From the Archives: Tom Vater on the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival in Thailand
Every year in March, thousands of Buddhist devotees gather at a temple an hour west of Bangkok to worship and celebrate one of Thailand’s strangest cults: At Wat Bang Phra, Buddhist monks use long needles to tattoo magic images and prayers on the believers’ skin. The tattoos are believed to give the wearer protection, especially against bullets and knives, and bring financial luck.
The following story has been published in FHM, Maxim, Fortean Times, The South Eastern Globe and a couple of other publications, but I went along once more this year to take another look. As before, the atmosphere at Wat Bang Phra was electric, the festival is still very much a genuine grass roots event and there were many of familiar faces amongst the devotees.
The images by Aroon Thaewchatturat are from 2006, while mine are from this past weekend.
Uaaahh! The bare-chested man is running straight towards me, his face bright red, distorted into a thousand pains I know nothing about. His bare, tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he’s stumbling straight ahead, towards me. He salutes unknown devils. His voice a hysterical siren, he turns on the spot and does wild body contortions, which render his face the color of blood. He is focusing in my direction again. He stares at me, through me, beyond me, nowhere. He’s moving.
Just as he’s about to reach me, the second I begin my retreat into the crowd around me, he falls to the floor. Still he screams. He rolls in a puddle. He’s bleeding from his left ear, his eyes are blood shot, his tongue flops from his mouth, he’s still screaming. His face grows ever darker.
A second later, the man rises from the puddle. The crowd cheers, some jeer. The man begins to run, run towards the small stage erected in front of a large bronze statue of the former abbot of the Buddhist temple Wat Bang Phra. A phalanx of young guys in white T-shirts patrols the front of the stage, backed up by a mob of lean and mean army privates. It looks like a 60’s rock festival, haphazard and out of control.
The man head-butts into the crowd, the guys in the white T-shirts hold him down, four men hanging on to a limb each. They scream at him. He shakes like mad and screams back, not at them, just at the world. He struggles like a condemned prisoner on his way to the guillotine.
Seconds later he goes limp. The guys drop him on the ground. He gets up, his face perfectly calm, folds his hands towards the stage and disappears back into the crowd. I turn around. A man is running straight towards me…
Wat Bang Phra is an hour west of Bangkok. Once a year, thousands of young men of uncertain occupation gather here to get tattooed by several monks. The monks do this every day of the year, the tattoos afford protection and are popular, but the big tattoo gathering happens just once a year.
Some of the men and women who come here belong to the criminal fraternity. Yes, Wat Bang Phra Festival is a rare opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the worst and some of the most interesting people Thailand has amongst her citizens. Behind the Wat’s museum, long queues have formed in front of a couple of outhouses. Teenagers with pock marked faces, old fat thugs with eyes that burn holes into hell, emaciated taxi girls and chubby mamasans hang out, chatting and smoking with the monks. It’s weird to see these people in daylight.
Some revelers are drunk, others seem to be orbiting on yaba (meta-amphetamine). Most are already tattooed, either with cheap biker designs or with the Khmer Buddhist prayers and diagrams the monks specialize in here. Everybody wants to be photographed, show off their scars (plenty) and skin illustrations. The monks too, are heavily tattooed, crests around their shaved skulls, throats ands shoulders adorned with chedis and prayers. The ancient Khmer alphabet looks like ants’ squiggles on skin: it stretches from the definite to the illegible, from the poetic to the anarchic. On backs and chests it looks like text, the instructions appear coherent. But on hands, legs and throats it’s all abstract, musical and brutally crude. But there is more to this than the spoken word. It goes deeper. Wat Bang Phra’s tattoos come with promises of protection and prosperity. The hard men come in reverence and expectation and the monks etch images of fearsome animals onto their skins, along with prayers and chedis. The Indian monkey god Hanuman makes an appearance, as do tigers, dragons, birds, snakes, eels and a hermit. The punters live out their possessions in the yard. The attempt to storm the stage is a show of respect to the late head of the monastery, Luang Paw Phoem.
Indian mythology, Buddhism, ancient animism, straightforward superstition and adolescent outlaw culture make for a colorful spectacle which may challenge more genuine efforts to celebrate a spiritual life, but it’s such a bizarre clash of circumstances, of faith and history, of seekers and charlatans, of humility and machismo, that it has a life all of its own.
The monks have several working methods. Some use the same needle and the same pot of ink again and again, others seem to exchange needles after every operation and always start a new tiny tub of ink. The punters don’t care. Each one hands over a donation which promptly disappears under the monk’s robes – this is after all a business, as well as magic.
Some of the younger boys shake under the needle, their friends hold them down. The monk just taps on regardless, wipes off blood every now and then, mumbles incantations, smokes and drinks Red Bull. The men with the hard faces and bad scars queue, they pray, they bleed, they go beserk in the yard, it’s their day. It’s all done quickly – in the blink of an eye another chedi comes into existence on some guy’s flesh, another prayer for the great Buddha.
Post-tattoo, the punters traipse off to another hall where they will be told what rules they have to follow in life in order for the protective tattoos to work. Some swear that they can stop bullets.
Why is this happening? Does the Dalai Lama do tattoo gigs too?
The current generation of supposedly faithful pours into the cities, in pursuit of the dollar. American style ‘Mall culture’ has gripped the kingdom. Morality, social commentators say, is in distress, and nepotism, cronyism and graft have seeped into every transaction, every political decision. No wonder then that the intense free-wheeling capitalism the country has experienced in the last ten years has influenced Buddhism and the behavior of its adherents in Thailand.
Wats appear to have partially turned from community centres into businesses. Some Wats cater to the super rich, others suggest lottery numbers. The monks are out in the streets, taking part in daily life as never before. They pour over mobile phones in shopping centers or pick through gold bracelets at Chinese jewelers. The Thai tabloids regularly report on monks visiting Karaoke Bars and wooing women into sex. They populate Internet cafés and the cells of young monks are adorned with Metallica posters. That doesn’t sound like Nirvana. Bad pun, I know. Does Richard Gere know? Has Steven Seagul been informed?
Above all, tattooing brings in money and Wat Bang Phra is the best known temple to offer a second skin of protective spells in the country. Everybody pays. Every punter who gets tattooed will purchase some flowers and incense for the tattooist’s teacher. Amulets are on sale everywhere and are doing a roaring business. Even in the hall where the recently deceased abbot’s remains are stretched out in a gold-framed glass coffin, you can shop for temple memorabilia. The atmosphere is full both of reverence and market bustle.
By no means do all monks agree with this cult though. One of the most eminent monks in the country, Phra Payom Kalayano, has commented repeatedly on the marketing forces that dominate many monasteries’ agendas.
Luang Paw Phoem, the eminent late abbot of Wat Bang Phra died in 2002, aged 79. He had no tattoos himself. The venerated founder of this strange tattoo cult had picked up the tattoo tradition and the connection to animal magic from his own peers and teachers, notably Luang Paw Him, the former head of Wat Bang Phra. It’s difficult to determine how long people have been getting tattooed at the temple, but the last knowledge transfer seems to have occurred around World War II.
The current main monk tattooist, Luang Pee Pan, is tattooed. Almost everywhere. He sits on the edge of the madding crowd, on a low stool, welcoming a long queue of people under his needle. A pile of cigarette packets and Red Bull bottles is stashed behind him. Right now Luang Pee Pan is covering a white pad with ink absorbed from a cheap stationary ink pad. He presses the cloth onto a young man’s flat chest. It’s the image of a tiger. The needle contraption is about 30 cm long. Without further ado, Luang Pee Pan taps, the young skinny man in front of him shakes a bit, his skin bleeds. The tattoo is fifteen centimeters wide, but it’s all done at lightning speed. The monk smokes while tattooing and he’s quick, he just hammers the lines out, wipes the skin with a dirty towel. Three minutes of pain and another mark for the rest of your life. I hope the tiger will manage to stop all bullets.
Outside in the yard, thousands sit in the sun. Part of this huge forecourt has been fenced in by blessed white thread. Inside the square of thread, more and more men turn into animals and go beserk. The heat, the alcohol, the pills, it’s all too much. A monk warns that only genuine berserkers are authorised to go mad. Should anyone be found to be in possession of alcohol or yaba, they are to be kicked out. But who is checking?
The crowd carries on regardless. Several of the men are possessed again and again. They get up, they contort, they scream. Some turn into different animals each time. They run in a straight line towards the stage. They run into the boys in white T-shirts, they bash into the soldiers. The mad men struggle and go limp. The monotone voice of a priest drones from tannoy speakers. When he pauses, there is total silence but for the cries of the currently possessed. The fattest, meanest bad man in the crowd has joined the boys in front of the stage to help catch the incoming lunatic missiles. It’s a gig. It’s a great show. It’s the final attack. The tattoo monks and the current abbot of Wat Bang Phra have climbed onto the stage. Monks and laymen drop candle-wax into a huge silver vat to make holy water. The abbot grabs a hose-pipe and sprays the crowd, which surges to the front. Everybody is up, pushing and pulling. Some are possessed, others not. Towards the stage, the crowd gets very dense, people start getting squashed. Here and there, men suddenly go beserk, scream in rage and push those around them. The heat is intense. The holy water rains down on the crowd. The tigers, Hanumans, hermits, snakes and elephants turn into young outlaws with heavy skin problems.
Published in FHM, Maxim, fortean times, South East Globe and in Tom Vater’s non-fiction book Beyond the Pancake Trench.