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Monday, May 28, 2007

The culture of traditional tattoos in NW Thailand - Part 1

Called ‘saak yan’ in Thai, and meaning the action of tattooing (‘saak’) talismanic diagrams (‘yan’), these traditional designs are very compelling for their power as well as for the imagery. We are especially attracted to the almost-‘naïve’, traditional designs used in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos for the purpose of invulnerability in the face of evil, and attraction in matters of love and money. These often employ a combination of design devices, such as magic diagrams (‘yantra’) with letters or numbers symbolizing special incantations, images of mythical creatures (Hanuman, Rahu, Garuda, Ganesha, etc.), or real creatures imbued with special powers (tigers, gecko/lizards, crocodiles, slow loris, wild boars, as well as occasional humans as monks, dancers, etc.) Additionally, these designs are given more power with added lines of Pali text in Thai or Khmer script.

Here are some photos from a recent ‘Wan Wai Kru’, or Day of Respect for the Master (‘teacher’, or ‘guru’), taken at the home/studio of tattoo master Ajarn Innsom Siriwong, outside of Chiang Mai.

To begin the day, respect must be paid to the deity of tattooing, known as the 'reusi' in Thai (from 'rishi' in Sanskrit). A hermit seer, he is believed to have brought the power of tattoo to mankind. His image is white-bearded, often clad in a tigerskin and wears a special headdress. In the photo above he is on the uppermost altar (left of center), as well as to the lower right of center as a mask/headdress (also shown below).

On this special day, once a year, those who have received tattoos from the master return for his blessings and to ‘recharge’ the magic power of their images, and to get new ones.

We saw the physical transformations of several whose tattoos had ‘possessed’ them, and they became tigers, or other powerful creatures.

In this day and age, it is indeed a special event to see the strength of these spirits come alive, and to witness the power of tattoos.