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With art as their armor

Cambodian soldiers believe certain tattoos can protect them from bullets and landmines, and even make them invisible.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Magic tattoos begin with a magic man. Typically a Buddhist monk or adjar (essentially a deacon) and known for great piety, this Khmer magic man can draw scripts and images into another’s skin, granting with them supernatural armor against all kinds of harm. Understandably, such body art became popular with soldiers.

Reut Hath is one such magic man. He first learned the art of inking magic from his father, a farmer and martial arts trainer in northwestern Cambodia who was himself a "powerful magic man," according to the 52-year-old former soldier.

"Many people came to [my father], so he gave some of the work to me," Reut Hath said. "So, I had to learn magic."

Wherever Cambodian soldiers cluster, charms and amulets abound, from cloths scrawled with protection spells to bags of Buddha figurines to boar tusks — anything to gain a magically endowed edge over the enemy. And there is perhaps no more explicit display of belief in mystical powers than magic tattoos, geometric patterns of written spells and images that crisscross the bodies of many older soldiers.

The list of powers that supposedly come with the tattoos is long and includes: imperviousness to bullets, anti-landmine protection, invisibility, an amplified voice to address troops and “great gravity” magic to make one’s fists into heavier, deadlier weapons. The intricate arrangements of some tattoos and the folk-like quality of others are often beautiful artworks in their own right. However, it’s also a fading art, a system of belief that is disappearing from a military looking to recruit younger soldiers in place of aging veterans of the country’s recent decades of civil war.

Reut Hath started tattooing soldiers in 1977 after himself fleeing executioners from the murderous Khmer Rouge to join the resistance against the Pol Pot regime. (In its effort to create a Maoist agrarian utopia, that regime was ultimately responsible for the deaths of more than 1.7 million people. In early 1979, the Vietnamese military toppled the Khmer Rouge government, sparking a 20-year civil war in Cambodia.)

Reut Hath joined the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front (KPNLF), one of the main resistance groups that battled it out with the Vietnamese-backed Phnom Penh government throughout the 1980s. It is mostly former fighters from resistance groups like the KPNLF that have the magic tattoos.

The method

Magic men punch tattoos into the skin by hand, using a thin handle about 30 centimeters long with two syringe needles at one end. According to Reut Hath, any old ink will suffice, but during the civil war, when ink was often in short supply, he would create his own by mixing the material inside alkaline batteries with rice wine.

It only takes a few seconds to punch a single letter into the skin, though some soldiers have veritable essays written on their bodies, which require days of painful prodding.