More than Skin Deep

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Tattoo artist Ros Si Den (left) with his twin brother.KT Photo: Anya Minko

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – A few years back, looking for a legit tattoo parlor in Phnom Penh was quite a mission. Now, they are cropping up everywhere – and some are gaining a reputation for their uniquely Khmer artistry. 

Among them is RSD Tattoo Shop. From its unlikely roots as a sticker stencil-making shop, it now has three trail-blazing shops: two in the capital and one in Siem Reap. All of its tattooists are locals. Why? Because they are the best, according to online reviews.

Ros Si Den, 26, has the most devoted clientele. He believes practice makes perfect and that his art has no limits. He started out by imitating tattoo experts from Singapore, and then he began practicing on pig skin. 

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Still, he was not satisfied with his work, so he went to Vietnam and Thailand to learn more. After that he decided he was finally ready to ink human skin, but for the first year he focused on friends. 

Family Secrets

After a few years of practice, Mr. Si Den decided he was ready to become a professional tattoo artist. The problem was, however, that he was still in school and his parents had no idea what he was up to. 

He never mentioned his work as a tattooist until he could prove he was successful – by showing his family the cash he was making and sharing it with them.
 
Still, his parents were not entirely impressed. Tattoos – especially those that appear ornamental –  have negative connotations for some older Cambodians. 

It took a while for Mr. Si Den’s parents to accept that their son spent his days injecting indelible images on other people’s skin. 

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It also helped that he was able to support his family. They began to see his work as a kind of art, and that his tattoos were uniquely Khmer.

Inky Attractions

Tattoos are becoming more popular amongst young Cambodians. When RSD switched from stickers to tattoos a decade ago, 90 percent of its customers were foreigners. 

Now, 50  percent are Cambodian. Foreigners prefer larger tattoos, Cambodians are more understated, tattooists there say. 

Mr. Si Den says his clients have many reasons for getting tattoos, includig fading stigma and regional trends. (See box above.) 

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Still Frowning

Elderly Cambodians still see tattoos as something to frown at, and a sign of disobedience. If a boy has one he is considered a gang member or a criminal. A girl with a tattoo is considered a “slut.” 

Tattoos, however, have a long history in the Kingdom, though this is usually linked to religion or military service – and always restricted to men. 

“Tattoos are okay if it’s a Khmer tattoo and only on a man, but any other picture is unacceptable. If a lady is tattooed, she is a whore, or has taken drugs, this is not the Khmer way,” said Rasy Chun, 49.  

For younger Cambodians, however, a tattoo is all about getting skin deep.
 

Khmer body art by Ros Si Den. Photo: Ros Si Den
 

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