Forever-etched experience

When I cast my mind back to growing up in Forest Gate, East London, I can clearly picture the journey from my mother’s house to Romford road. Straight out of the gate and turn right, past my wonderful neighbour’s (the Craddocks) house, and to the end of Tylney road, walking under the railway bridge and over the small hill, onto Balmoral road. When you’re a child, the walk to Romford road feels like urban hike decorated with aged houses and serious looking trees looming over the street. Arriving at the main (Romford) road is marked by three observations – the sudden increase in traffic that accompanies any high street, the surge in ocular stimulation as the trees cease to shield you from the sun’s rays, and a tattoo shop situated on your left, at the corner of the junction.

The sign forbidding entry to under-18s kept my curious eyes from ever attempting anything more than a cursory glance at the establishment and since I didn’t even dare to look through the window, my fervent imagination had fill in the blanks for an appraisal of the interior. I dreamed up a small, smoky den with a bearded colossus, adorned in Hells Angel paraphernalia, administering pain with a ‘needle machine’ that permanently imprinted ink into your skin. You see I didn’t know much about tattoos apart from:

  • They were painful (they involved needles so this seemed obvious without anyone telling me)
  • They couldn’t be removed
  • They were somewhat gruesome/scary in appearance

I’m not sure how that last opinion was formed. Maybe it was the tattoos I saw as a child (remember this is East London) or part of the stricter social conditioning around behaviour and appearance you receive when you have African parents, but for a long time the perception was that tattoos were not pleasant to look at nor socially acceptable.

That was over 20 years ago and whilst I still visit the Craddock’s when I am in the UK, with my peregrination occasionally taking me along Balmoral road, a lot has changed. I don’t have any tattoos of my own but can definitely appreciate the aesthetic merits of well-crafted designs by the artists, as well as the motivations and meanings that inspire each creation. A significant number of the foreign fighters at the camp have body art and adding to the their collages with traditional Thai tattoos almost seems part of the Muay Thai camp experience. When I receive an offer from a fellow student, E, to tag along (euphemism for ‘I don’t want to go alone’) and finally see the interior of a tattoo shop with a spiritual element, I feel it serves as an acceptable excuse to miss a morning of training.

 Exterior alt

From Sitsongpeenong, the journey to Wat Mae Takhrai takes around 90 minutes as we navigate the highways and smaller roads to the Mae On district which, like most places we need to get to, appears to be on the other side of the city. E has been here before and assures me that the head of the temple, mystic monk Ajarn Noo, has both unexplainable abilities and supreme skill with the tattooist’s needle. Arriving at the temple building I must admit I feel somewhat underwhelmed. There are statues and decorations that suggest some sort of religious/spiritual centre but I find the reality not matching my preconceived ideas. There are several statues at the front of the structure and a larger golden icon (flanked by two smaller copies) facing the car park. Gazing upward you can see what I would describe as multi-coloured string flags criss-crossing the ceiling and linking into the statues. E tells me they have holy significance, which would entirely make sense, but I can’t shake this “it’s not what I expected” feeling. I’m unable to decide whether to blame the Internet, television/movies, or my own prejudices, for this process of thought but in retrospect this isn’t about the appearance of a building and my limited knowledge of the subject at hand is not suitable base for passing judgement. We’re directed to a room upstairs, which can only be described as a cross between a tattoo artist’s place of work and religious shrine.

3 Statues

Entering, we greet our hosts with the traditional Thai ‘wai’ and E proceeds to explain the tattoo he wishes to receive. Communicating without a common language is a skill that many travellers will attest to developing and it’s use is also viable in this setting. Ajarn Noo is not present but there are two men who seem to carry some of his facial characteristics, as well as the traditional tattoos that the temple is known for, E confirms they are relatives. Scanning the room, I note many Buddhist statues that are only equalled in number by photos of Thai celebrities, politicians, royal family and military figures, all with Ajarn Noo. In one corner, beneath the wall-mounted television, I see several pictures of a familiar face receiving a tattoo on her shoulder blade, in one photo, and her back in another. Angelina Jolie, another face on the wall and most likely a great exercise in international marketing for the temple. The marriage of the Tomb Raider star’s skin and Ajarn Noo’s needle was clearly a win-win for both parties.

Four girls alt

We’ve arrived early and E is the first to receive his tattoo on his right shoulder blade – five lines of Khmer script that bestow protection upon the recipient, fitting given he plans to have his first Muay Thai fight the following day. As E receives his tattoo, created using only a piece of bamboo with a needle tip dipped in ink, more people begin to arrive. A large man enters, dressed all in white and it’s clear everyone is showing deference to him. I recognise his face as it is in almost every picture adorning the walls – Ajarn Noo, and I start to appreciate the reverence he commands. Each new customer that enters now makes sure to bow and greet the monk as he alternates between sitting in front of the main section of statues as he gives tattoos, inspecting the work of others and giving blessings. E is finished within 25 minutes and there are several people now in the room waiting and receiving ink. His appetite has been whet and despite the ambitious nature of the image, he decides he wants to receive another design featuring two tigers facing each other with inscriptions meaning good luck and wealth.

Mid tattoo

Not having a tattoo, I’m unfamiliar with the sensation that accompanies each jab of the needle but from judging the look on E’s face during the second inscribing (he starts off looking uncomfortable, then evolves into a sort of grimacing prayer position), he is truly living the phrase ‘suffering for one’s art’. He admits the first tattoo was somewhat painful but I suspect the short duration and location mitigated some of the discomfort. This second marking will be on his lower back and decorate part of his spine, a different level of pain altogether and taking almost 2 hours, an exercise in endurance not too distant from our training sessions. The atmosphere is respectful but relaxed. This is not a monastery where speech is muttered in hushed tones, a television is on and possibly serves as background noise distraction from those going under the needle. Ajarn Noo makes jokes, including one about giving me a tattoo on the ample canvas of my forehead, and I laugh it off – I don’t think the Mike Tyson look will suit. Post-tattoo sees E kneeling before Ajarn Noo, whilst he speaks Thai words and sprinkles holy water over him. I’ve seen this several times with other patrons, whilst E has been receiving this tattoo. For me this is reminiscent of receiving a blessing from a priest in church although it is difficult to fully appreciate the moment through a language barrier and having not received a tattoo myself.

End result alt

E feels physically drained but spiritually fulfilled. He describes the tattoo experience as a “hard pinching-sensation, particularly painful on the spine”. I’m told this is markedly different from a western tattoo where the needle gun drags along skin as it quickly punches in the ink – this is the less agonising option.  In my opinion the end result is seriously impressive (judge for yourself below) but I’ll be remaining on the side-lines, as admiring spectator, rather than an active participant, in the tattoo game.

2 thoughts on “Forever-etched experience

  1. you are an amazing writer…… wish all the best, my dear friend!!!!!!!! you will succeed in you’re quest 30. juni 2015 kl. 11:43 skrev Stork Body Movement :

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    Liked by 1 person

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