In a haze of incense, clients approach Kol Sambo and humbly request his help, sometimes seeking rush jobs for an imminent crisis. He listens and asks why they require added force. If he thinks they’ll abuse the power, he turns them down “in a nice way.”
Kol is a practitioner of magic tattoos, a 2,000-year-old tradition some call the “soul of the nation.” They can make you invisible, divert bullets and boost your net worth, he says, but only if you believe.
The 50-year-old has traveled the Cambodian countryside for the better part of two decades decorating people’s bodies with gods, geometric patterns, supernatural creatures and characters in Sanskrit and Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism.
Some images appear to move as the wearer’s muscles ripple; on others, rounded Khmer script, softened by age, appears to melt as the lines grow fuzzier.
Kol says most clients prefer the more efficient made-in-China tattoo machine he bought a few years back, but, if asked, he still will use the traditional method to ink the skin: two or three sewing needles tied together.
Once applied, by whatever method, a tattoo must be blessed to activate its supernatural powers.
There are “fake” magic tattooists out there, Kol says disdainfully. He was born with the talent, he says, and honed it after becoming a monk and retreating into the mountains to meditate, ponder visions and study ancient texts under a spiritual master.
Grateful clients will periodically return, having survived a war or two, and offer thanks.
Chan Ngeuy, 60, a rail worker who was a soldier during the 1970s, took off his shirt to reveal a line of lacy symbols running the width of his chest, down the outside of his arms and the length of his back bracketing his spinal cord.
“I was shot at, but the bullet missed,” he says. “My tattoo made all the difference.”
Peace, however, as welcome as it may be to Cambodians after decades of bloodshed, is not a friend of the magic tattoo business.
“During wartime, everyone wants one,” says Kong Taing Im, 38, a store owner visiting Kol hoping to safeguard her grandchildren’s future. “Without war, mostly gangsters want them.”
Nowadays, a tradition that migrated from India centuries ago and endured through numerous Cambodian wars and rulers is being chipped away by technology and an education system that encourages people to be literal-minded, says Miech Ponn, advisor on mores and customs at Phnom Penh’s Buddhist Institute.
“Traditional tattoo artists are very few these days,” the scholar says. “It’s like a living museum.”
This spread of modern skepticism is rather shortsighted, argues Cambodian heavyweight kickboxing champion Eh Phuthong, a national hero who credits the supernatural imagery spreading over his muscular body and onto his right fist for his winning record.
“Magic tattoos make me feel more confident, focused, allow me to punch harder and avoid my opponent’s blows,” Eh says, sporting a phoenix, a symbol of rebirth; the Hanuman monkey king, a force of life, agility and learning; and Vishnu god imagery, meant to provide strength. “They really work.”
But even Eh says he’s getting more snickers lately from young boxers who shun a practice once considered de rigueur for up-and-coming fighters.
Cambodia’s few remaining magic tattoo artists these days tend to work in rural areas, where superstition is enduring, education less common and medical care limited.
Believers say the indelible marks, favored by soldiers, boxers and businessmen, ward off evil. They’ve also been something of a dead giveaway. During the mid-1970s Khmer Rouge reign of terror, when 2 million people died, the brutal regime targeted anyone who had been associated with the ousted government, many of whom were posing as farmers.
“Not many men with magic tattoos survived,” Miech says. “If you had one, you were probably a soldier from the old regime and promptly executed.”
It’s not enough to simply get a magic tattoo. You must also tend its power. “It’s like a mobile phone,” says Chan Trea, 46, one of the few magic tattooists still operating in bustling Phnom Penh. “Without maintenance, it won’t work.”
To keep a tattoo’s power, one should shun adultery, alcohol, insulting opponents while fighting them or eating star fruit.
“Since ancient days, it’s well known that people with tattoos or talismans should not consume this fruit,” he says. “If it wasn’t true, the warning wouldn’t last so long.”
These days, Chan Trea supplements his income with fashion tattoos.
“If I was only doing magic tattoos, I’d go broke,” he says, leaning on the battered dentist chair his customers settle into for their needling sessions.
Magic tattoos are traditionally applied to the part of the body in need of protection, with anti-landmine tattoos placed on the legs, anti-fever tattoos near the heart.
Sometimes, however, even the tattooist doesn’t understand what he’s applying.
Chan Trea says that a few weeks ago a monk asked him to tattoo a particular pattern but refused to say what it meant.
“In Cambodia, there are lots of secrets. People guard things jealously,” he says, unfurling a copy of the mystery pattern he furtively kept.
Tattoo artists say women rarely indulge, partly for aesthetic reasons and because they fear they may be mistaken for prostitutes, but Kol sometimes blesses women’s perfume bottles, protecting their aura that way.
“These foreign women wearing big tattoos, that looks rather strange to us,” said Kong, the grandmother.
(Actress Angelina Jolie recently had a magic tattoo done on her left shoulder blade meant to protect her and her Cambodian son, Maddox, from bad luck and accidents. The translated Pali incantation reportedly reads in part: “May your enemies run far away from you; if you acquire riches, may they remain yours always.”)
Cambodia’s few remaining magic tattoo artists recognize that they’re fighting an uphill battle but say they haven’t lost hope.
“Granted, more and more people believe in rationality, technology and the Internet,” Kol said. “But, you watch. As soon as the next war or crisis hits and they need us, they’ll come running back.”