Sak Yant: Thailand’s Sacred and Controversial Tattoo Art

Sak Yant is a tattoo art that originated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago
Sak Yant is a tattoo art that originated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago | © Jenny Sathngam / Culture Trip
James Tennent

Thailand’s ancient Sak Yant tattoo art is growing in popularity for tourists, but the practice is not without controversy.

Noi is already covered in tattoos. Across his back and shoulders are ancient words and pictures scarred into the skin; around his neck is a crisscross pattern of lines; and in the centre of his torso is a warrior figure with swords held aloft and crossed. Today Noi has come to the small studio behind a temple in south Bangkok to get a new prayer tattooed on his leg. It will be just above another prayer on his foot. All of these tattoos are in the distinctive thick blue-black lines of Sak Yant.

Noi bows to a row of statues set out in an altar and then turns to Arjan Ice. Ice is in the white robes that point him out as an Arjan, a master of his craft. Noi hands an offering to Ice on a small golden tray; Ice takes it as he recites a short prayer. The offering includes flowers, rice spirit and incense; some Arjans request other things, such as cigarettes, while others ask for money.

Sak Yant tattoos traditionally provide protection

Sak Yant is a tattoo art that originated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. As a substitute for taking protective amulets into battle, warriors would get sacred images inked onto their bodies, usually with sharp bamboo rods. Though the bamboo rods are less frequently in use nowadays, Sak Yant itself endures – and for many, it still holds the same protective power.

Noi stretches out his leg as the Arjan takes a red marker and starts to draw out the lines of the prayer. Next, he takes out the needle, which is essentially a large sharpened spike. Most visitors opt for a more modern version – a long stick with a disposable needle tip – but Noi is not most visitors. He’s a part of the community around this temple.

The process is a spiritual one, involving prayer, ritual and offerings

Prayers of protection

The phrases that Arjan Ice begins tattooing onto Noi’s leg are thousands of years old and in Pali, a language no longer widely spoken but still studied because certain Hindu and Buddhist texts are written in it. The phrases form a prayer called Aukkara, which invokes spirits to protect the wearer.

Once the tattoo is complete, Noi sits in front of Arjan Ice with his hands together and head bowed. The Arjan rubs oil into the tattoo and starts to chant, getting faster and louder as he goes on. This is a Kata chant, recited to release the tattoo’s protective power. Abruptly the Arjan stops and makes three sucking motions, as if taking in the air around Noi in short, sharp bursts.

For believers, it’s important to know whether the Arjan can really imbue the tattoo with that power. “You need to check where the master comes from,” a local woman called Bell tells Culture Trip. “Before I came here, I tried Sak Yant three or four times and there was no power. I came here and I asked Arjan Ice, ‘Do your tattoos have power?’”

Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally done by bamboo rods, but most visitors these days will opt for a disposable needle tip

Arjan Ice was trained by his father who, in turn, was trained by older masters; he reassured Bell that his tattoos do have power. She opted for an oil Sak Yant, believed to have the same potency but without the permanent, visible design. Within two years of the Sak Yant, she says she found herself with a company doing well and with financial independence she hadn’t dreamed of before. “You need to believe in your heart,” she says.

Classism and Buddhism

For Bell, it was scrutiny from other parts of Thai society that lead her not to get the permanent tattoo. For some Thais, Sak Yant tattoos – both on locals and foreigners – are considered ‘trashy’ in a way that sniffs strongly of the country’s deep classism.

Sak Yant’s links to the prevailing belief system in this region, which keeps Buddhist precepts while holding onto far older animistic ideas, is another reason the practice can draw the ire of Thailand’s more conservative Buddhist groups. They see Sak Yant’s popularity as symbolic of a degradation of the religion.

Sak Yant sits in the intersection between Buddhism and animism

One such group is Knowing Buddha, well known for a large billboard that shadows the main highway into Bangkok from the largest airport. “Buddha is not for decoration / Respect is common sense,” the sign reads, and underneath: “It is wrong to use Buddha as tattoo & decoration.”

Some Sak Yant designs do use Buddhist iconography (one is known as ‘Buddha’s Body’, for example) while the practice is often undertaken by monks in some of Thailand’s numerous temples.

But the ideas behind Sak Yant, argues Pattadon Sangduen, an assistant director at Knowing Buddha, go against Buddhist precepts of bodily impermanence and detachment. “Many who perform the Sak Yant have good intentions,” he says. “But they just touch the Buddha’s teaching on the surface. If they went deeper, to the core of it, they wouldn’t perform Sak Yant.”

For some, Sak Yant is a way to connect with community, spirituality and an ancient belief system

When it comes to the Arjans, the precepts they ask you to hold can differ. Generally speaking, says Bell, the main rules are to respect your mother, father and Buddha, and to refrain from negative remarks. Others are stricter and tell you to refrain from intoxicating yourself.

Though it is not Buddhist teaching in the strictest sense and the tattoos may garner you strange looks from some Thais, that’s not enough to put off the likes of Noi. For him, Sak Yant is a way of connecting to the small community that exists around this temple. It’s a connection to beliefs long held in the region and, as Noi is a taxi driver who must negotiate Thailand’s killer roads, Sak Yant also brings a priceless sense of protection.

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