David and I are big tattoo fans, and we each have quite a few that adorn our bods. Mine are all related to travel and experiences I’ve had in different places around the world, and after spending a week in Cambodia, I knew I wanted a piece of local ink to express my feelings about the complex nation.
As it turns out, David was on board, too, and we set off developing our different designs. As or more important as the design, however, was finding the right artist to do the work. We have an artist we use here in Seattle, and we wanted to find the right artist in Cambodia, with whom we could develop a similar, easy-going rapport.
It was also important for us to find a local Cambodian artist. While tattooing has roots among many different indigenous cultures around the world, modern tattoo technology is primarily Western. That said, as we wanted to encapsulate our feelings about Cambodia in our Cambodian ink, it was essential for us to find a Khmer artist.
That artist turned out to be Neng Synat and his shop, the Neng Synat Tattoo Machine. We arrived in Siem Reap with only a pin on a map leading us to his shop, and he welcomed us in at nearly ten at night to discuss what we wanted. We chatted briefly, found some benchmark images on the web, and decided on a time to come back two days later, with only one brief interruption by an inebriated backpacker who wanted something (not sure what) somewhere (not sure where). A normal occurrence in a Siem Reap tattoo shop after dark, we were assured. The consummate family man, our Neng had the next day off to celebrate his adorable daughter’s second birthday, and told us to return the day after that.
What was most interesting about Neng was his back story. He is completely self-taught in the art of tattooing. He made his first tattooing machine himself with parts of a used DVD player in 2001 (he has since moved on to an American-made machine). Since then, he worked with various skilled tattoo artists, and opened the shop he owns today in 2008. He was the only gig in town for quite a while – but that said, competition is increasing. And that competition is from foriegners.
Now, I have an MBA and understand the dynamics of market competition. However, in a small, competitive market (that is, the Siem Reap tattoo scene), it boggles my mind why anyone would go anywhere but the Neng Synat Tattoo Machine. You are supporting a local artisan who is supremely talented. Why have a British or a Dutch person draw Cambodian images on you when you can get one from a person for whom those images have a more personal meaning? A meaning more directly embedded in personal identity?
Well, now I’m thinking about the politics of tattooing and cultural appropriation. So I’m going to move on.
We showed up at around 11am on the day of our appointment after having seen Angkor Wat at sunrise. We spent about an hour finalizing designs before he prepared the room. His preparation was as thorough as at any tattoo studio I’d ever experienced, and he talked us through the various steps as if we were first timers. He was very much professional from start to finish.
He had a very gentle hand, and worked quite quickly – both of our pieces only took about an hour to complete, including color. His prices were also extremely reasonable – $110 for mine, and $130 for David’s, as it was contained more details, color, and shading.
We got along very well with him throughout the procedure, and many folks stopped in to ask about prices and procedure as he was working on us. I wholeheartedly recommend Neng and his shop, the Neng Synat Tattoo Machine, for anyone looking for a little vacation-inspired travel ink.