Every year, hundreds of Thais gather at Wat Bang Phra temple to receive powerful protective tattoos and be imbued – and sometimes possessed – by the spirit of their chosen talisman
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Last weekend saw one of the most remarkable annual gatherings in Thailand – the Wat Bang Phra tattoo festival. Situated a couple of hours drive outside Bangkok, Wat Bang Phra is reknown for the skilled tattoo work of its resident monks. These are not mere decorations on the skin – for the Thais, these tattoos are powerful amulets of protection that they believe can ward off evil spirits, bad luck and even gunshots.
The gathering at the temple is for the blessing and renewal of the power of the attendees’ tattoos – and the tattoos have such a potency that some of those who attend actually become possessed by the spirit of the animals that are part of their tattoo motif. It may sound pretty silly in the abstract, but you really do not want to get in the way of someone who believes they are possessed by the spirit of a tiger before they are restrained by their fellow attendees and the resident monks.
Wat Bang Phra temple has started to become quite famous in tattoo circles – something which I personally have little knowledge of – and there are some excellent articles describing the events at the Tattoo Temple festival. The article which led me to discover the Temple for myself is Richard Barrow’s account of his visit on the excellent Thai-Blogs.com, where he has some great photos too. While the festival only happens once a year, you can visit the temple at any time to talk to the monks or seek a tattoo yourself, if you don’t mind the risk from using non-sterile needles etc.
Jennifer Gampell wrote about the festival back in 2003 for the Canadian newspaper Globe And Mail, providing an excellent overview of the how of the temple became renown for its tattoos and how the festival came about. She also provides a very evocative description of the process itself.
Vince from VanishingTattoo.com wrote an interesting travelogue about his own quest with a friend to find the temple – they got lost several times and were a bit taken aback to discover plenty of other foriegners had visited beforehand, but their efforts were rewarded and Vince, for whom tattoos are a way of life, writes quite movingly about their time talking to the monks at the temple.
Fortean Times also did a writeup a few years ago that’s mainly notable for suggesting that all the Thais attending the festival are actually the cream of the Thai underworld and will return to everyday jobs of murder and extortion once they depart. The article doesn’t offer a shred of evidence for this, (except the guys look scary), but it makes good copy.
If you want to see the designs of Thai tattoos themselves, which are wholly different to Western tats, Sak-Yant.com is a comprehensive archive of photos and explanations of the significance of Thai tattoos. Tattoos.com has an excellent collection of in depth articles about Thai tattoos and how they are changing, plus some other stuff about Japanese tattoos too.
Wat Bang Phra temple has become so famous it also has its own Wikipedia page, which details the process of receiving a tattoo there and cautions would be tattoo seekers that needles and inks may not be sterile.
ThaiVisa.com has an interesting forum thread discussing Ajarn Noo, the master Thai tattoo artist that did Angelina Jolie’s tattoos.The thread also discusses the process of getting an invisible tattoo – SabaiJai explains: “It’s when the tattoo artist needles in the yantra using sesame oil instead of ink. The oil doesn’t colour the skin at all but the needling does raise red welts for a day or two. After that the tattoo is ‘invisible’ but still performing its magic, or so it’s believed.”
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