Tattoos and Trances

March 4, 2002

What could make the author hop out of bed at 5 a.m. on a Saturday? The annual tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra in the town of Nakhorn Chaisri, of course. Arriving at the temple by 7 a.m. with bags under my eyes was more than worth the 25-kilometer journey out of Bangkok. Wat Bang Phra is home to Luang Phor Pern, a venerated monk famous for his tattoo art along with other resident monks skilled with the needle (or in this case, metal rod).

These tattoos are said to protect wearers from injury or harm and possess magic qualities. Individuals sporting these tattoos often have dangerous professions such as high-rise construction, law enforcement or gang activity. Most of the men in the crowd had their shirts off revealing entire torsos, backs and arms filled with sacred Buddhist texts, numerology charts, mythical creatures and animal motifs. Inkless scarification works were also seen. Luang Phor Pern’s followers had come to his temple on February 23rd, 2002 to spend the morning040302k1.jpg letting the spirit and magic of their tattoos take over their bodies.

Even though it was very early, hundreds of people were already sitting on the ground facing a large stage where statues of the Lord Buddha had been placed. Monks and laypeople were making religious offerings of lotus buds, incense and candles. Many members of the audience sat meditating and chanting. Occasionally the roar of a lion or the squeal of a monkey could be heard rising up from the crowd.

Those individuals sporting tiger tattoos were overtaken by its spirit and charged and growled towards the stage with claws out. Others with snake tattoos crawled and squirmed on the ground. People sporting bird tattoos soared through the crowd with wings spread while those with monkey tattoos stomped and jumped around. Those sporting tattoos of an ascetic mountain dwelling monk orchestrated the quietest and slowest moving of all trances.

Every few seconds a member of the crowd would040302k2.jpg either start breathing heavily or yelling animal sounds and then run, jump, hurl, crawl, stumble, walk or charge towards the stage. A large line of soldiers and civilians were lined up to catch and restrain and calm down the often-frenzied participants. A crowd of international journalists gathered in the front rows and thousands of pictures were snapped. By afternoon over 7,000 people were in attendance.

Some individuals fell under trance over six times. A young boy about the age of ten fell under the tiger’s spell and four women were taken over by the spirits corresponding to their tattoos. By early morning there were up to 35 individuals charging blindly through seated onlookers. Some trance participants seemed to fall totally under the spell and generated sounds and seizures that would be more than difficult to create under normal states of mind. At other times it became questionable as to whether participants were truly under a trance or just using trance as an excuse040302k3.jpg to charge with flailing fists into a crowd of soldiers and not get into trouble.

When the venerated Luang Phor Pern took the stage to spray holy water and give blessings, the number of individuals in trance intensified, screams went up, and other members of the audience swarmed to the stage causing a minor stampede effect.

In late morning the crowd started dispersing. The monks went to eat their last meal of the day. Some returned later to sit under the shade of trees and re-bless tattoos. Crowds of men gathered around to have their heads touched and then blown on and their backs patted on three times as part of the re-blessing ceremony.

The monks then proceeded into a small temple building where scores of people had lined up to receive new tattoos. The air was heavy and dark with incense and the room was silent. The monks sat at the front of the room and Luang Phor Pern held a long metal rod, which was first dipped in black ink and then jabbed in quick burst into the back of the person leaning in front of him. Short metal needles were used for scarification tattooing. The tattoos were completed with amazing speed and artistry. The only sterilisation that took place between each tattooing sessions was a quick dip of the metal tools into bowls of antiseptic.

As someone who is not only interested in tattoos but sports a few herself (much to Mom’s dismay), the tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra was one of the most fascinating events I have attended in Thailand. The day provided insight into an occult-like subculture within Thailand and also allowed a lot of close up viewing of amazing ink work. Whether or not the tattoos and trances of Wat Bang Phra are magic is for each individual to decide, but the visual spectacle of the event makes it a worthwhile way to spend a very early morning.

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