Dating back to the Khmer Empire at Angkor, people have long sported intricate designs believing that they not only protected them from danger, but that they also gave them power. Tattoos in Thailand also displayed a man’s status and military level.
Angelina Jolie made the sacred Sak Yant tattoo popular after receiving two of them in 2004, but Sak Yant tattooing dates back to thousands of years ago. Jolie has Thai script on her left shoulder and a tiger on her lower back.
Sak means “to tattoo” or “to tap,” and yant means “yantra”—a type of mystical diagram. What exactly do these tattoos symbolize? Most people believe they offer protection against danger and death, and bring luck, power, and courage. Thai warriors and soldiers would cover themselves head-to-toe in these ink designs. Muay Thai, the most popular sport in the country, is one arena where visitors will see a wide array of Sak Yant tattoos, as fighters believe they protect them in the ring.
One of the most popular places in which visitors of the Kingdom can get their own Sak Yant tattoo is at the temple of Wat Bang Phra. Thousands of people make their way to this temple every year to receive these traditional tattoos. It is located about 30 miles west of Bangkok, and in addition to being a tattoo parlor, is also a working Buddhist temple where monks reside and meditate.
A two-foot long bamboo stick or needle is needed to carry out this ancient tattoo art form; it is jabbed into a person’s skin over and over until the design is complete. For those who can not bare the pain for an extended period of time, there are some tattoo artists around Thailand who will do Sak Yant tattoos with electric machines.
Many people believe that using a bamboo stick is not sanitary, as they are only dipped into rubbing alcohol before being used on a different subject. Before a subject can leave the temple with their new tattoo, the artist runs a knife over their neck. This is said to protect them from harm.
Those who receive this tattoo must also abide by a certain set of rules, and those who break the rules are believed to later suffer consequences. The rules differ depending on the person who gives the tattoo. One of the most common stipulations is to abstain from eating certain types of food or to avoid eating food at certain events.
One of the most popular times of the year in which the Thai congregate at Wat Bang Phra to receive their sacred tattoos is in March during the Tattoo Festival, otherwise known as Wai Kru.
Here, members of the large crowd enter a deep trance known as Khong Khuen. Shrill screams fill the temple grounds as Thais gaze wildly about, running, screaming, and flailing, many of them already have a fair amount of Sak Yant tattoos. Attendees run towards the shrine of Luang Phor Pern—a monk whose tattoos were known for providing those who received them with special abilities. The festival is meant to rejuvenate the power giving properties of the Wat Bang Phra tattoos.
Many tourists making their way to Thailand realize that the country is as good a place as any to get a new tattoo. For one, it is significantly cheaper to get inked in Thailand than in other parts of the world, and there is nothing more spontaneous and exciting that getting a new tattoo abroad.
That being said, there have been a number of incidents of foreigners going to Thailand, receiving a tattoo, and inadvertently offending more than a few locals. Why is this?
Buddhism is largely practiced in Thailand, and one of the few things tourists seem to be getting inked on themselves is an image of the Buddha. To avoid irritating their host country, visitors should consider a few things.
In Thailand, the head is considered the most sacred part of the body, and the feet are considered disrespectful. It is for this reason that any person getting a Buddhist tattoo should think twice before getting one below the waste—it could be considered very offensive.
It is also recommended to steer clear from getting an actual Buddha image tattooed. The Thai culture ministry has gone as far as to create guidelines in the hope of banning tattoo parlors from tattooing images sacred to Buddhism. Others believe that the images are suitable as long as they are above the waist.