Among tattooists in Cambodia, Chan Tra, 46, is the only tattoo artist to retain the ability to ink a wide range of subjects in different styles. His modern counterparts are limited in their repertoire in comparison. His subjects include the human form, birds and abstract patterns.
Chan Tra is now an expert in drawing Ankor Wat on the skin of foreign clients, thus turning them into walking, talking promotional materials for Cambodia’s tourist sector.
Chan Tra was born in 1963 in Sihanouk province and has two sons and one daughter. He is an orphaned and a Survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime. He lost his entire family during the years of terror between 1975 and 1979.
“I have loved drawing and painting ever since I was a child and practised my art every day before the arrival of the Pol Pot regime. Consequently, I like the art of tattooing and it makes a solid source of income to keep my wife and kids happy,” he told The Southeast Asia Weekly during a personal interview on June 30.
Chan Tra said that when he was a child, he always went to play by the riverside in Sihanouk province and it was there that he found the inspiration to draw pictures with his friends, just for the sheer pleasure of the activity.
Chan Tra continued to say that his drawings included pictures of boats, ships and mountains amongst other subjects and it was in these years that he set the foundations of his future career.
“From the age of ten, I began to paint pictures of boats beached on the sands in Sihanouk province. I enjoyed those innocent pleasures so much and each time I consider another customer’s skin, I am immediately in touch with that little boy once again,” he said.
Chan Tra pointed out that he was also inspired by artists who painted Buddhist scenes, following his move to Phnom Penh in 1981. Unable to attend formal training at art school, his furtive peeps at these artists at work outside the Royal University of Fine Arts, constituted his only training.
He said that when he returned home, he practiced by himself every night to hone his skills and increase his range. He added that when he was confident in the solidity of his art, he invested in a shop and tattooing needles and opened his first shop in 1997.
“I did have a bit of training from another tattoo artist, but I had developed this ability some years earlier as a seventeen-year-old. I am pleased to say that no subject is beyond my scope and I can make a tattoo to just about any specification the customer demands,” he said. “I am now happy because my dream has become true and I can also make money out of it. I will continue to expand my subjects in order to attract even more customers,” he said.
Chan Tra emphasized that he could tattoo all kinds of pictures including magical symbols, Khmer temples, the human form, and all kinds of birds and animals in the world and beyond it.
He went on to say that on an average week, he has around ten customers. He added that most of them are youngsters, hiring him to tattoo pictures of birds, tigers or dragons on their hands or torsos.
Concerning price, he said that depends on the colours used and the size of the pictures. He said that Cambodian patrons can expect to pay between US$ 10 up to US$ 100 per picture. For international patrons, the price goes up to around $200. He estimated he had worked on the skins of around 4000 people, domestic and international, since 1997. He added that foreign clients tended to come from the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France, Philippines, Israel, and Singapore. They mostly requested pictures of Angkor Wat Temples or traditional Khmer designs.
Duong Sopheak, 23, a student at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, said that he has a picture of dragon on his back, produced by Chan Tra in 2008. Sopheak said he was very pleased with the finished result.
“I decided to have a dragon tattoo on my back because I think that it will make me more handsome and powerful. I will always go to Chan Tra because he has decades of tattooing experience and it shows in the outstanding quality of his art,” he told The Southeast Asia Weekly on July 1.
Collin Glass, 34, a British tourist, was interviewed whilst getting a tattoo of a Bayon Temple Statue as well as a Yin Yang symbol. Glass said he believed in the power of protection conferred to him by the tattoos and he was very impressed with the quality of the art and the value for money.