cambodia cultureCommentaryExpat LifehealthprovincesUncategorizedvillage life

Under the ink: Tola, The Village Tattooist

close up

Nowadays it seems as if every man, woman and his/her dog in the western world is ‘inked up’. The last couple of decades have seen an explosion of ‘body art’. Gone are the days when tattoo parlours were the domain of Maoris, pissed up sailors and those used to taking regular holidays in Her Majesty’s finest institutions. From sports stars to Hollywood A-Z listers and right down to sink hole estate trash, everyone has gone under the needle. For a Japanese sleeve, tribal tracings, tramp-stamp, ‘Waylon, Kelly and Jason 4eva’, ‘Chantelle RIP’ or, in the case of my mate Dave, a misspelled biblical quote, a unicorn on a rainbow and an unexplained representation of Peter Pan.

Tattoos hurt, quite a lot. And yes, unless you want to pay for even more painful (and painfully expensive) laser surgery, that seemed-a-good-idea-at-the-time lark is going to be etched upon your flesh forever, a fact middle-class mothers and the unscarred are always happy to point out.

As times change and fashions progress, needle enthusiasts are more likely to be mutilated by a well decorated hipster than an obese sweaty Hell’s Angel wannabe with facial hair and body odour almost as foul as his breath. Sterile is in, AIDS is so last century and vaccines for various blends of hepatitis can be bought for a few bob. With modern flesh defacing studios popping up across Cambodia, it has never been easier for a passing backpacker to spend a few hours and dollars inside and walk out with some indecipherable script, a lotus flower or some image of the Buddha. It’s edgy, in vogue and provides a more interesting holiday yarn than a wordpress blog or hundreds of arty shots of Koh Rong and brown market sellers on your fucking instagram account.

The reasons for getting tattoos are as personal and varied as the designs (mine was to look ‘hard’ as a scrawny teenager), but there will always be someone who carps on about either tradition/mysticism/the esoteric when explaining why they got ‘Born to travel’ translated into Pali and injected on to their foot. From the warrior clans of the South Pacific, to 17th century sailors getting a nailed up JC on their backs (supposedly to get more leniency from the disher-out-of at sea discipline with his cat o’ nine tails), to those ol’ enemies of Islam- Coptic Christians with their special cross tattooed under right arms.

Buddhist SE Asians love the ink and can probably claim the tradition from way back when the entire British Navy was nothing more than a few Pictish whale hunters in dugout canoes. Elderly Thai and Khmer men don’t seem to regret the facial, chest and back tats of their youth. There’s even some logic in it somewhere. ’This one protect me from bullet,” they proudly explain. “Now 73 years old and never shot!’.

As these old skool charms and spells have crept into the western psyche and art gets more extreme, westerners and devout natives are flocking to places such as Wat Bangphra temple to get tattooed by monks armed with sacred prayers and ink infused with snake venom known as Sak Yant. Conversely, as western culture permeates into Asia, thanks to global and social media, fashion trends from across the border in Thailand, and the return of Cambodian-Americans with ‘banger tats’ which may (or may not) have been drawn up in the penitentiary, Cambodian youth are now mixing styles when undertaking the self-declared right of passage.

Only for the boys, mind. Any Khmer girl with even the smallest of fairy tattoos might as well have ‘WHORE’ carved into her forehead with a bowie knife, with extra exclamation mark added if she’s a smoker. Just another example of how far women’s lib has to go in this country.

Should I decide to get any more additions to my lame skin art collection, I know just the guy to go to. He’s a bit rough, often drinks and smokes my stash and for better or worse, is one of the bloody in-laws.

Let me introduce you to Tola, an ex-teenage monk, part-time soldier and village tattoo artist extraordinaire. At 28 years old, he has never heard of Harley-Davidson, heavy metal, dubstep or a Prince Albert, but has been in the Indian ink game for the past decade.

black shirt

Tola began his career after he was shipped off to represent the family and don the orange robes at a distant pagoda. Already a gifted artist, he was trained to paint the garish murals which decorate the walls and ceilings within houses of Buddhism. Between all the chanting and painting, Tola found a new way to express his bent with a sharp bit of metal and a concoction of biro and fag ash, and, pretty soon his fellow group of religious devotees contained more ink than the Sunday Times Supplement.

The head monk began to notice that many of his novices and various underlings were getting as decorated as Colonel Ghadaffi on an 80’s May Day parade, and demanded to know the name of the perpetrator. The story goes that Tola got scared and spent a couple of days hiding in a fellow monk’s room, whilst the thom prahoc of the pagoda threatened a thrashing to anyone withholding the name of the perpetrator. Nobody ratted him out, either.

After learning his prayers and serving his time, Tola went on to join the RCAF’s tank division, which is an odd, if not uncommon career path for a former monk. Now armed with a 6 volt battery, a small motor and bits of a ballpoint pen held together with a rubber band, he plied his trade amongst his comrades in arms. It’s said that military life consists of 90% boredom and 10% terror, but my experience with the grunts of Cambodia indicate a life of 50% sleeping in a hammock, 45% drinking rice wine and gambling and the other 5% looking a little bit busy whenever the USMC, PLA or PVA are in town to hand out some new toys.

With his monkish credentials and aptitude with a homemade torture device, the military boys queued up to get covered in magic bullet repelling scrawlings, along with the more conventional young tough dude motifs of tigers and dragons. Once more, the irrefutable Khmer logic comes up: not one soldier with a bulletproof tattoo has yet to be felled by a firearm. Sadly they don’t work for road related injuries and cirrhosis of the liver.

Since passing out and getting a minor promotion, the army allows Tola what it seems most state institutions in Cambodia allow – a couple of days a month where he has to show his face and the rest given as free time to sit around on his lazy arse drinking nasty black liquor and the slightly more palatable fermented palm juice. Local hoodlums, when not busy drinking, smoking the crushed up red pills and fighting each other, pass by from time to time and pay a modest sum for an original Tola artwork.

There’s no such thing as a studio and a laissez-faire attitude towards hygiene standards. If it’s not raining, a couple of chairs and a foldable table in the garden suffice; if it’s wet then inside is a last resort. Village gangsters almost always live with their mums, who don’t mind that malarkey outside, but won’t really tolerate it under their roof.

Before ‘Outraged from Tonbridge Wells’ starts complaining (maybe the same ones who think I should fuck off back to my own country after I mentioned AEON mall was a bit shit), our artist in residence uses clean and sterile tattoo needles, which, along with enough Xanax and Valium to keep a Scottish junkie in sedated heaven, are available in all good pharmacies, even in the provinces.


The first client wants a cover up – an old fading lady with her boobs out never looked good on his biceps. He’s a young lad and visibly nervous, he and his mutilator share a few shots of black wine. Someone lifts a battery from a Suzuki and places it on the rust flaked table. There are no sticky transfers in this neck of the paddies, as the tattooist gets the gist of what his victim wants, a few strokes of a felt tip pen are all he needs to gauge scale and the whining drone of a 6 volt wasp starts up.

The needle strikes tanned flesh and the youth winces, an audience gathers, including a slightly drunk Barang and a four year old girl. The lad cannot lose face in front of us, let alone his watching crew. As the buzzing metal turns in intricate circles, the old design is lost under green spirals and the old naked lady slowly transforms into an Angkorian dancer. They pause now and again, to wipe away the blood, puff on a Fine cigarette and take another shot or two of booze. The chickens, ducks and dogs, oblivious to the show unfolding on their turf, continue to scratch at dust, quack a bit and scratch fleas.

The process takes time, and although impressive, there’s only so long the Barang’s interest can be sustained, and he and the kid wander off to leave (ta) them to it.

young guy arm

A week or so later the lanky boy who sells fried noodles on Highway 4 decided he wanted a Chinese style demon in a cloud on his upper arm. It was Pchum Benh day and he wanted something spooky. He’s obviously a loose family friend (he came to my wedding), so got to sit under the roof of the outhouse-cum-kitchen where Khmers like to spend a lot of the daytime. Tola even wore latex gloves this time. Line by line the piece came together, freehand, until after some hours, the last filling was finished and the new bit of body-art began to scab over.

I was so impressed by the jobs witnessed I had a rare bout of philanthropy and bought a proper tattoo gun, along with a shit-ton of in the pack needles from a Hungarian who, despite his title, is I doubt a real doctor. Hopefully business will improve and he can buy his own beer.

If any of you tattooheads are brave or foolhardy enough, come on out to the ranch and get a Cambodian original. As a distinguished guest, I’ll make sure you can have the work done inside, away from the poultry and mutts. Insisting on gloves would be a good plan, and hope the artist doesn’t drink all the ethanol. Maybe I’ll even get something new myself, something tasteful and personal. Now to just find something which speaks to me?

3 thoughts on “Under the ink: Tola, The Village Tattooist

  • Uncle Monty's Ghost

    According to one published account of the events of 1975 and thereafter, the Khmer Rouge assumed that anyone with tattoos was probably a former soldier and therefore an automatic candidate for liquidation.

  • I used to make one documentary related to Cambodian’perception on Women with tattoo as well.

  • Madre mía, what an ugly tattoo that top-less woman must have been.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *