or mother, and walking under a clothes-line on which women's lower garments are hanging.
Kru tattooists work only on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, as these three days are considered the strongest days of the week. Each day about ten men may be tattooed.
Every year a 'wai kru' day is held, on which all the men he has tattooed gather at the kru's house to offer food to monks and pay homage to the teachings of the 'Reusi' and to the kru himself. This used to be held on Songkran Day, the ancient Thai New Year in April, but within the past few years it has been changed to January 1st.
Besides the kru's, there are also "commercial" tattooists who operate on a different basis. They don't require the joss-stick offerings and so on, but on the other hand they charge anything from 100 baht and up per design according to the pattern required — which in this case the client chooses himself. Popular designs include the face or whole body of a tiger, dragons, and similar motifs.
Today tattooists can be found practicing their skill in all parts of Thailand. And probably they will go on doing so.
Text copyright Denis Segaller 2006
Illustration copyright Yoottachai Kaewdee 2006
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