The traditional tattoo of Thailand is called “Sak Yant”. These tattoos are associated with both Buddhist and animist beliefs and were popular in Thailand before the arrival of Buddhism. Sak Yant dates back to Angkor times 3,000 years ago and the art is greatly influenced by Khmer culture. The specific script used for yantra tattoos is a mixture of ancient Khmer script or Khom and the original Buddhist Pali script.
Every year, hundreds of foreigners in search of original and magical tattoos come to Thailand to have a Sak Yant.
Tattooing with bamboo has long been practised in Buddhist temples where monks would receive religious texts tattooed by grand master monks. Throughout Thai history, soldiers would visit temples to be tattooed by monks and receive spells for protection, strength and invisibility. Thailand legend has it that the country has never been occupied as Thai soldiers are warrior ghosts who cannot be seen or killed by the enemy due to their protective tattoos.
The belief is not only that the designs are potent, but also the chanting of prayers that accompany it. The implement used for the tattoo is nearly a metre long and as the monks do their work, the chanting begins until the tattoo is finished. One hand directs the needle, cradling the tip as one would a pool cue, while the other hand drives the needle in and out of the skin at around two to three times per second. The series of dots in the skin connect to resemble a tapestry. Bamboo tattooing is extremely painful but considered worthwhile to make the bearer invincible.
Another technique involves the tattooist rubbing ink into the wound after the needle has penetrated the skin, while at the same time a prayer is said to impregnate the charm with its spiritual power.
Thai monks have to undergo months of training to find the mystical place within themself a place where they won’t be distracted. Only when they have found this place within can they orchestrate their mind, body and heart in the necessary performance of tattooing.
Thai traditionalists warn tattoo enthusiasts that ordinary ‘decorative’ tattoos have no power to protect or bless them. In the traditionalist’s eyes they are executed using modern electric machines in the hands of tattooists with little true feeling. Consequently the tattoos lack authority and integrity and are perceived to lack magic. Such tattoos would have little power to act as a protective amulet or talisman or to bring good fortune to the wearer.
Quite often, the tattoo will not be recognisable as it will be a Thai script reproducing prayers and sometimes it will be a ‘yantra,’ a pattern which is less graphic than an animal and composed merely of dots. Each component of each yantra, right down to a single dot, has specific and significant meaning. The traditional Buddhist tattoo is of a geometric design based on images of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, the Lotus or some other type of Buddhist symbol that is said to attract luck, wealth and blessings as well as providing insurance against evil spirits.
Another Thai tattoo that performs more or less the same functions is a Hindu Sanskrit tattoo that is based on the fearsome Hindu gods and deities such as the four faced Buddha, the Holy Eagle, the Heavenly Dog, Hanuman the Monkey God, and a Wealth Deity which make the evils spirits retreat. Many tattoos are of animals, the most popular being the tiger. The tattoo of a tiger represents the tigers’ spirit and the lower back is a favoured location as the tiger spirit will be in control of your life. Angelina Jolie submitted to the classical tiger treatment at the hands of venerated tattoo master, Ajarn Noo Kanphai in 2004.
A special Thai tattoo to improve your interpersonal and relationship skills called the Golden-Tongued Bird ‘Sha Li Ka’, is to improve your confidence and speaking skills, and it must work because it is seriously painful as it is applied to the tongue. The tattoo inked on the top of the head is intended to ‘flood your head with blessings to protect your soul’. This is called the ‘Yuan Shen Guan Ding’ tattoo. It is said that the soul resides up there, right alongside one’s store of good luck, and also any potential for success in business and relationships.
The placement of the tattoo on the body has great significance in Thai tattooing, the closer a tattoo is to the head, where the soul is thought to reside the greater the power of the tattoo.
For attracting special wealth, there are hand tattoos. Pieces of 24K gold flake inscribed with the wearer’s personal data are hand-pricked into the palm. Could his be the origin of the ‘golden handshake’?
An invisible Tattoo?
Thai tattooing has been adapted to modern times with typical Thai finesse. For those who worry that their tattoos may not be well-received in an office, tattoos can be done not with the usual tattoo inks but with sesame oil. The tattooing implements, the designs and the mantras are all the same except that the result is an invisible tattoo, with none of the visible stigma of a tattoo, but with all its magical powers to protect as an amulet and talisman.
For more information about the meaning of Thai tattoos check out www.tattoo-thailand.com/yants-meaning.html