Tattoos are popular across the world, amongst young and old, to remember a loved one, stand out in the crowd, remind the individual of an important personal intention, or simply as a piece of beautiful body artwork.
Fascinatingly, the art of tattooing is an age-old practice in South East Asia steeped in tradition, mysticism and meaning.
Known in Thailand as “sak yant”, tattoo work is traditionally done caringly with a bamboo rod and plant based ink, either by a Buddhist monk or an ajaarn (teacher) who has been trained and is committed to Buddhist precepts. Sak yan’s are imbibed with meaning. The most common tattoos symbolise strength, protection and power. Historically, tattoo’s were given to soldiers before war to protect them and encourage them as they defended their lands. Tattooed warriors can be seen in temple murals such as Wat Nairong, Bangkok.
Although popularly understood as a Buddhist tradition, sak yant is actually an intriguing blend of animism, early-Hinduism and Buddhism. Animism is a belief system of many indigenous peoples across the world, including South East Asia, which accepts that everything in nature has a spiritual essence. If nature spirits are disrespected then they may do harm. This belief still plays an important role in tattoo traditions in South East Asia.
The century old tattoo tradition was popular across Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Eastern Burma and Southern China until the 20th century. With the advent of modernization, Christian missionaries and later Communist movements in the region, the practice started to die out. In Thailand it continued to be practiced in rural areas, and remained popular amongst Thai royals, however city folk became increasingly disinterested.
Interestingly, it took a Hollywood celebrity to raise the profile and popularity of the sak yant! In 2003, Angelina Jolie came to Thailand and had her first sak yant tattooed on her left shoulder blade. This has increased its popularity amongst Thai’s and also Westerners seeking out tattoo masters on their travels.
A local Chiang Mai artist remembers that his great grandfather had sak yant all over his body, including a traditional tattoo in which the top of his legs were covered like a pair of shorts that was ‘beautiful’. He muses that in the late 20th century Lanna culture has been less a part of daily life. He reflects with his friend that despite the increase in popularity, it is relative compared to the extensiveness of the practice centuries ago. Many young Thai people don’t get sak yant these days as it is quite painful and there are many Buddhist precepts that need to be followed if it is taken with
full understanding and sincerity. For example, not being allowed to have too many beers.
However, for those interested in the sak yant revival, there are a number of tattoo masters across Thailand that keep the tradition alive. There are even dedicated tour companies! A number of tattoo parlors can also replicate designs similar to that of a sak yant but these artists do not follow the codes, or understand the deeper meaning so it is just like getting a regular tattoo.
The process of obtaining a sak yant is ritualized, and only those tattoo masters (monks and trained ajaarns) that imbibe and fully understand the deep essence of its meaning can pass on the qualities to the receiver of the tattoo. The process of getting a sak yant requires deep conversation in which the artist chooses a tattoo for you, a series of prayers, the tattooing process itself, and additional prayers and offering ceremonies. It is a very deep and involved process filled with meaning, ritual, and elements of magic. A recent receiver of a sak yant, explained that she felt “blessed” by the whole process, and it was incomparable from receiving her regular tattoos.
These days a metal rod is used, based on the traditional bamboo design. The process is still the same. Some masters do the work freehand, while others work with a pre-designed piece of paper placed on the skin. The smaller tattoo’s typically take only ten to twenty minutes, while the larger ones take up to a few hours. Renowned travel journalist Joe Cummings looks at the many variations of the tattoos and their meaning in his relatively recent book:
“Sak yant typically feature a combination of alphabetic syllables and geometric designs. Some may also depict deities, sacred animals or mythical creatures from the Hindu-Buddhist tradition… The thousands of designs – no one knows exactly how many are in common use – aremeant to serve a variety of purposes”.
He explains that many people who seek a sak yant work in risky occupations and seek protection from physical danger or desire physical and mental power to help them survive.Others seek bureaucratic power, romantic charisma, forgiveness for past wrong doings, and there are also many designs for good fortune and wealth. The designs may be geometric in nature or include deities, Buddha images or animal designs. For more detail on the fascinating history and intricacy of the Sak Yan process check out Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yant.
It is worth researching the in-depth meaning of the sak yant if you, or someone you know decides to get one, as it is not a regular tattoo but a tradition steeped in meaning. If you are a woman seeking a sak yant check first if the master is comfortable giving tattoos to women. Traditionally, both men and women can receive tattoos, however these days it is a matter of personal preference of the monk or ajaarn. Some devotees of the sak yant become lost in the illusion and magic surrounding the practice. A traditional practice is to revisit your tattoo master each year to recharge the power of your tattoo. However, this has been taken to the extreme at Wat Kru, just an hour out of Bangkok, where over 10,000 people gather each year to be re-charged. Reports describe people being “possessed by tattoos” and in a state of public frenzy. It is a spectacle to behold which some argue takes away from the practice as a common cultural tradition that people of the region have held dear for centuries.
We have none other than Angelina Jolie to thank for bringing this amazing and intriguing practice into the public consciousness again! If you are interested in a sak yant, take your time to research and reflect on whether it is something for you and find a qualified master (there are a few in the book we mentioned plus read our review page 18). Then you can share the significance of this cultural symbol back home!