Bangkok, Thailand, 2015
I was preparing my offering of cigarettes, incense, flowers, a bottle of booze, and some cash while famous Thai tattoo master Ajarn Thoy stabbed an ancient geometric pattern into the bald head of the man ahead of me.
What is Sak Yant?
These traditional Sak Yant(or Yantra) tattoos originated somewhere in Southeast Asia as early as the 4th century. The hand-etched ancient geometric designs have been worn by warriors of ancient past to protect them during battle and to ward off evil spirits.
Tattoos are scripted in Ancient Khmer language and are believed to bring magical powers, fortune, or good luck to he who sports the ink.
Buddhist monks engraved warriors with tattoos from head to toe in order to prevent knives or arrows from piercing the flesh!
This was my first ever tattoo, so naturally I was a bit nervous, but also very excited that Ajarn Thoy gave me his blessing before we began. Ever since I read about this spiritually injected art form, I was determined to get one while I lived in Bangkok.
As I waited my turn, Ajarn Thoy dipped a long pointed (and very sharp) needle into a thimble of ink and repeatedly jabbed it into the head of a man seated in a Lotus position.
If you dare, you can let the monk read you to choose a design and ink location based on his vision of what will benefit you in life the most.
No “Monk”ey Business in Here
I read that it was improper to wear shorts in front of a monk, so I was already sweating while sporting my work pants as Catherine and I were sitting on the floor flipping through notebooks of designs. Although I found out that he is actually just an Ajarn(‘teacher of magical chanting or spell caster’) and not a practicing monk.
I of course removed my shoes before entering the room and gave a proper wai (bow with hands pressed to the heart or forehead) to Ajarn Thoy as soon as I locked eyes with him.
Visitors are expected to give an offering consisting of menthol cigarettes and booze, incense, flowers, and a small envelope with cash inside.
I also threw in a little American flag pin since I had read it was thoughtful to include something personal in the offering.
Thoy gave me his blessing and confirmed with a picture on my phone that I indeed wanted the famous 8-spire tattoo of Paed Thit. I saw him change needles and he confirmed with me that they were clean and we were ready to begin.
Paed Thit, or Eight Direction Yant, gives the wearer good fortune while travelling in each of the earth’s cardinal directions.
The pain at first was brutal! It was as if my arm were a piece of cloth under a Singer Sowing Machine. Two men pulled my skin taut as Ajarn Thoy unleashed his craft onto my right tricep.
Some Sak Yants are performed with an estimated 7,000 jabs of the bamboo or metal needle!
After about 40 minutes, my Sak Yant was complete. Thoy blessed the tattoo with a Buddhist chant, called a Kataa, while circling the ink with his fingers as I wai-ed before him. He cupped his hands and gave my fresh etch a hefty blow, unleashing its mystical powers.
It is important to note that he etched this stunning piece of artwork completely from memory. He only used a marker to mark the lines of the 8 cardinal directions as a point of reference.
How To Get Your Own Sak Yant
After Angelina Jolie(Image here) got her first Sak Yant back in 2004, it became popular for westerners and celebrities to make the journey over to find their own Ajarn.
But don’t throw all caution to the wind; Sak Yant should not be just some trendy trinket you pick up while on vacation. It has a complex historical and spiritual significance and the process should be honored and respected to those who pursue it.
Research different designs beforehand and read about their powers and meanings and choose one that you identify with the most. Most Ajarns will have books or pictures for you to choose from as well.
Don’t expect any in depth conversation about significance or anything for that matter. If in doubt, bring a Thai friend to translate for you.
The most famous place to receive the magical ink is Wat Bang Phra, about 60 kilometers or 1.5 hr drive from Bangkok. They hold two very unique tattoo festivals each year. It looks insane (literally), but I still would go.
Check out some footage here…
My temple, Wat Tong Nai, was located just off Bangkok’s main Sukhumvit Rd., on On Nut soi 25. The cost was 2,000 baht (or $60 usd), which from what I read is a bit overpriced.
All I know is that if there is a next time, all I have to do lift up my right shirtsleeve, flex the gun (or lack thereof) and watch the price plummet.
I certainly enjoyed the experience, and although painful, I could see myself getting another one during my stint here in Thailand. It was undoubtedly an amazing memory that I will literally cherish forever.
Lastly, here is the only video I have of the work being done. Thanks for reading!!