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Diaspora: Dazzling success for Franco-Khmer tattoo artist YANTRAK

Dear readers, in my series of portraits of atypical Khmers around the world, we are back today with YANTRAK.

YANTRAK. Photo by Charly HO
YANTRAK. Photo by Charly HO

Yantrak, a Franco-Khmer tattoo artist who has been working in Paris since the late 2000s, was previously known for his Khmer Sakyants. Yantrak has since moved on, and now has his own salon and is preparing to showcase his talent in the USA, through Sotheara and Khmer Renaissance, whose interview Cambodge Mag published a few months ago. So, today we invite you to follow the new journey of this passionate and exciting young man.

A few years ago, you were kind enough to give us an interview about your work as a tattoo artist, but also about your passion for sakyants. How far have you got in perfecting our ancestral Khmer art since then?

I haven't been able to return to Khmer Srok since, but I'm still in regular contact with the tattoo artists who initiated me, so I have constant support.

In particular, you are fighting to have sakyants recognized as an integral part of our cultural heritage and to demonstrate their totally Khmer origins. Has your growing fame helped you in this crusade?

The fact that I've been the subject of a program on TF1 since then has enabled me to share our culture on a large scale. To my amazement, it has also enabled me to reach people in the community who already have their own ethnic tattoo style, like the African community for example.

I also try to convey the origin of sakyant whenever I can, whether through my stories or in person.

Your professional career has also evolved. Previously a tattooist with the StarAsian tattoo team, you're now self-employed.Tell us about this change

I opened my salon in September 2021, the time was right, and for me it was a symbol of affirmation of my art in its own right. I had the opportunity to visit your new salon. And the part where you do your work. Tell us about the spirit you wanted to convey in your choice of décor.

Two things are essential for me to reflect my salon: the "clean" side and conveying a part of my personality. That's why, when you enter the place, the main room (where other tattoo artists work) is designed to be uncluttered.

The NAKAMA home salon with a Buddhist and Khmer identity
The NAKAMA home salon with a Buddhist and Khmer identity

But I also wanted to bring out the soul of Cambodia through the decor, as well as that of Buddhism in general.

The idea of creating - in my part of the room - a wall perfectly reflecting the country, and littered with Buddhas, including a spectacular one, seemed an obvious one. At the same time, this part of the salon allows me to say my own prayers.

You now offer a more versatile range of services, including manga tattoos. Can you explain this choice?

Manga has been one of my passions since childhood, and now that I've mastered the art of sakyants, I wanted to offer a parallel universe that I'm so familiar with and enjoy.

By the way, the name of your new salon is partly Japanese: NAKAMA HOUSE. Why this choice and not a Khmer name?

I wanted to send a more global message, as not all the tattoo artists in the salon are sakyant specialists, and our tattoos offer a variety of choices. NAKAMA, which means compatriot, was inspired by the ONE PIECE manga, one of my favorites.

Manga tatoo by YANTRAK
Manga tatoo by YANTRAK

The use of the word MAISON was chosen for its double connotation: feeling at home and a more luxurious allusion, like the houses of the great couturiers (or any other patronymic used to refer to a brand).

How many artists are there in your new salon, and what are their specialties?

At the moment there are three artists . Apart from me, there's tattoo artist Boa NAKAMA, who also offers sakyant mays, floral and animal tattoos, and her little sister Hannya San, who's more into kawai-type tattoos, but also dragons and the world of Japan in general. For the time being, a post remains free for potential guest tattoo artists.

Back to the sakyants. You make a point of explaining each one in detail on your Instagram. Have you ever thought of delving deeper into the subject (why not by publishing a book or some other more precise means of communication)?

A book is available for salon customers who want to delve deeper into the subject.

As far as I'm concerned, I don't feel I have the necessary experience to embark on such an arduous quest... but why not one day!

In each of my posts from now on, I also try to tell a bit of Cambodian history, which is important for understanding the current make-up of our diaspora around the world. Today, our community, scattered across the globe, is tending to tighten its ties.

You'll be in California at the end of August for 5 extraordinary days of tattooing. How did you prepare for this event?

An unexpected succession of beautiful encounters took place around two years ago, starting with a client who referred me to a Franco-Khmer photographer, who in turn guided me through a story to the account of the Khmer Renaissance page and its creator Sotheara, and that's how contact was made! One of my dreams had always been to work in the USA, so you know the rest...

Californian trip for YANTRAK
Californian trip for YANTRAK

Your success seems to be dazzling, as your California schedule is already fully booked. How does it feel?

To my great amazement, and thanks to our close collaboration with Sotheara's Khmer Renaissance page, my schedule was booked up in less than 24 hours... This new step means I can reach a clientele beyond the ocean, so who knows what's next?"

Does this new adventure make you want to repeat the experience, why not in other countries?

The USA was my main objective, but collaborations in Europe could be a good experience to consider, like England or Germany for example.

Do you plan to return to the Srok again to perfect your teaching in this area?

I'm still very keen, and I'd also like to perfect my techniques, such as learning how to do tattoos in the traditional way, with a bamboo needle.

Creation of YANTRAK
Creation of YANTRAK

What do you think would be the best ways today to get Sakyants recognized as originating from Cambodia and not elsewhere?

Definitely (on my scale) the Internet, through all the social networks on offer. However, the most effective result probably remains the production of a program on the subject, which would be broadcast on national channels.

Finally, do you have any particular projects in the pipeline?

My life (professional and personal) being full, I don't have any specific projects at the moment... but I trust in my karma!

Interview by Chantha R (Françoise framboise)

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