Wat Bang Phra, Thailand
By Damir Sagolj
A devotee with a small zoo of animals tattooed on his body speeds toward the large statue of the Big Master, jumping over others and making unusual sounds and gestures. A volunteer standing in his way is big but fortunately very quick to stop the frantic run before a man crashes into the stage. A tattooed man bounces off the volunteer’s huge body, wakes-up from the trance and calmly goes back into the crowd. The air-bag volunteer turns to his colleagues and, as if nothing special is happening, comments in the ultra-cool manner of Bud Spencer (remember the Banana Joe movie?) “It is hot today. Very hot.”
And it’s hot indeed. It's the beginning of the Thai summer. Only a few hours after the sunrise, the temperature is over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). It is also abnormally humid. However, people who came to Wat Bang Phra today don’t really care for such banal things as heat and humidity – they are here for a higher cause.
Every year, on a special day in March thousands of devotees from all around Thailand (some from abroad, too) travel for the Magic Tattoo festival to Nakhon Prathom province, just over an hour drive from Bangkok. The festival takes place at a temple well known for "magically charged" tattoos.
People with such tattoos believe the inked drawings with elaborate designs of animals and sacred scripts give them mystical powers – protection from bullets and other danger, along with other benefits. They are made all across the country and very different people wear them, just like the amulets you can see everywhere in Thailand. When soldiers from the Thai army went to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission, 443 of them carried 6000 magic amulets for protection.
Tattoos and amulets are made elsewhere but Wat Bang Phra is a special place and the most famous for its powerful, magic tattoos. A few days before the festival, I spoke to a young man from Bangkok’s notorious Khlong Toey slum about his tattoos. Salut got his first tattoo at the age of 17. Now, nine years later, most of his skin is covered in inked drawings and there is barely enough space for another. But, he needs more tattoos, saying they protect him from danger and give him extra self-confidence. After observing his body and smoking a menthol cigarette (that, along with flowers, is offered in exchange for tattoos), a Buddhist monk pulls out a traditional half meter long needle and starts inking sacred script in the tiny empty space around the young man’s left nipple.