In a dark room surrounded by statues of the Buddha, 54-year-old tattoo master Chan Tra practices his craft on a customer at his shop, Khmer Empire Tattoo, in Phnom Penh.
Using a sharpened metal stake and ink, Tra, with painstaking detail and precision, punctures the skin of his customer’s neck with the stake dipped in ink to form one of the ancient Sak Yantra designs, a traditional form of tattoo art believed to imbue the wearer with good luck and protection.
“During ancient times, Cambodians believed receiving Sak Yantra tattoos was a spiritual practice to protect their bodies from enemies and clearing away obstacles, bringing power to one’s life and body,” he said.
Tra said he was born into a sacred Sak Yantra family, but struggled to learn the form from his family or other tattoo masters, as the art was wiped out during the Khmer Rouge period.
Many believe the sacred tattoos protect them in battles or keep evil spirits away.
After originally being a normal tattoo artist, he travelled Cambodia learning the art from Buddhist monks.
Now, after 10 years of practice, the majority of Tra’s customers are foreigners, wanting to imprint themselves with some of the magic that flows through his ink.
“These magical tattoos is more popular and most of the customers are foreigners and they came to my shop to make Yants for them,” he said.