Tattoos are polarizing. Some people are completely against them, describing them as heretical, rebellious to society, or just tacky. Others, like myself, see them as art. We see them as reflections of our personality, either through sentimental imagery or just a picture we like.
Sak yants are deeper than that. Peformed by monks, they offer prayers, protections, fortunes, and peace. Originating in indigenous tribes, it is often now associated with Hindu-Buddhism, and mirrors the regional language and stories.
Yantra tattoos are available throughout Thailand; it’s a fairly large industry for Chinese tourists. There are plenty of options on where to go for yours:
Just outside of Bangkok is Wat Bang Phra where up to 50 people may be queued into a mass yantra tattooing session in one day. There are several designs to choose from or you can let the monk read your aura and make a suggestion.
The pros to this route is really just the cost: you are only required to make an offering of flowers, incense, and menthol cigarettes – about $3 worth of items.
The cons are more numerous: while the tattoo itself is quick, you must wait in line with dozens of other people, so if you’re last in line, you better have an open day. There are also safety concerns, with the same ink being used on several people and the needle being cleaned with a mere alcohol wipe if not replaced between each guest. I can’t find any statistics on this, but that could lead to transmission of diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis. Additionally, I can’t find any validity to the claim that charcoal and snake venom is used to concoct the ink, but that is a prevalent rumor.
Ultimately, we opted against this route due to the concerns and went with a place in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand called Sak Yant Chiang Mai.
After exploring some Wats in Old City in the morning, we entered the location and were met by a very nice, helpful staff. It had a waiting room with pictures, memorabilia, and of course, Buddhist statues. We were asked what kind of Sak Yant we were interested in and after explaining our desires, were presented with a binder of stencils that included their protections.
I went with a depiction of the Phra Narai Song Khrute, which depicts a scene of Vishnu, the King of Gods, leading a truce between the gods and the demons. The link above has a really good summary. The prayer with this yantra offers me success when working with others and protection from bad spirits.
Rachel had fewer options. Being a woman, she is limited in where a monk is allowed to make contact with her and the fact that she has her entire back and one arm covered in tattoos already, she was left with just her right arm, where she chose a deer symbol that offered a charming ability with its prayer.
We made a similar offering to the Bangkok temple, purchasing a pack of cigarettes from a nearby 7/11 and the building staff gave us some incense and flowers to offer, along with a small monetary donation (~$60-80USD).
We were tattooed by Arjun Sam, a former Buddhist monk. Rachel goes first and me second. If you aren’t familiar, a typical tattoo is done in two parts – the initial outline and the shading. The second half is always what gets to me because there is usually a break in between where your adrenaline wears out and the shading is often done by rubbing that you feel on the bone. A Sak Yant is different; it’s hand-poked at a rhythmic pace, slower than that of the electromagnetic-powered coil guns used in your typical tattoo shop.
The needle itself is at the end of a steel rod and doesn’t hurt. I go numb to the sensation within twenty minutes. What sucked, however, was being balled into a small position so that my skin was as tight as possible. I am far from the most flexible person you’ll meet, so it took me a little bit of time to recover once I was allowed to stand back up.
Once both of our tattoos were done, Sam performed a chant and blessing, bringing our protections to life.
You’re supposed to have a ceremony once a year to refresh the blessing, and I do want to go back and get another one.
This is my coolest ink experience and the most memorable keepsake from my first trip to Thailand.
Have you been to Thailand? What is your opinion on Sak Yants?