Sean is one of the artists who I have visited on multiple occasions. I have seen him in Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester and in his hometown of Llandudno, Wales where he has opened up Sacred Knot Shop for both his tattoo business as well as his related clothing (Northern Fire) and art sales. This visit to him was to complete my right sleeve and it was to be done with Nordic themes and symbolism as per his original work on me. I gave Sean free reign over the design with minimal input and once again he astounded me with his creative flow.
In his own words: “Here you see the spear head of Gungnir, the magical spear made by the maggots of the earth, the Dwarfs. These dwarfs in particular were the Sons of Ivaldi, and lead by the master blacksmith Dvalin. In the old Norse stories the spear was a gift to Odin that never missed it’s mark.” – in reference to the design on the blade of my forearm.
The third time I saw Ajarns Matthieu and Rung was at their home in Hua Hin, Thailand. Hua Hin was the first beach resort town in Thailand and was especially popular with the Thai Royal Family and is seen as the place where the Thai’s take their holidays, as opposed to the more crowded popular tourist areas for foreigners.
This trip was to complete my left sleeve and the process of selecting which Sak Yants to be inked was overseen by Ajarn Matthieu. Receiving a Sak Yant goes beyond just selecting a design from a book as some of them, depending on your lifestyle, would not be deemed suitable for you. For example, there was a specific design which resonated with me and when I expressed interest in it, I was asked whether I drink alcohol. The reason for this is that for the magical powers of that specific tattoo to work, my body needs to be permanently free of any type of intoxication (this does not apply to all Sak Yants). I could of course have lied to get it but that defeats the purpose of Sak Yant tattoos.
These tattoos are believed to be magical and bestow certain powers on the bearer, for example the crocodile tattoo (Yant Thaerawad Jorakae) protects the bearer from sharp objects, but if I were to be intoxicated in any way and I’m near a body of water then the crocodile spirit may take over my body and lead me to drowning. The little gecko (Yant Jing Jok) is believed to attract friendship and love. Each Sak Yant is believed to have a very specific power but if one does not follow the rules for bearing it then its power would be diminished and even turned against you.
Cambodia is a country which suffered a devastating genocide by it’s own leader which resulted in almost a quarter of it’s population losing their lives between 1975 and 1979. The aim of the genocide was to push Cambodia into a Communist state and during this process many of the practitioners of the sacred tattoos in this region were lost as well. Sacred tattooing has been practised in Cambodia as far back as the 11th century, before even Angkor Wat (the largest religious monument in the world) was built. There is a close resemblance in both the designs and the meanings of these tattoos to the Sak Yants of Thailand. This is no coincidence because of the proximity of these countries and the religious and spiritual practices between them. The difference though is that because of the genocide many of the original writings and teachings have been lost in Cambodia and very few links to the original people who had this knowledge remains.
This is where Federation Khmer in Siem Reap plays a crucial role in preserving the history of the traditional tattoos of Cambodia. They are a small group of individuals dedicated to not only documenting and teaching these arts, but also tirelessly tracking down any survivors of the genocide who could provide knowledge and artifacts towards their cause. Their cultural preservation also extends to the traditional martial art of Cambodia called Bokator, a combat and battlefield oriented fighting style rather than the ring sport of Muay Thai (which also evolved from the wartime combat art of Muay Boran).
Like the Thai Sak Yants, Cambodian tattoos are meant to imbue magical powers and blessings to the bearer. There is even a tattoo which can be placed on the instep of the foot to protect the bearer from the large amount of land mines still active in that country. In order to receive a tattoo an offering of flowers, fruit and money needs to be presented and once the tattoo is completed it is blessed by prayer and holy water, just like the Thai Sak Yant.
My next trip to Hua Hin was to get Sak Yants on other areas of my body now that my sleeve had been completed. As stated in another post, the location of Sak Yants are very specific. For example, the head is seen in Buddhism as the most sacred part of the body so to have a Sak Yant on the head entails that a few other pre-required Yants have already been received. Some of these pre-required Yants must also be done above the waist and in a centre-line area of the back or torso. The more a Sak Yant position deviates from its preferred area the less power it is believed to have. Sak Yants placed below the waist are allowed but only very specific ones such as animal spirits or Yants used for romantic powers. Deities (if they are allowed to be tattooed at all, tattoos of Buddha are prohibited in Thailand) are generally only allowed above the waist but not in areas considered “unclean” such as below the armpits or close to the groin.
The other factor here was that my tattoos were now beginning to be very visible and could no longer be covered up. Having tattoos in areas such as the hands and neck requires serious introspection as they can be career limiting as well as a social stigma in certain parts of the world (Japan being a notable example, tattoos are still very much frowned upon there as they are associated with organised crime and many establishments especially gyms and public bathing areas prohibit the entry of anyone tattooed). My original intention was to only have tattoos in areas which I could easily cover up. I was not even planning on doing full sleeves. But after each session I would look at the empty skin in the mirror and I knew that at some point I would want to fill that up. I had been fortunate enough to be in a career which did not require me to be client facing so I was able to make the decision to use as much of my available skin as possible. My own personal restriction though is my face. Facial tattoos just do not appeal to me as I feel that it has too much of an effect on how your features are perceived. The sides of my head and sideburn area are still fair game though 😉
Arne is a machine free tattoo artist who prefers to use the “stick and poke” method of tattooing. This involves using the same type of needles from electric tattoo machines but having him manually poke the ink under my skin with them. This is a very time-consuming process but results in a unique texture both in the shading and the lines, not to mention a quicker healing time. He is another artist who I have met up with in various countries (Germany, Thailand, Poland, UK) as his aesthetic style was very appealing to me and I really wanted to showcase it on my skin.
I’ve been asked many times about how painful it is to have your ears tattooed. Both my ears were hand poked by Arne and they were probably the least painful of all the ink I’ve had done. It may just be a testament to acupuncture but for me the ear tattoo process was so soothing that I nearly fell asleep during it.
A fortunate side effect of my tattoo endeavours are the friendships which have been made. The tattoo community is like a family and whenever I spent time at tattoo conventions or festivals, I could feel the bond between the artists and the love they have for the work they do. Even though I am not a tattoo artist myself I was made to feel welcome within their ranks and I still keep in touch regularly with the people I’ve met over the last few years.
Another of my aesthetic pieces was by Alexander Grim from Russia, at his studio in Prague. I really love the medieval woodblock style of art and with my skin tone, colour and shading are not ideal. What has the most impact on my skin would be bold lines and negative space and Alexander’s design of a knight riding a dragon captured that perfectly. Despite the size of this piece he managed to complete it in one sitting of 7 hours. A pleasant surprise by him was the bowl of candy waiting for me, sugar really does help with tattoo endurance and I would highly recommend consuming sugary products during a long tattoo session. Alcohol also helps to ease the process, but it has a downside in that it thins your blood and will make visibility difficult for the artist, who will need to wipe away that extra blood more often.
At this stage of the journey, even though the artists were doing a great job in tying all the pieces together, what I lacked was overall symmetry. I wanted the skin art to look as cohesive as possible, so for any consequent pieces I had to carefully consider their size and placement so that there could be balance and aesthetic completeness.
These designs were inspired by the tattoos of the hill tribes from Indochina. The men tattoo themselves between their waist and knees with animal symbols as a rite of passage into manhood, to represent the nature of the animals (cats are believed to make the bearer more elusive and is a popular design for thieves), and for protection from evil spirits and wild animals. These types of trouser tattoos predate the Buddhist Sak Yants and are not blessed by a monk once completed. Usually the process of getting a full trouser tattoo takes place over a period of a few days using a bamboo rod, with opium consumed to dull the pain. Done in Chiang Mai, Thailand with machine by Ajarn (teacher) Raut who is the Luksit (student) of Ajarn Daeng, a former monk. As far as I know, there are still tribes in Northern Thailand where the original method of using a rod to tattoo these is still employed but without a translator and guide the logistics of such an endeavour would not be easy, not to mention the significant amount of extra time the tattoo would take to be applied that way.
Special thanks to Peter Jenx of The Thai Occult who facilitated this experience. Peter has been living in the Northern region of Thailand for a good few years and has been documenting the traditional and magical practices of that region, as well as the meanings and origins of the ancient Sak Yant tattoos through interviews with the teachers, magicians and holy people. His books aim to preserve this vast and eclectic knowledge which is mostly unknown to the Western world.
After all the travels I have done to acquire ink, I finally decided to get one in my hometown of Cape Town, South Africa. I was made aware of a fundraiser being held at one of the top local tattoo studios (Good Things Tattoo) in order to raise money for the medical bills of one of the fathers of their artists. I initially planned on just making a donation but after having a look at the designs available for each artist, I was drawn to one by John James Case.
The design is inspired by the book 109 Apokrypha, which is a book of symbols inspired by spirituality and occultism.
Benjamin Greif aka B.Ignorant is a hand poke tattoo and print artist based in Berlin, Germany. His work has medieval themes as well as a touch of blasphemy to them. The designs are based on actual historical artworks which once again appealed to my love of the woodblock print style from that era.
The designs I asked of him were not based on medieval artwork but rather on sigils of protection outlined in the Lesser Key of Solomon, which is an anonymous grimoire on demonology and the occult. Now the perception of the occult for most people is of a negative connotation. The word “occult” tends to be synonymous with black magic, but the reality is that there is no “colour” associated to it. It is something which, for the practitioners who believe in it, can be used for good or bad intent. This was something I learnt in Thailand as there is a strong occult following in that part of the world, but occult in that case being holy men or magicians casting spells to help people in their everyday lives with money, romance, work, protection etc.
I decided that my palms would be the perfect place for these sigils, what I did not expect was their difficult healing process. In my enthusiastic state I opted to have both palms done in one session. Benjamin is very quick, and they were both done in around 2 hours. It never crossed my mind at the time though how much your palms are required in your day to day activities. Opening a door, bathing, eating, twisting open a jar, all these activities require palm contact so the first few days after the tattoo were challenging. Out of all the tattoos I have had done the palms seemed to take the longest to heal. On top of that, the ink doesn’t often hold very well in that area and I needed to go back for two touch ups (and got a third tattoo from him as well, a war hammer crossed with a mace) as the ink needed to be pushed deeper into the areas where it fell out, and palms are really sensitive areas to drive a needle into.
The ink in the palms have held well for the most part after a year or so but I will need to have touch ups done again. Benjamin did point out however that sigils do not necessarily need to look perfect, as the intention for having these on me and what they represent is what matters.
Aman Sipatiti aka Durga is an Indonesian tattoo artist living in Berlin. He learnt his art from the indigenous tribes in Indonesia and Borneo and regularly goes back to spend time in the jungles to tattoo the villagers as per the ancient tradition of his ancestors. His preferred method of applying tattoos is by tapping which involves a “pricker stick” and a mallet. The rhythmic sound of the mallet is at times hypnotic and calming and contributes to the mental focus required by both the tattooist and the receiver.
The designs he chose for me were a pair of Borneo dragons (Nabau, for protection against malevolent spirits) and three “Iron Flowers” (Bunga Besi, the name given by the local tribal people for how the muzzle flash of a gun looked to them when it was fired). Like many of the traditional tattoos of this region, these are also believed to imbibe the wearer with spiritual powers.
As a side note, during the 90s there was a trend of “tribal” tattoo designs that the Quentin Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn may have sparked, with George Clooney’s bold black sleeve. That “tribal” style in fact borrowed heavily from the traditional tattoo designs of Indonesia and Borneo.