30 miles west of Bangkok there is a Buddhist temple called Wat Bang Phra. It was here I was to receive my Sak Yant tattoo by a Thai monk. More specifically, Master Luang Pi Nunn, one of the most well-known tattooing monks in Thailand.
If you’re looking for an unusual Thai tattoo with meaning, then I would definitely recommend getting a Sak Yant tattoo. The process itself is completely different to getting a tattoo in the Western world, and even the ink used has an interesting story. I’ve tried to answer the most common questions below, but if there’s anything I’ve missed just leave a comment and I’ll try to answer ???
So what is a Sak Yant tattoo?
For those of you who have never heard of a Sak Yant tattoo before, let me explain: it’s a traditional Thai tattoo performed by Buddhist monks. There are many different Sak Yant tattoo designs, but they all feature ancient geometric patterns that are beautifully intricate. Sak Yant tattoos actually originated in China, but they are now almost exclusively associated with Thailand.
What’s the difference between a Sak Yant tattoo and a Yantra tattoo?
There’s no difference. Sak Yant tattoos are sometimes referred to as Yantra tattoos or Sak Yan tattoos.
What’s it like to get a Sak Yant tattoo?
The thing that intrigued me the most about getting a Sak Yant tattoo is that there’s no discussion about the design or placement of the tattoo you are going to receive beforehand. The monk decides the design and location based on your aura and what he believes you need in your life.
The tattoo is created by dipping a long, sharpened bamboo stick in ink and then tapping it repeatedly into the skin to produce an ancient geometric design. The monk then blows into the tattoo, whispers a prayer, and blows again. It is believed that this gives the tattoo magical powers that protect or bless the wearer in various ways.
What is the meaning behind a Sak Yant tattoo?
There are lots of different Sak Yant tattoo designs, and the tattoo you end up with will be chosen by the monk based on your aura. So each one has a slightly different meaning, but most carry some sort of blessing and protect the wearer against bad luck.
I received the Gao Yard, also known as the 9 Spires Yant. The 9 spires are meant to represent the 9 peaks of Mount Meru, a mythological mountain which is believed to represents the centre of the universe. A small Buddha (represented by the 3 ovals) sits on top of each peak and the squiggly lines over them represent the path to enlightenment. This particular design is believed to bring good luck, fortune, power and protection.
What is the ink for a Sak Yant tattoo made of?
The secret recipe of the ink used for the tattoo is only truly known by the individual monk, who makes it himself. Though it is believed to contain a combination of herbs, ashes, Chinese charcoal, palm oil, and snake venom!
How much does it costs to get a Sak Yant tattoo?
Not a lot – You pay for the tattoo in offerings which include flowers, incense, and… a pack of cigarettes! My offering cost me a grand total of $3!
Are Sak Yant tattoos safe?
There’s a small risk involved with getting any kind of tattoo, but traditional Sak Yant tattoos are considered higher risk than most. This is mainly because the bamboo “needle” is re-used for multiple tattoos, so there’s a chance you could get infected by somebody before you. Use your common sense as with any tattoo: always make sure you’ve seen the needle being disinfected for yourself, and only visit the more well-known tattooing monks. Bear in mind that it’s also possible to get a Sak Yant tattoo with a proper needle in an official tattoo parlour, then get the tattoo blessed by a monk.
What are the ethics around Sak Yant tattoos?
There are a few obvious cultural things to consider, like bringing the offering mentioned above, and avoiding revealing clothing. The biggest thing to be aware of is that Buddha tattoos and Sak Yant tattoos have important spiritual meaning in Thailand, and there are rules about where they should be placed on the body. They are not fashion accessories! If you’re planning on getting a Sak Yant tattoo, have a read of this really comprehensive guide on the etiquette around getting a Sak Yant tattoo written by a local.
For me, getting the tattoo was something I needed in my life at the time. It meant giving up control and trusting the process. I also came out of it with an open mind and an open heart. It’s said the protection spells won’t work if you’re not following a certain set of rules, in summary these are “Be kind. Be a good person.” It felt like a fresh start.
About the author
Steven J Williams is a backpacker and photographer currently pretending to be a hobbit in New Zealand. Follow his journey @stevenjwilliams ???
If you’re planning on getting your own Sak Yant tattoo, check out our amazing hostels in Thailand, where you might even find some tattoo buddies.