Thailand’s spiritual “Yantra” tattoo tradition
Forthcoming exhibition with photographs by Cedric Arnold
Brunei Gallery, SOAS, London 18 October to 15 December 2012
In Thailand, a country with a culture deeply rooted in superstition, tattoos are a lot more than just skin deep.
For centuries, Thai men have covered their bodies with protective tattoos. Old temple murals show epic scenes of swords breaking apart when hitting a tattooed soldier’s skin. The tradition has been handed down generations of both monks and laymen who create the tattoos and empower them with special prayers. Since yantras can be drawn on cloth, paper, wood or sheets of metal, most Thais opt for this option to protect themselves from harm and improve their luck. The yantras are placed in cars and homes, or even worn as amulets. In Thai society, tattoos are still very much associated with prisoners and gangsters. Young men wishing to join the police or army are refused if they have tattoos; once accepted though, they can get tattoos done.
Thai tattoos are engrained in everyday Thai life and spirituality; they are thought of as a physical connection with powerful spirits. Although they are often frowned upon and identified with the lower-echelons of society and the criminal underworld, a renewed interest in the practice is attracting men and women alike with “not so shady” occupations. 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.
The photographs in this exhibition show many aspects the tattooing process as well as ceremonies, the master’s environment, the master at work.
French / British photographer Cedric Arnold is often drawn towards exploring the markings of time, this can be in the subject matter itself or expressed with the medium he uses: out of date film, old instant film, or even through chemically altering prints and emulsion. Cedric lives and works in Bangkok, Thailand.
Further information: www.soas.ac.uk/gallery/sacredink/