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The Sacred Tattoos of Thailand - Dan White, 2010

20 November 2011

In Thailand and the surrounding countries, a parallel realm of the spirits provide powerful, everyday companions to mortal man. Many see the wearing of a certain kind of tattoo as a way of tapping into the power that comes from that world.

These sacred tattoos or ‘Sak Yan’ are complex symbols etched into the skin with ink on what is essentially a long metal pole with tiny metal prongs at the end of it.

The tattoos serve as a key to a door. The history of this pre-Buddhist mythology winds it’s way back to India in a hotchpotch of Hindu, Buddhist and animist iconography and those who actually make the tattoos are revered and mystical shamans – some friendly, some eccentric and others quite terrifying.

Photographing this fascinating world came with challenges. The first challenge was to track down the masters. Hidden behind mountain temples, in shacks down rural winding lanes and in crowded corners of urban slums, the ‘samnaks’, or holy places, of the Sak Yan masters are often pokey and cluttered, lit by harsh florescent tubes, if lit at all.

Once the samnak is found, gaining the trust of the master and his followers is a delicate process. Having found our man (no woman can be involved with the tattooing process other than as a recipient) the photographic challenges were considerable. The samnaks are focused places where the masters work in an atmosphere of devotional clutter, dim lighting and milling crowds.  They are also very unpredictable as the spirits take control and, out of the blue, drama unfolds. I was faced with problems of both terrible lighting and unpredictable and occasionally dramatic events.

The shoots were conducted very much in a ‘fly on the wall’ style… No lights… No backgrounds… No off-camera contrivances of any kind that would get in the way, restrict my movement or distort proceedings.

I tended to work with a parallel system of camera bodies, one employing bounce flash where possible at lower ISOs employing pretty much the same methods as one would have done on transparency. I also used another body with a prime wide and a prime medium tele using the available light appalling as it usually was. As ever, hit and miss as that approach can be, there were sometimes satisfyingly interesting results. The frame shown here of a devotee wincing in agony as the needle goes through skin hitting bare bone, is a case in point.

As for the unpredictable events – when the spirits arrived and possessed a devotee, sending him flying across the room screaming like a deranged monkey on crystal meth, I learned to dive out of the way as fast as I could, more often than not going down in a clatter of Nikons, swearing, and panic.

Dan White has photographed for international NGOs and glossy magazines and newspapers including Maxim, Loaded, Marie Claire, The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian. The Sacred Tattoos of Thailand, his second book with writer Joe Cummings for Marshall Cavendish, was published in 2011. The first was Buddhist Temples of Thailand (2010). White lives and works in South East Asia.

Photographer since 1990. EPUK member since 2001.

See more work by Dan White

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