November 16, 2009 – It’s much harder to get a magic tattoo in Cambodia than it used to be, laments Chey Cham.
“I do have one tattoo of a python on my right upper-arm but it’s for beauty, not magic,” says the 30-year-old from the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital.
“That’s because I can’t find anywhere in my town to get a magic tattoo.”
Over centuries, Cambodians have endured hours of procedures to obtain hand-drawn mystical tattoos believed to give them magical powers, but the tradition appears to be fading in this increasingly modern country.
Miech Ponn, advisor on mores and customs at Cambodia’s Buddhist Institute, says magic tattoos are believed to bring good luck or popularity but are mostly used by soldiers seeking to become invisible to enemies or repel bullets.
“Tattoos were really popular among Cambodian men in the past. Almost every Cambodian male was tattooed,” Miech Ponn says.
These days, he adds, superstitious people in rural areas are usually the ones who believe in magic.
“Until now science can’t break this superstition. I don’t know why it cannot.”
Tattooist Chan Trea notices the number of customers seeking him out in the belief they will obtain special powers has dwindled over the past decade.
“Usually, the Cambodian customers are police, soldiers, and fighters like boxers and martial artists,” Chan Trea says.
“But there is a decrease of people coming for magical reasons. I guess, in the future, things like magic will be very rare in this country.”
The tattoos usually feature images of supernatural creatures, Hindu gods or characters from Pali and Sanskrit. Cambodian fighters are often adorned with intimidating images of a dragon, tiger or the monkey king Hanuman.
Chan Trea notes the tattoos can be administered by any traditional healer or Buddhist monk who has strong spiritual beliefs, but only a few remain alive who know how to use traditional long needles and recite magical spells.