The Girl with the Magic Tattoo

Even with Angelina Jolie's approval, Cambodia's mystical body artists are struggling to survive. Andrew Buncombe reports

With his fast feet and quick fists, Eh Phuthong believed even as a teenager that he had what was required to become one of his country's most celebrated kickboxers.

But when he was in his early 20s – aged either 23 or 24 – he did something he believes all but ensured his success. Visiting a traditional tattoo artist in the town where he lived and fought, he had four elaborate "magic" designs inked on to his toned, thick-set body. From then on, he never looked back.

"It made a huge difference. I increased the number of victories and reduced the number of defeats," said Mr Eh, a Cambodian national heavyweight champion. "Yet you have to believe in the tattoos for them to be effective. Otherwise, it's just a waste of time." The art of magic tattoos in Cambodia is believe to stretch back more than 2,000 years, part of a broad cultural inheritance that came from the Indian sub-continent. During various periods of the country's history, thought turmoil and peace, the popularity of such tattoos has risen and fallen with custom and circumstance.

During the hard years of fighting from the late 60s onwards, when the US-backed government sought to resist the menacing advance of Khmer Rouge rebels, government troops would often visit a traditional tattooist and request a design that would protect them against their enemies' bullets. During the four years of the rebels' rule, many of those forced to work in agricultural gulags turned to their tattoos, hoping they would protect them against the murderous tyranny.

Today, with the country undergoing rapid change, the current generation of young Cambodians has largely turned its back on traditional tattoos, preferring instead "non-magic" designs or images from the West. But while the number of artists who still offer the traditional hand-needled designs has dwindled, a handful continue their trade, creating tattoos that have been passed down through generations.

Their plight recently received something of a boost when it was revealed that Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had a magic tattoo inscribed on her left shoulder in order to protect her and her Cambodian son, Maddox. The inscription in Pali – a traditional liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism – is said to read: "May your enemies run far away from you. If you acquire riches, may they remain yours always."

Chan Tra is one of the few remaining people able to do magic designs in the capital, Phnom Penh. Nowadays, almost all the visitors to his studio in a side street in the city centre ask for normal tattoos. But every few months someone will come in and ask for one of up to 10,000 magic designs, depending on what issue they are seeking help or protection for.

A Buddhist monk recently arrived carrying his own design, asking Mr Chan to create the elaborate eagle on his chest with an inscription in Pali. He did not ask the monk what the design was intended for, but he furtively copied it for future use. A rich Cambodian woman also visited, seeking protection for her possessions. An anxious building contractor showed up at the studio, placed himself in the old dentist's chair that Mr Chan uses to sit his customers, and asked for a business booster.

"There used to be a lot of customers during the 1980s when people were at war. People were always looking for help to protect themselves," he said. "Now people are at peace, who requires a magic tattoo?"

But it is not just a matter of having the tattoo needled onto the body, said Mr Chan, who has designs to protect against everything from tigers to landmines and black magic. It must be blessed by a monk to be effective. "It also makes a difference where the tattoo is located. Some people have it on the tongue, some have it on the back of the head," he added. "If an inscription mentions the upper part of the body and you have it on the leg then it will not be effective."

Miech Ponn, an urbane, white-haired 80-year-old, had his tattoos inscribed when he was called up to serve in the army when he was in his late 30s. An educated official in the government of Gen Lon Nol, an ally of the US, he was forced to serve a year in the military, which was then engaged in an ill-fated struggle with Khmer Rouge insurgents seeking to take control of Phnom Penh.

Aware of the danger he was soon to face, the softly-spoken official had magic tattoos drawn on his wrists and small gold pins inserted under the now scraggy skin of his upper arms. He also bought a hammered leaf of gold with Pali inscriptions and visited a temple where a monk cut a design onto his scalp and pressed powered gold into the lines. "It's invisible now," said Mr Miech, leaning forward, to better show off his whispery, white scalp. "But it becomes visible during times of crisis."

Mr Miech, who serves as an adviser to the country's Buddhist Institute, is adamant about the power of the symbols embossed on his body. He became convinced, he said, when he found himself in a raging firefight, surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers and cut-off from his comrades. "I was surrounded by bullets, explosions. Everyone thought I was going to die. Then I remembered the gold leaf. I had been told that in such circumstances I had to put it in my mouth. I did so and I fell asleep," Mr Miech recalled. "I saw a man dressed in white carrying a walking stick. He said he would protect me. Then I became covered in flowers and leaves and they protected me. I did not get hurt at all."

After quietly completing his remarkable story, he added: "But it will not help you if you do not believe. You have to believe."

That escape was a short-lived respite from the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime. Taken to a labour camp and set aside to be executed because he was considered an intellectual, Mr Miech managed to run away, pretend to be a rickshaw driver and slipped into a different camp. His first wife and five children, taken elsewhere, were killed. He never saw them again.

In Phnom Penh, a city undergoing fast-paced change, partly as result of widescale Chinese influence and investment, tattooists capable of doing magic designs are scarce. But in rural Cambodia, where the pace of development has been much slower, it remains easier to find them.

Eh Phuthong, the kick-boxer, had his victory-bringing tattoos done in the northern town of Battambang by a travelling artist, Sorn Sarin. Mr Sorn, who is 48, said he moved around the country for work, with clients passing on recommendations to others by word of mouth. He has also travelled abroad to work, creating magic tattoos for customers in Hong Kong and Malaysia.

"With traditional or magic taboos, there are hidden meanings in each drawing and each picture or symbol also has embedded meaning . It is full of spirit," he added. "Meanwhile, normal modern ones do not have any meaning and usually young people get themselves tattooed just because they want to have fun."

Mr Sorn, who learned his trade and his designs from his grandfather, insisted the tattoos work if people believe in them and could help win promotion at work or even secure the affection of someone a customer may be courting. As with Chan Tra, the artist in Phnom Penh, Mr Sorn said he could never ask directly for money for a magic tattoo, but only accept whatever the customer wished to pay. "If I ask them for money, my magic will go," he said.

Eh Phuthong rarely fights these days. At the age of 37, he busies himself coaching younger fighters at his gym on the outskirts of the city and taking care of his family. He has also starred in two Khmer-language films. He does not actively promote magic tattoos to his students, but sometimes they ask about the intricate designs that spread like exotic foliage across his body. He explains about the magic and sometimes they decide to get their own.

Chan Raksa, a brother-in-law of Mr Eh, is also a kick-boxer and earlier this year he decided to have a magic tattoo, based on the sarika, or talking bird, inked on to his body. One of the reasons he had it done was done to give him "charm and popularity".

On a recent afternoon, the 20-year-old was leaving Mr Eh's house to head into Phnom Penh for an evening bout. He fights in the lightweight division. To date, he explained, he had a record of 14 victories in 20 fights. But he said he had already sensed an improvement since getting the tattoo. He said: "It has brought me more victories."

Global Ink: A history of tattoos around the world

The modern word "tattoo" originates in Tahiti. During James Cook's expedition to the island in 1769, he noted the tattooing technique of repeatedly pricking the skin with pigment. The Tahitian term for this – "tatau", meaning to strike repeatedly – was adopted and adapted to our Western term. Tattooing appears to have been a strong and evolving tradition across Polynesian history; tattoos were elaborate, covering large areas of the body, and the procedure was a rite of passage marking the arrival of puberty.

Maori tattoos – or "moko" – functioned as a kind of tribal barcode; each unique tattoo, predominantly on the face, contained information about status and ancestry. Bone chisels were used to cut the designs into the skin, which were coloured with a dark pigment made from soot. Moko were thought to make you more attractive to the opposite sex, and Maori women tattooed lines on to their lips to ward off wrinkles and keep them looking young.

Bodies preserved in ice in Siberia have proved that ancient cultures were in on the body art trend. A 2,400-year-old body of a Scythian man was discovered in 1948 sporting images of mythical animals on his body. In 1993, a preserved woman – the Siberian "Ice Maiden" – from the same era was found with similar tattoos.

Holly Williams

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