Deeper Than Skin

Monks and gangsters come together to receive the blessings of a spiritual prophylaxis: Buddhist tattoos.

Terisa Green

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At the Theravada temple of Wat Bang Phra, about thirty miles west of Bangkok, saffron robes, glittering statues, embroidered umbrellas, and paper lanterns are all expected sights on the day of a festival. On this day, however, the throng in the square is not composed solely of the devout. Although the majority of the participants are Thai monks and laymen, mixed in with the crowd is an ever-increasing number of foreign roughnecks—laborers, drivers, gang members, even mobsters. All have come to seek the blessings of the monks, but in one particularly symbolic and permanent form: tattoos.

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