Tattoos have always been a part of south Asian culture for protection or to record memorable moments, pains, successes, and loved ones. In Thailand many Buddhist monks have employed the “Sak Yant” tattoo method for religious purposes. People have been passing on the traditional method of thai tattoos for years, and it remains a huge part of Muay Thai.
Sak Yant tattoos are created for many reasons, the primary ones being religious and protective.
Within Muay Thai, it is said that these tattoos give the one superhuman strength, the ability to become quicker, and to protect them from evil spirits. There is much meaning behind these tattoos other than beautiful symmetry, and it’s important to recognise the significance of getting a sak yant in Thai culture.
The Ritual Behind Sak Yant
The meaning of Sak Yant is simple; “Sak” means tattoo and “Yant” means magical symbol. In order to receive the blessings that typically power the tattoos, you will have to receive it from an Ajarn, or teacher in the art.
The Ajarn will determine what design needs to be placed on your skin, and he will also determine where on your body it should be placed. There are exceptions to this case, but traditional Sak Yant gives these choices strictly to the person transferring magical power into a recipient’s body.
When beginning the tattoo, an Ajarn will read your soul, determining what should be put onto your skin next. Sometimes he will ask questions, and sometimes this process could take up to an hour of observation before an Ajarn will figure out the best Sak Yant for you. It is believed that the soul resides within the head, and tattoos will have more power the closer they are to the crown of your head.
Everyone knows that tattoos can be painful, and the traditional Thai method is no exception. The Ajarn will take a large bamboo or metal rod, dip it into ink, and begin taking quick, calculated stabs to the recipient’s skin.
There are additional ingredients that have being known to be put into the ink in order for it to have its magical properties. Studies show that different recipes hold different ingredients, and can range from charcoal, herbs, and even snake venom.
After the design is finished, the ajarn performs a chanted sutra then blows the prayer into the skin to activate the tattoo’s powers. This is said to create a powerful force, bringing down the energy of the ajarn, his teachers, and the teachings of Buddha into the body.
“The sak yant tradition is not simply animism and Buddhism practiced side by side, but rather an integrated system of magic in which neither can exist without the other.” – Joe Cummings, author of Sacred Tattoos of Thailand
It can be considered insulting to get a fake Sak Yant by a novice, or normal tattoo artist. The ink and the person doing the tattoo will not be able to bless your Sak Yant and it will be powerless. Misrepresentation of these symbols has landed some people in jail, leading the Thai cultural minister to threaten banning tourists from getting religious tattoos altogether.
There is also a series of rules that you must obey if you wish to keep the power of the tattoo inside your body. “the tradition is also deeply entwined in the Buddhist moral code that the designs can lose their powers if a wearer errs from their spiritual path.