Sak Yants: The Traditional Thai Tattoo Art & Practice
When traveling to Thailand, one might consider bringing home a curio or a local trinket from one of the country’s many markets. For the more dedicated tourist, a traditional Thai tattoo makes for a special kind of keepsake to take home, to bear witness to the adventure of a lifetime!
As Western ways infiltrated the urban areas of Thailand, and Christian missionaries affected the social outlook on old traditions, Sak Yant tattoos declined until very recently. They remained in practice in rural communities, but the return of the Thai tattoo to mainstream popularity really occurred when celebrity actress, Angelina Jolie, returned home proudly bearing her own Sak Yant tattoo.
What exactly is a Thai Tattoo?
Thai tattoos stem from the Shamanistic tradition of Sak Yant tattoos. Sak means “to tap or jab”. Yant, derived from “Yantra”, is a Sanskrit word referring to mystical diagrams used to depict beliefs in eastern religions. A Sak Yant tattoo inscribes sacred geometric designs on the skin, and they’re usually performed by fully trained Buddhist monks or Brahmin holy men.
While originally from Hindu tradition, the tattoos were adopted by the Thai people, with the arrival of Buddhism from India. Rich in ancient philosophical meaning, Thai tattoos have progressed over time, taking on new meaning, as religions and cultures have evolved over the decades.
Forming the foundation of mystical beliefs around the world are the Four Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. However, it was only when Buddhism infiltrated the Khmer empire (later dissolved into Thailand and Cambodia) that the fifth magical element was added: the spirit of Buddha. The Sak Yant tattoos, also referred to as Bamboo tattoos, graced the bodies of countless Thai warriors. They believed that the psalms and prayers of Buddha’s spirit inked on their skin would provide magical blessings and shamanistic spells to protect their paths.
In the modern world, the Thai tattoo is a sacred geometric design, still believed to hold certain powers and protection from ancient Buddhist psalms and mantras.
Who is the tattoo artist?
A Sak Yant (Thai Tatoo), in their sacredness, shouldn’t be performed by just any tattoo artist. Only the very learned Monk or Ajarn (Master) who have served their time as a Sak Yant Monk, and have undergone many years of studying the magical arts, may become Sak Yant practitioners.
The Sak Yant Masters are required to study the ancient Buddhist language, Pali, as well as the ancient Khmer alphabet, from which Thai tattoos were derived. They further have to study ancient Sanskrit designs, and blessings that accompany each design. Beyond all this intellectual learning, the Sak Yant masters must learn and practice meditation, and the art of harnessing magical powers in this sacred blessing. Once fully qualified, the student becomes a master with the receiving of a Ruesi mask, a sign to all that he is a Sak Yant Master.
What sets a Sak Yant Master apart from any regular tattoo shop is that his years of study and application equip him to create a unique Thai tattoo that holds a blessing specifically intended for an individual. It’s an incredibly personal experience, one that can’t be received from a tattoo parlor’s copy-and-paste design.
Tips for getting a Thai Tattoo
The first, and most important, consideration for tourists in search of a Thai tattoo: do your research. Some locations are unhygienic, with needles being re-used. In some traditions, snake venom and charcoal are reportedly added to the ink for mystical reasons. Don’t become a Thai tattoo horror story – do your research!
To avoid disappointment, decide what kind of experience you want and find that one. Different monks deliver a varying Sak Yant experience: some will allow you to choose your own sacred tattoo, but there are many that will not allow you to. The more traditional Sak Yant Masters will spend time reading your aura and designing a custom tattoo with blessings specifically for you.
Apply temple decorum to your Sak Yant Master visit: dress modestly and never point your feet towards a monk. Never stand towering over a monk, and refrain from making physical contact unnecessarily.
For those traveling on a budget, most Sak Yant Masters practicing from within a temple will not charge you for your Thai tattoo. It’s recommended to take a donation though, in the form of incense, or flowers, or a small cash gift. These Masters are often very busy though, so expect a queue and perhaps a less personal encounter.
If you’ve decided to get a Thai tattoo, consider obtaining advice from a reputable guide from the region in which you’re staying. There’s no better advice than local advice, especially when it comes to ensuring that your Sak Yant experience is both safe, and authentic.
Expect and accept pain. Because the instruments used for most Thai tattoos are made from bamboo, it’s been noted that they are more painful than modern tattoo’s. However, many report that Thai tattoo’s heal faster, bleed far less, and don’t scab during the healing process, even allowing you to go in the water shortly.
Starting your own Sak Yant journey
Although the recent influx of celebrity bamboo tattoos paints a picture of an ultra-cool, earthy trend in tattoo art, a Thai tattoo is a spiritual encounter for many. It is a journey that should be embarked on with heartfelt respect for the ancient mysteries of Buddhism and all its sacred blessings and mantras.
If you’d like to add a Sak Yant tattoo to your itinerary during your trip to Thailand, contact us to find out how to get the very best out of this deeply personal experience.