Sak Yant – a tattoo that really has a meaning

I remember, a couple of years ago, seeing a picture of Angelina Jolie in a magazine that I was reading. She had come back from Asia and was showing her new tattoo on the red carpet. Instantly, I was hooked and had to look into this. Tattoos fascinated me ever since my dad got one. All I remember now is that it was a tattoo done by a monk with a very long needle, it was in five rows and in a language I didn´t know – and it had something to do with belief and good luck. Today, if you have tattoos, you often get asked about their meaning. Some people get a tattoo because they simply like the design, others have a personal anecdote to it. But something about Jolie´s tattoo says it´s more than just a pretty mystical-looking tattoo.

So let’s look further into this tattoo art. First of all, these kinds of tattoos are called “Sak Yant” which translates to: to tap yantras [4]. Yantras are aids in tantric meditation and are designed geometrically. Since roughly 1,200 years ago, the Khmer language has impacted Sak Yant. The language is powerless in and of itself – the tattooing ritual holds the power. There are multiple tattoo designs that all have a different meaning but nonetheless are believed to convey protective power. Geometric motifs, animal shapes, and heavenly images are among the designs in Sak Yant, which are accompanied by phrases and spells in Pali, an ancient language related to Sanskrit.

But why is there such a strong belief in these tattoos protecting the one who lets the ink underneath their skin?

It all goes back to some two thousand years ago. The origins of the practice – as well as its intended benefits – are both spiritual and superstitious. The first definite proof comes from King Naresuan Moharaj’s reign [4]. Also called Naresuan the Great, Thailand’s warrior king, reigned Siam until 1605 and is said to have waged wars and declared freedom for the kingdom of Ayutthaya with one source of protection: Sak Yants [3]. Warriors in the Ayutthaya Kingdom’s golden age (1351-1767 CE) wore “suea yant”, or shirts with yant motifs on them, to protect themselves on the battlefield. It was said that they would make them invincible against arrows. Officials and public servants wore Sak Yant to show their rank at the time. The sacred art form is most vibrant now in Thailand, with Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar following close behind. Unlike in Japan, where a long-standing tattoo tradition is still stigmatized, an increasing number of Thais from all walks of life are getting inked. Sak Yants have evolved into identifiers of mafia and criminals in current times, who exploit the tattoos’ protective blessings to commit crimes.

Statue of King Naresuan

To sum up, Sak Yant is an ancient kind of spiritual art that is entwined with mystical and historical elements.  Tattoos have been thought to give unique powers in regions of East Asia – from China and India to Thailand and Cambodia – for thousands of years. Yantras are believed to bring health, wealth, and protection among other benefits.

Yant Gao Yord

In Sak Yant there are many different designs [7]. You have to really look into which motif would suit you, or have a counseling session beforehand with the monk. He will advise you on which tattoo to get and also tell you were it will go. There are certain rules to this. I will talk about a few tattoo symbols: first, the “Kao Yot” or “Yant Gao Yord”, a triangular shape, and a nine-spired design. The nine spires are called “Gao Yord”, and stand for the nine attributes of Buddha. “Yant” means magical tattoo, “yord” means the best or the top. The spell of a Yant Gao Yord derives from the “Phra Kaataa Eitiphiso” spell. It represents protection, avoids danger and harm, and to be invulnerable. In old times, before getting any Sak Yant tattoo, one would start with Yant Gao Yord to show respect to the master. The traditional spot is right below the neck on your back. It is still the only place it should be received.

Unalome

The “Unalome” is a symbol of the Lord Buddha, also known as Buddha´s third eye. Yant Unalome is the primary yantra in Sak Yant, and it must be incorporated in every Sak Yant tattoo design to earn sacred power. The symbol represents luck, success, and protection.

 

 

 

 

Yant Suea Koo

An example of Sak Yant with an animalistic motif is the “Yant Suea Koo” aka the Twin TIger Yant. Tigers are known to be great hunters and are feared and those who get this tattoo are believed to take on some of these qualities. Representing power and authority, this motif is a favorite among those with a dangerous job. It is believed by locals that having a Tiger Sak Yant invited the tiger spirit to reside in the human body. In ancient times, this yant was very popular for warriors – believing that it gives the warrior power and no fear. They will keep fighting and not give up.

The location of a spiritually charged Sak Yant is far more than an aesthetic consideration. The head is considered the holiest part of the body in Southeast Asian culture, with the lower body becoming increasingly base [1] Everyone can get a Sak Yant, however, once you receive it you need to start doing good. The “doing good” refers to a certain lifestyle, meaning following a personalized set of rules and moral vows – often including Buddhist precepts and dietary restrictions [6]. The blessings and the powers of the tattoos will not work if the prescribed rules are not followed.

For the tattoos that I do, you need to respect and have faith for your parents. Your mind has to be moral. It is not like being in the mafia or a villain, no spirits will protect bad people. – Ajarn Noo Kampai, Sak Yant Master

If you decide you want to get such a tattoo, be aware of the process of tattooing. Sak Yant is typically done with a long bamboo stick and ink – that´s it. So it most certainly will be quite painful, as the tattoos take a long time. Sak Yant is practiced by Thai monks, however, it is not specifically related to traditional Buddhist teachings. So, the first step is to find a monk who will tattoo you. One note, it can happen that you come along tattoo artists who will tattoo you a motif of Sak Yant, however without the blessings of a monk, the tattoo has no meaning and will not give benefits. Besides needing a monk, you also need to decide on a motif – and there is a lot to choose from, as I mentioned before. What is also good to know is that while you are being tattooed there will be chanting, a sort of prayer, or blessings. These mantras are required for blessings.

Then there is the topic of falling into a trance state called “Khong Khuen”, which translates to “magical force rising”. Some devotees are being possessed throughout the before-mentioned chanting. What can happen is that during, they cannot help crying or shivering, and sometimes embody the tigers, crocodiles, mythical Himapant animals, and Hindu gods tattooed on their skin.

The most popular place in Thailand to receive a Sak Yant is Wat Bang Phra, a Buddhist temple about 50km west of Bangkok. Every year in early March there is a Sak Yant festival, called “Wai Khru” at the Wat Bang Phra [2]. Thousands of Buddhists travel to the temple for the annual Sak Yant tattoo festival, hoping to recharge the sacred tattoos. Devotees begin the event by worshipping Luang Pho Poen´s statue, chanting sutras, and offering flowers to the masters to express their gratitude. Luang Pho Poen was a monk who tattooed worshippers more than a century ago [8]. After the ceremony, they are being led to chant sutras – this is also when the possession would happen. During the year, if a disciple has done anything wrong or broken the precepts, they might confess to their masters and request forgiveness. Their minds will be cleansed following the confession. This is followed by group Zen meditation. That sums up the Wai Khru ceremony process. At the end, the masters would spray holy water over the disciples.

Wat Bang Phra festival

possessed

So if you want a tattoo that really has a meaning, book your flight to Thailand and get a Sak Yant tattoo. There is a Buddha saying,

Sacred spirit will be with you if you have strong faith in it.

 

If you want to have another look into Sak Yant tattoos, what they look like, how it is done, and some footage of the tattoo festival at the Wat Bang Phra (minute 16:20 of the VICE video) you can watch these videos:

References

[1] allaboutarts. (n.d.). Sak Yant, The Magical Tattoo From Thailand. steemKR.

[2] Blumberg, A. (2015). Thousands Gather In Thailand To Receive Magical Tattoos From Buddhist Monks. Huffpost.

[3] DeHart, J. (2016). Sacred Ink: Thailand´s Magic Tattoos. The Diplomat.

[4] Lastrucci, F. (2021). Inside the Thai Temple Where Tattoos Come to Life. The New York Times.

[5] Naresuan. (n.d.). Britannica.

[6] Nieset, L. (2018). Meet Thailand´s tattoo master. National Geographic.

[7] Sak Yant Meaning. (n.d.). Thai Tattoo Cafe.

[8] Vice. (n.d.). The Sacred Tattoos of Thailand. YouTube

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