Des Moines, Iowa-based photojournalist and travel photographer Jack Kurtz has been traveling to Wat Bang Phra, Thailand for several years. He has also been photographing in tattoo parlors and at tattoo shows in the US for several years. But when he recently traveled to the Wat Bang Phra Tattoo Festival, he was met with an event that’s unlike anything he has experienced before.
At this festival, all of the tattoos are done by hand with long stainless steel needles. No guns are involved, and the only sanitation procedure is a wipe down with rubbing alcohol between customers. These long, hollow needles are thought to possess magical powers of protection and are given by Buddhists to many soldiers, policemen, gangsters, and people who live in harm’s way. The Wat Bang Phra temple draws thousands of flocking devotees who wish to activate or renew the tattoos. People go into trance-like states and then assume the personality of their tattoo. So, people with tiger tattoos assume the personality of a tiger, people with monkey tattoos take on the personality of a monkey, and so on. As Jack says, “In the west, tattoos are mostly decorative. These tattoos form an important part of the person’s spiritual identity.”
The ceremony lasts just a few hours on a Saturday morning, but Jack goes out to the temple Friday afternoon and spends the night, saying he likes to record the event in its entirety. Because there are no hotels or guest houses nearby, he lays down on the floor of the temple to catch a few minutes of sleep when he can. Because power sources are limited, Jack packs lots of batteries for his Micro 4:3 camera and iPhone. He uses his iPhone constantly for Instagram updates, going through three full iPhone batteries.
There are nearly 100 photographers at the event, all of which need to remain aware of the small space and unpredictable personalities of the participants when entered into the “trance state,” assuming the persona of their tattoo:
Volunteer medics try to keep the area clear and warn people of impending charges but inevitably a photographer who hasn’t been there before stops to look at the back of the camera to see if they got a picture. They usually stop to admire their work right before the charging monkey or tiger decks them. Covering the tattoo festival requires excellent situational awareness. It’s hot, crowded, noisy and very easy to get hurt if you’re not careful. I’ve seen photographers leave the ceremony with broken bones or carried away by medics. It’s also very hard to keep other photographers out of your photos.
Jack came away with a full series and eyes opened to new customs and beliefs:
One of the things I’m nervous about when I photograph an event like this is that people will look at the images and make judgements about the people in the photos. They will dismiss it as some sort of “native superstition” or worse. I want people to understand that just because they don’t understand the power of the tattoos doesn’t mean it’s not real. We all have our own religious and spiritual beliefs, people getting tattoos at Wat Bang Phra might think that some of the tenets of Christianity are crazy superstitions. The power of the tattoos is real to the people who believe in them. So far, people have been respectful of that.