No one really knows how old the temple is but it is widely known that monks have been tattooing here for hundreds of years. When I arrived, I bought 70 Bhat worth of offerings which included flowers, cigarettes, a skinny candle and some incense. This is a standard offering for a traditional Sak Yant tattoo. Wat Bang Prah is a big temple, with several buildings. Outside some of the buildings, monks tattooed worshippers in front of small crowds of people. It was very casual, relaxed and hot.
I was ushered into a small tiled room where a monk sat cross legged on the floor as he tattooed mans back. A dozen or so people sat on the floor beside them and watched, or played with their i-phones. Hanging from the walls were dusty pictures of smiling holy men. Other than those pictures, the room didn't look particularly holy, though the air was soothing and calm.
Some of the monks wore all white, while others dressed in classic saffron robes. The crowd waiting to be tattooed was diverse. Both young and old, men and women, some looked more conservative, while others looked as though their story was more interesting. I suppose this is expected in all religious institutions.
The people who come here believe the tattoos from monks will empower them, protect, bring prosperity, health, luck and love. Sometimes they enter into a trancelike state as they embody the spirit of their artwork, and take on its strength and power. Towards the end of my visit, I saw a man begin to pray as the monk finished the script on his head. His hands, pressed flat together by his chest started shaking, and he began to breath heavily. I could hear heavy whispers of prayer on his breath. The shaking moved up his arms and soon his whole body began shaking and his deep voice became louder until finally he clenched his fists over his head and roared as fiercely as anything you've ever heard. The people in the room just sat quietly and watched him. The atmosphere was tense. He calmed down, or came to, and moved to sit beside the next man, to hold his leg as the monk started on his next piece.
I read that the tattoo blessing was originally a Hindi tradition, and that warriors used to journey to the temples to pray and seek blessings for luck and guidance in battle. A young man who was having script inked across his chest caught my eye. He was there with his brother and father who held him while the metal spike was being tapped into his chest, leaving ink behind. Watching these men hold onto each other as prayers were etched into their skin felt like an ancient homage to their ancestral warriors.
I reflect on the artwork covering my own body and feel compassion for the people sitting in this room, who are hoping to build strength through the ink of a monk in their journey here on earth. I think about each piece of mine, when I got it, why, what it represents, how it reflects a part of my life or an element of my character. It deepened my appreciation for tattoos as symbols of our struggles and our victory’s. Sometimes they happen in a parlor close to home or at a small shop on the other side of the world.
Tattoos are something that can make us all feel connected, the markings of our own path through battle and bliss. Maybe instead of treating people differently because of the markings on their skin we should take a moment to think about where that person has been. They may have fought battles that you cannot comprehend. Watching these men leave marks on the bodies of others made me contemplate whether they were leaving anything at all, or were they really bringing to the surface all the great things that make us human, lifting up the bold markings that stand for strength, power and perseverance. These markings are the physical manifestation of what it means to feel.