The Effects of a Tattoo.

sayarsan's picture

How would anyone born and raised in suburban Brisbin with its regimented schooling and religion founded on fraudulent testaments that look tattered and lame once the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Little Red Riding Hood have been accepted as frauds ever accept that a tattoo, more accurately a style of tattoos, can ever exert an occult power however simple and mundane that power might be demonstrated. The piece titled ‘Sacred Tattoos’ is here removed from its usual context in S.E. Asia/Indochina and relocated to the aforementioned suburban Brisbin. What transpired involved two protagonists; the wearer of the tattoos and those who recognised them for what they represented. Without this interaction I would have never understood the details of the mechanisms by which these tattoos exert their power.


The tattooee, the author, was an Australian male in his forties and living alone in a pleasant and well located flat in West End. An inner suburb on the south side of the Brisbane River in the three–four years I lived there I watched the encroachment of development making its way primarily down Melbourne Street, the main one which commanded the highest prices while the streets close by running parallel or transverse were also in high demand. My street ran off from a roundabout at the end of Melbourne Street so its days were numbered. Like a rolling juggernaut of geographical vandalism the developers bought up properties and demolished what was there unless it was of such iconic or quaint appeal that might ensure the façade was preserved while the architects did their best to affix a modern anomaly and come up with a coherent whole. Commonly it was a straight forward process of demolition using giant jackhammers mounted on tracks like a bulldozer or tank. Back hoes, end loaders, bulldozers whether full size or the smaller ones where drivers often displayed their virtuosity with wheel stands and spins, stopping on a zac and tolerances of a few centimetres I never saw a mishap but I don’t work in the industry. The pressure was mounting and my life of exile was wearing thin before it began but I was keeping my head above water. Chop-chop and dakka eased the burden but my wardrobe was wearing thin and in the mid 90’s I couldn’t refurbish it and began to look and feel rather down at heel. As winter set in I began to miss a good dooner and blanket. I was in the habit of chanting my mantra and meditating while the rice cooked on the gas stove, the first few ‘cracks’ signalled the readiness of the rice for me to go and turn down the heat while stirring the rice to allow excess moisture to evaporate. I would also go through this exercise before going to sleep, when I could. Other than this I can’t say I was engaging in any religious activity so much as ensuring my rice cooked well and I slept when it was time. I felt no inclination to proselytize this behaviour knowing what people would make of it and others were superfluous to the process, as I thought at the time.


Those who did recognise the more involved details of the belief systems which the tattoos relied on for them to work were a family of Vietnamese refugees who lived in a flat at the back of a small block across the road. I had no contact with them but noticed them and often smiled and nodded to the older Grandparents. They ignored me since we had no means of talking but this behaviour is not considered rude from my experience in Siam, to meet one’s eyes was sufficient to communicate all that was possible so there is no point to putting on a display. An interesting event was the appearance on my doorstep of a cardboard box about 70cm a side and upon investigation, revealed its contents; a down filled sleeping bag which unzipped to a quilt, two quilt covers, and a quilted red coat  suited to a winter in the high country of North Vietnam. I didn’t immediately assume the box came from the neighbours across the road since it may have been a mistake by the Postal Service and for several days left the box on the landing in case someone had left it there by mistake. Satisfied, I gladly brought it inside to inspect the contents and praised my good fortune; “phoum mysoong kha mi!”. It hadn’t occurred to me that the neighbours were involved until a few weeks later once winter was beginning to bite and as I walked to the shop the eldest son ran across the road and handed me a new red blanket. I immediately said “thankyou very much, this is wonderful!” and wei a few times repeating thankyou once I noticed the label was ‘Heritage’ pure merino wool and a brand new double blanket at that. He ignored me and ran back home leaving me to wonder where this benevolence originated. I had nothing to go on since I couldn’t speak to them and supposed that perhaps they were registering their approval at my frequent attacks on the house next door which housed a typical rock drummer who practised, his band practised and most if not all their gigs took place on the stage they had built in their backyard, something like an altar to Victorian Bitter. Grunge at 10/10/10 from 3pm to 3am it was clear they couldn’t get a gig and the reason was obvious; the drummer next door was the song-writer too.

I still have the coat, the quilt and the blanket as well as the quilt covers but I couldn’t find a plausible explanation until about 15 years later when connected to the internet over a period of about a year I have come to a plausible explanation. The tattoos are of a style which seems to have come with the Tai peoples who migrated from Mongolia and China. Mongolia, bordering Siberia, still has a tradition of Shamanism. The ‘Sak Yant’ style was finally evolved as a very distinctive and popular style in what is now Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. The Tai peoples are wet rice farmers who have tended to migrate along the fertile valleys with good rivers running through them providing land suitable for wet rice, vegetables, fruit, grains, hunting and domestic animals such as pigs, buffalo and fowls. Where I stayed was amongst Tai Yai or Shan in Siam while there are other Tai peoples located in Yunnan, Laos and North Vietnam.

I consulted a contact in the Vietnamese community who is well respected and asked him about the circumstances for the Shan in North Vietnam. According to him the Shan in Vietnam are reluctant to give up land and settle in one place. Their usual method of agriculture depends on the village moving after about five years to allow land to lie fallow and fresh timber and bamboo to grow but population pressures make this untenable not only in Vietnam. Perhaps the Shan in Siam accepted the inevitable because they were told to by the traditional king while those in Vietnam, Myanmar, and Laos are reluctant to acquiesce at the barrel of a gun.


My investigations on the net have been rather superficial but for the average reader they give a clear idea of how this style is done in southern Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam etc. When I was tattooed in a remote area during the mid 90’s the scene was totally different from those depicted recently in the cities. When I was busted and taken to the lockup I was searched and the policeman saw my tattoos and asked “Vietnam?” I said no shaking my head saying the war was over in Australia before I was 18 and I had no intention of killing Viet, Thai, Laos, Kampuchea and he smiled. The style of tattoos is able to convey protection of various types including protection against weapons, the cold of a winter's night in the high country for example which may have been his reason for thinking I had been to Vietnam. Perhaps some foreign troops on leave in Thailand got such tattoos. More importantly I have learned some more about the nature of the Tattoos. Sak Yant where Sak refers to the sound of the process of tattooing a sound like Tat and Yant is a contraction of the Sanskrit word ‘Yantra’. The process of being tattooed demands that the recipient abstain from intoxicants, sex, meat, killing and be carefully mindful of the precepts of Pra for a week to 10 days and deviation will render the Yant to be nothing more than a tat.

In a similar vein, the Salars or Ajarns/Acharns where Salar is the Tai Yai name and Ajarn the southern Thai name for the practitioners and those who enter into the process must reinforce the Yant with behaviour that shows they understand it which involves much reading and writing which, in the past, made them the village teacher and ‘salarban’ was the name for school still up country in the mid 90’s. In this way, over time, they can earn a deal of respect but are bound to a life less restrictive than a Monk or Abbot but still demands a lot of work and research. Scripts include Thai, Khmer, Burmese and Shan. It would be interesting to see how the Chinese treat the practice.


No doubt an element of ‘hocus-pocus’ creeps in here and there with luck and virility being common themes. Soldiers were commonly tattooed for protection against weapons, the cold and other things that make the soldiers life sometimes very trying. The bottom line is that they are the product of a belief system that stretches back perhaps some thousands of years. The tools are now made of steel, prior to that they were bronze and I expect they used bamboo or some such to ink the skin before metals became available. The composition of the ink is of prime importance with charcoal, minerals, and animals (river oyster shells) amongst the ingredients and reflects animist beliefs that predate the Buddhism which has become a major influence and practitioners will only do the work at auspicious times on the Buddhist Calendar. It depends where and when the work was done how much attention is paid to the aesthetics of the work. The oldest men had work which was not as neat or premeditated as the younger ones and in Bangkok they seem to have become fashionable amongst some, even women. A popular ‘Ajarn’ is a very lucrative position and has assistants and apprentices while the eldest ‘Salar’ I met was 86, still an itinerant, and covered quite a territory rather than being settled in one place. The differences come down to age, location and personal preference from what I can gather.


I find it quite impressive that these traditions are still around and in some ways flourishing at the start of the millennium and am equally impressed by their ability to travel as far as Brisbane, transcending language and culture to have the almost miraculous effect that I experienced; an excellent lesson in the mindset of these people.