Why you should care

Even the most potent of spells can’t save this supernatural tradition in Cambodia. 

Barefoot, cross-legged and shirtless, 28-year-old Say Teven looks like he just stepped out of an ancient Hindu carving. Although the afternoon monsoon rain beats down around us in Siem Reap, the meditative Say ignores the noise and chaos that surrounds him. Yet calm as he is, tattoo artist Say is mentally preparing to dole out some hard-core pain from his long bamboo rod and razor-sharp steel needle onto my exposed spine.

It’s a slow, excruciating combination that makes gun-tatting a whole sleeve look downright Zen. In Cambodia, this ancient tattoo ritual is just one part of a timeworn tradition that Say hopes to keep alive in a nation wrought by civil war and genocide. Since the wrath of the Khmer Rouge weeded out the bulk of skilled Khmer tattoo artists in the 1970s, people who still practice the sacred trade are few and far between. The mystical practice has Say designing Hindu and Buddhist religious deities, mythical creatures, celestial stars and ornate Khmer script — dating back to at least the 11th century. Each of Say’s inscriptions is meant to impart a trove of supernatural gifts and hallowed blessings; he rattles off the list — protection from misfortune, a shield from bullets, powers of love and friendship, invisibility, even sexual attraction. “You cannot limit the power of [the tattoo]. You cannot judge it,” Say says, as we chat before I go under the needle.

Khmer people, the group whom Say is descended from, make up some 90 percent of tiny Cambodia’s 15.7 million population. Known by tourists for their intriguing mysticism, comprised of a combination of Hinduism and Buddhism, they were an empire ruling most of Southeast Asia and birthed some of the region’s most ancient scripts. The must-see tourist destination in Cambodia, the temple Angkor Wat, is a Khmer creation. Today, “Khmer” is more recognizable as half the title of the 1970s’ bloody genocide, which decimated a third of Cambodia’s people, including monks and sacred artists. As a result, the magic tattoo techniques were all but lost, explains Ryun Patterson, a Chicago-based expert on Cambodia’s magical realm. “The images come with so much baggage.”

Everyone wants it quick and fast now. They want the look of the tattoo without the commitment of the magic.

Ryun Patterson, expert on Cambodian magic

Born in the wake of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, in the quiet town of Kampong Cham, Say has learned how to painstakingly draw thousands of magic tattoos from elder monks and soothsayers around Cambodia. Today, Say’s home in bustling Siem Reap is far from those days; here, young tattoo aficionados flock to Say’s gritty studio to master the tools of the ancient trade while preserving the tattoos’ fused Buddhist, Hindu and animistic roots. But even though Say’s doors are always open to newcomers, only two brothers currently live and study in the studio. “It’s like a real Star Wars trilogy. There are only one or two guys left to pass the tradition on and nobody left to teach it to,” Patterson says. As far as sacred tattoo artists in Cambodia go, the pool is quickly evaporating, and Say is one of the few fish left who’s “keeping the [magic] alive,” Patterson adds.

That magical realm requires some commitment, the artists will tell you: Once you’ve gotten your ink, committing adultery, lying, killing, gossiping, stealing, consuming alcohol and using drugs are all off-limits for Say’s subjects. Others go further, forbidding intercourse with menstruating women, disdain towards one’s parents and even specific foods such as dogmeat, star fruit and pumpkin. If you don’t follow the rules, the magic won’t work, Say explains. It’s quite “complicated,” says 22-year-old Sim Sotun, one of Say’s live-in apprentices.

Of course, keeping alive any of the old ways these days — even if you are allowed to get drunk — is no easy feat. The formerly hermetic country is facing down change and globalization everywhere it looks. With more than 2 million cars, the ol’ village ox cart is soon becoming extinct. There are more mobile phones than people in Cambodia; nearly 94 percent own at least one. And in 2007, they traded mom’s homemade fish curry in favor of KFC, when the first fast-food franchise set up shop in the kingdom. For tattoo artists, this globalization takes the form of guns replacing traditional bamboo needles for better precision and speed.

Meanwhile, a class of impostor tattoo artists has emerged in the place of revered monks who used to etch the age-old incantations onto soldiers and boxers to safeguard them during combat. “Everyone wants it quick and fast now. They want the look of the tattoo without the commitment of the magic,” notes Patterson, who adorned his back with a mythical monkey god tattoo at a monastery in Phnom Penh. But Say knows that “nothing stays the same,” and even sacred tattoo artists must adapt in order to keep the sinking Cambodian custom afloat. So he loads up his spick-and-span tattoo gun on Cambodians and non-Cambodians alike at no cost in his free time.

Back in Say’s open-air studio, the jab of the bamboo rod ceases after 20 minutes. But my tattoo is not yet complete. I kneel before him at a makeshift shrine and hand over my offering of fruit, candles and incense. Reciting a spell in Pali, Say flicks holy water and yellow flower petals onto my neck, jostling my fresh wounds. After drawing the last graceful swirls and slender lines, he blows on the jet-black tattoo to seal in the magic forever. This, at least, is permanent.

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