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The spiritual art of Sak Yant - traditional Thai tattoos

The custom of tattooing has a long history in Thailand and traditional tattoos here are generally divided into two categories – those for loving-kindness (metta) and those for invulnerability and empowerment. These Sak Yant tattoos are part of Thai magic and not for beautification.


By Sirinya Pakditawan

Friday 4 November 2016, 10:00AM


The term Sak Yant is a combination of Sak, the Thai word for tattoo, and Yantra, the Sanskrit word for a mystical diagram. Sak Yant is an ancient magical and spiritual practice which employs Buddhist, Brahmin and animist imagery.

In particular, Wat Bang Phra in Nakhom Pathom province is well-known for the Yantra tattooing done by monks living at the temple. During March each year there is a tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra where devotees come to perform a wai khru (paying homage to one’s teacher) ceremony to re-invigorate the magical power of their tattoos.

Tattoos for loving-kindness are said to enhance the feeling of benevolence and kindness towards others and simultaneously instill in others the same feelings to oneself. Tattoo motifs for loving-kindness include:

The swan – the vehicle of the great God Brahma (Phra Prom) which promises liberation from worldly bondage.

The turtle – since turtles appear to be slow and clumsy, they arouse compassion and pity. Thus, nobody truly wants to harm them.

The house lizard – said to warn people, and according to Thai beliefs, if one hears the cry of a house lizard when about to leave the house it is recommend not to go because something awful might happen.

The mynah bird – the common mynah bird is sometimes tattooed on the tongue, since its song is enchanting and causes those who hear it to experience great joy.

The Buddha – since the Buddha is an enlightened being, he feels compassion and loving-kindness towards all living creatures.

The tattoos for invulnerability and power (Sak Yant) have been selected for the intrinsic power that they represent. These characteristics may be fierceness, speed, strength, wisdom, cunning or endurance. The tattoos are said to protect the wearer from bullets, knifes and other weapons. In particular, people who work in high risk occupations like soldiers, police, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers like to wear these kinds of tattoos.

Such tattoos for invulnerability are also highly sought after by people with a criminal background such as gang members and convicts. But these days the practice of yantra tattooing is very popular both with Thai people and Westerners. However, some Thai people think that Westerners fail to appreciate the true meaning and spirituality of the Sak Yant. Tattoos for invulnerability include:

The dragon – representing fearlessness, strength and wisdom.

The king cobra – a fearless venomous snake that will attack rather than retreat.

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The eel – represents the ability to escape because it is very slippery and hard to catch.

Hanuman – the monkey god from the Ramakien is known for having powers of invulnerability from the god Shiva.

The tiger and the mythical lion – they represent cunning, strength and fierceness.

The toad – the toad is supposed to be a robust animal since it has coarse skin.

A Thai tattoo master is called ajarn (teacher) which is a title of respect. He is different from other tattooists because he is most often a Buddhist monk and knows the magic of the symbols, figures, cabalistic signs and incantations of power. It is also important to note that each tattoo has a “heart” wherein its power lies. Only the tattooist knows the location of the heart of the tattoo.

Incantations of power are often reduced to a few letters or even numbers. Hence, each tattoo master knows which verse is represented by the particular groups of letters. Thus, their power is protected. 

Summing up, we may claim that the art of Thai tattoos is both spiritual and traditional. However, today Yantra tattooing has become an international phenomenon and there are also places in Western countries that offer these kind of tattoos.

Nevertheless, people should not forget about the origin and spiritual and “magical” meaning of Sak Yant.

 

Sirinya Pakditawan is a ‘luk kreung’, or half-Thai, born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about Thailand, with a focus on culture, art, history, tradition and on the people, as well as a mix of topics concerning Thai popular culture, travelogues and articles about Thai food.

Sirinya’s aim is not only to entertain you but to provide you with information and facts about Thailand, its culture and history that may not be generally known, in particular to the Western world. She has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hamburg.

To read the original story, and many more, be sure to check out Sirinya’s blog: www.sirinyas thailand.de

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globe_trottah | 04 November 2016 - 22:10:19

This is a great article. I've been involved with sak yant for the better part of 4 years now, and there is a lot of good information in here for those who are new to sak yant. 

There is only one small correction that should be noted. The comment "He is different from other tattooists because he is most often a Buddhist monk" is not exactly accurate. Given the fact that EVERY man i...

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