Tattoos are all the rage these days. Anyone with an inch of skin to spare seems inclined to decorate their epidermis with some sort of tattoo “art.” But getting tattoos is obviously not a new phenomenon and here in Thailand there is style of tattoos called sak yant that has a particularly interesting history. Bangkok-based writer Tom Vater has authored many guidebooks over the past two decades, as well as writing his own travel book and a novel, but after taking an interest in the role that sak yant tattoos play in Thai society he decided to write a book about that too. This month sees the publication of Sacred Skin, the fascinating book about sak yant tattoos that he collaborated on with photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat. If guidebook writing and tattoo research were not enough activities to keep him busy, Tom is also involved with concert promotion, playing in a Bangkok-based rock band, and planning more book projects. In between his travels and literary pursuits, Tom answered a few of my questions.
What inspired the idea for the Sacred Skin book?
I covered the Wai Khru Day (Respect the Teacher Day) at Wat Bang Phra, Thailand’s best known Buddhist temple where Sak Yant (Sacred Tattoos) are applied by resident monks, for Fortean Times (UK) in 2003, and have been fascinated by the tradition ever since. Working with my wife, Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat, who has had a life-long connection with Sak Yant, gave me access to this fascinating aspect of Thai culture.
When doing research on these tattoos, what was the most surprising — or fascinating — thing that you discovered?
It took me quite some time to get my head around Thai culture, but I feel that Sak Yant lies right at the heart of what makes the kingdom tick. I guess about 10 percent of Thais may have Sak Yant. The wearers often come from the lower end of the social scale and educated Thais are generally pretty ignorant about what it means to wear a Sak Yant. They think that most wearers are criminals and gangsters. That is partly true, but far from the whole story. In fact, Sak Yant wearers generally have a close relationship with their tattoo masters, and, if the tattoos are to retain their alleged magic powers, a righteous way of life is an absolute necessity. I like this contradiction. You can’t be a bad guy if you believe in the power of sacred tattoos, yet the Thai media and public perception, the official way of thinking here, makes the wearers out to be bad guys. And some of them are. It says so much about Thailand. As does the recent ministerial announcement that tattoo parlors must stop putting religious imagery on foreigners’ skins.
You travel a lot, particularly around Asia. Have you seen any similar “tattoo traditions” in other countries?
Similar traditions exist in Cambodia, Laos and Burma, and more recently, Sak Yant has also caught on in Singapore.
Most of your travelling involves research for guide books. But where do you go when you just want to enjoy yourself?
I go to India. I try to spend a couple of months there every year. I also travel a fair bit in the Middle East, I have recently been to Egypt and Morocco. And I visit London, the south of France, and southern Germany every year to see family and friends.
With the advent of e-books, and that fact that many travelers now get info online, what do you think is going to happen to the guidebook industry?
There are far too many titles on the market that all offer the same thing. It is frightening how often I bump into other guidebook writers when I am on the road. Nowadays, most guidebook companies try to be too all-encompassing. I understand why, their sales are plummeting, but I think it is the wrong course to take. Lonely Planet are the worst of the lot, their jargon is simply awful, the information they provide is worse than boring and has nothing to do with the spirit of travel and exploration and everything with making a buck and trying to please everyone. There are some smaller companies like Bradt or Trailblazer in the UK or Reise Know How in Germany that offer different, more daring products. Of course the books follow the travelers, not the other way round, so part of the problem is that most travelers are boring, lazy and too security-conscious, so they all end up in the same well-trodden pancake trenches. Travel in the 21st century has just become another way of consuming stuff. Going to Ko Phangan for the Full Moon to chill out, man, or to Manali for the summer to get stoned is not so much different from going to Soi Cowboy and scoring a prostitute. It’s all about instant gratification and exploitation of cheap local product. People think that every experience can be bought and hence it will be bought. It’s the globalized world we live in.
You are based here in Bangkok. What first brought you to Thailand, and what made you decide to stay here?
I first came here because I was involved in the production of several documentary films in India and Cambodia a decade ago. I had just spent two years in India, wanted to continue working in the region as a writer and could not stomach moving to Cambodia. Also, I met Thai photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat on an assignment for Rough Guides in Southern Thailand in 1999, and we have been married for the past eight years, so that was a huge deciding factor. I really like Bangkok and it is a great base from where to cover the region.
Besides your guide book writing, you have written other books. Do you have any other projects, fiction or non-fiction, planned in the near future?
I am currently working on a book project on Cambodia with American photographer Kraig Lieb, which will be published in 2012. I am also just restarting my film-writing career with several documentary projects for European television and am developing a couple of illustrated book projects with Aroon Thaewchatturat. Last but not least, I have just completed a second novel – a crime story set in Cambodia, and I am looking for a publisher.
You are also a musician and concert promoter. Tell us something about your current projects.
I moonlight as the guitar player of Pussy & The Learjets (www.thelearjets.com), a Bangkok based Rock’n’Roll band. We play 1960s influenced garage punk – think The Sonics, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators and The Stooges, and are fronted by the incredible Om Chantakahn, a recent Thammasat graduate. We are signed to an independent label in Hong Kong (Metal Postcard), with a first vinyl single out in July. The band has played lots of packed-out shows in Bangkok and has just returned from a first tour of China. Best of all, we have been able to attract some great artists, from locals and foreign residents to equally creative visitors – film makers, photographers, producers, studio technicians and owners, musicians, venue owners, designers and cartoonists – to contribute to the look and sound of the band! That’s been an incredible experience.
Speaking of music, who are some of your favorite singers or bands, either past or present?
Captain Beefheart, The Sonics, The Cramps, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, Charles Mingus, The Stones between 68 and 72, The MC5, The Stooges, The Dirtbombs, Roky Erickson, CAN.
Best concert you ever saw?
Elvin Jones, Art Farmer and other Jazz greats in the 1970s, Metallica in 1984, Tom Waits on the Raindogs tour ca. 1986, Johnny Cash promoting his first Rick Rubin produced album, Keith Richards at the Marquee in 1992, the Cramps and the Ramones more times than I can remember, guitarist Marc Ribot doing the soundtrack to some Soviet silent Sci-Fi movie as a multi-instrumentalist, the Pixies and the Velvet Underground in Glastonbury, Nirvana’s first Reading appearance, Jerry Lee Lewis on Ko Samui, Eugene Chadbourne, Jimmy Carl Black, the list is endless. Best all out Rock’n’Roll assault I ever saw was The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, around the release of Orange. An absolute epiphany! Changed my life.
If you had the chance, which recording artist would you like to bring to Bangkok for a show?
I don’t think that any of the artists I like would get a decent audience in Thailand. Thais generally like their music comfortable, not confrontational. Jon Spencer in front of the Paragon? I can’t see it working.
You are also a big crime fiction fan. Who are some of your favorite writers?
The greats of Noir: Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford. Also Mark Behm’s The Eye of the Beholder is one of my favorite crime novels.
What is it about Bangkok that inspires so many writers of crime fiction?
Bangkok should be a great city to set crime novels in, it is as dark and twisted as any major metropolis, but the literary crime output is of poor quality. I am still waiting for a good novel, crime or otherwise, on my city. People don’t come here to write about the darkness, they come to roll around in it. Some of the Bangkok crime writers are very prolific, but they are simply awful. That said, I like John Burdett’s Bangkok 8.