Art, Lao Tradition, Thai Tradition

Is Tattoo Just A Body Art or A Cultural Sacred Design

I found an interesting story about Pee Bpop (ghost that has the tendency to take over a person’s body before eating it’s victim) and I’m hoping to translate it but I want to learn a bit more about the ghost. When I was little living in Laos, we were told to run for cover whenever Pee Bpop was closed by, but what I saw was either an old man or old lady passing by, I guess they were the Pee Bpop. I have a friend that I thought might know a thing or two about Pee Bpop, so I visited him over the weekend, just my luck that I went to the right person, not that he was a Pee Bpop or anything like that, if that was the case, it’d not have been safe for me to stay there at all since I’m still sick, Pee Bpop has the tendency to take over a sick (weak) person’s body. What was interesting was the story of how and why people became Pee Bpop back in Laos, and Issan region of Thailand. I’ve always wondered if Pee Bpop really exists or if it’s mostly a belief of Lao and Issan people, until this day I still don’t have an answer. I do find the story to be fascinating, so I’ll be translating a story of Pee Bpop of Savannakhet, Laos in the next couple of days, should be interesting.

My friend said that in Laos, those that became Pee Bpop were the one that studied Monh (black magic), many times, these Monh (magic) should be used to help people, and certainly not for greed; if misused or abused in any way, the black magic can backfire, and take control of their body and become Pee Bpop; Monh (black magic) is certainly not something that people should be messing around with.

What I’ve found fascinating is the temple tattoo because it’s not your ordinary tattoo; the design has a religious feel to it. I’ve noticed that many Lao and Thai men, especially the older men would have these tattoos on their body. He explained to me that these tattoos have Monh (magic) of prayers in the design, therefore there’re strict rules that must be followed or otherwise he said that the chance of becoming Pee Bpop or crazy is highly likely, very strange concept I thought to myself, I guess if voodoo exists, then this should also, I’d say, if you don’t believe, don’t mock.

My friend also has one on his back, which looks very much like a Thai Temple tattoo of Sak Yant, which are geometrically designs that deemed to possess magic powers of protection, which was given by a monk or Arjarn (holy man) and would put Monh (magic) of prayers inside the design, which was written in Pali Sanskrit. He said that when he had his done, the pain was excruciating, it started by the holy man chanting in ancient Sanskrit while sticking him with the sharp needles, and then with the final blow of breath on his back then it was done, and I guess the blow sealed the magic. He was a former soldier in Laos, therefore needed the tattoo for protection, and said that most of his fellow soldiers also had theirs’, some on their backs and others on their arms or legs. When he came to the US, he had Arjarn (holy man) to undo the Monh (magic), so his tattoo currently has no magical power.

(Above photo: A young monk has a tattoo of prayers added to his back at Wat Bang Phra, Thailand; photo by Stephen Shaver)

There are other designs such as the lion (Singhto), which is a symbol of bravery and cunning. Thai men would choose a tiger design, not just a picture of a tiger but tattoo their body to look like tiger, many have had designs that covered every square inches of their body. The reason for the tiger design is that Thai people, especially the Lanna, believed that their ancestors were once tiger, therefore to show respect and in remembrance of their ancestors, they’d choose the tiger design. Another popular one is the hanuman, which is the Hindu monkey god, which is to protect against illness, against being shot, against being cut, and to give courage. These tattoos are not like the modern tattoos that are merely a fashion statement, but more of a cultural belief and most, if not all have Monh (magic) of prayers in the design, of course, along with the tattoo came few rules that one has to follow to keep the magic strong, such as women are not to touch your head or rub your hair, you couldn’t walk under a clothesline, couldn’t eat certain foods, couldn’t eat at a funeral home (a wake), and the list goes on.

Back in the olden day, if you were a young man and had no tattoo on your body, forget about finding a girl friend or a wife because most girls would not give you their time of the day, they would only choose the one with tattoo; they believed that if you couldn’t stand the pain, how could you protect them. Such a relief for the modern Lao and Thai men; aren’t some of you single guys out there glad that you don’t have to go out and get tattoos.

Related post: Tattoo Is a Cultural Sacred Design

12 thoughts on “Is Tattoo Just A Body Art or A Cultural Sacred Design”

  1. I believe it’s both. It reflects your own artistry as well as your culture or your beliefs as a person. The same goes with lip ring jewelry.

  2. Thanks Shawn, I feel the same way, I thought about writing it from another angle, but thought it’s more interesting from a cultural perspective, since it’s something that I grew up believing in.

  3. Nye,

    As you probably notice… I’m bored and going through some of your old blogs. LOL

    My dad had similar or some of those tattoo shown on above pictures. He have this one big “Hanumarn” covering most of his chest down to mid belly and “yant” all around it. All over his back are different types of “yant” The tattoo took about a month to complete and it was done by a well known tattoo artist monk. Dad is big guy compare to majority of laotian men and I used to admirer his body. His “Hanumarn” used to look mean and tough… Now, dad is alot older… the Hanumarn is all saggy looking.. hahaha

    I’ve always want a tattoo… but not sure what to get.. now,
    the chance I’ll get one is probably slim.

    1. Hi Seeharhed, sorry no new post yet, I’ve been busy. Tattoo is interesting, but when young Asians have it then it’s most likely associated with gangs, not a very good image to have, but to some this might be very cool. Also, it’s so true that its prettiest when you’re young and fit, but once you gain weight or get old, it’s just not too appearing anymore, makes you think twice.

      1. Nye, that’s okay. You have plenty of your old blogs that I can read. I totally understand that blogging is not your full time job:). But, I truly enjoy reading your blogs.

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