Working in Bangkok for the last ten years British/French Photographer Cedric Arnold explored the ancient Thai tattoo practice of Yantra in this incredible series called Sacred Ink.
“A body, used as a canvas, every inch of skin filled with sacred text and figures of mythical creatures, all forming a protective shield. A boxer, a monk, a construction worker, a policeman, a soldier, a taxi driver, a shipyard worker, a shaman, a tattoo master; men, women, and their inked protection from evil spirits and bad luck. Enter the world of Thailand’s spiritual “Yantra” tattoo tradition.”
Incorporating elements of Buddhism, Animism, Brahmanism, and Hinduism, the tradition is believed to go back as far as the ninth century, and there’s even historical evidence of soldiers wearing the tattoos for protection in battle during the 16th and 17th centuries.
Yantra tattoos are still believed to have mystical powers and can be worn on the skin or drawn on other surfaces. Once seen as the mark of gangsters or even assassins, the tradition has become increasingly popular—and expensive. Yantra attracted international attention when Angelina Jolie got two of the tattoos on a trip to Bangkok. Now tourists travel there specifically to get inked, and the subculture has drawn lots of media interest.
Throughout the course of the project, he came across a wide variety of people for whom yantra is a way of life, including a boxer, a monk, a construction worker, a policeman, and a taxi driver. He also got friendly with the tattoo masters, who let him behind the scenes of the complex ceremonies that are part of the tattooing process.
“The ink is traditional Chinese ink but there’s ash, snake venom, all sorts of things,” Arnold said. “It’s very much a voodoo mix, sort of a witches’ brew in a way. There are some really wild rumors about certain tattoo masters who have all sorts of crazy things in there. One liquid people describe as corps oil, harvested from dead bodies.”
“If you’re not tattooed yourself in certain tattoo worlds, people will be very suspicious and not let you in. I explained this was a personal project, and I wanted to understand things. When they asked me why I didn’t have tattoos, I said, ‘I don’t belong to this belief system, so I think it would be disrespectful for me to get one.’ ”
“Yantra tattoos are going more mainstream, along the lines of Western tattooing. But the spiritual aspect of the practice in a modern, yet superstitious society like Thailand will no doubt keep it from becoming a mere fashion statement, at least for now,” Arnold wrote.