In early March, thousands of sacred tattoo devotees converged on Wat Bang Phra, a large Buddhist temple that sits on the outskirts of Bangkok. It’s here that people who have received Sak Yant, sacred tattoos which are believed to confer upon the wearer a form of magical protection, go to have the power of their symbols restored and give thanks to the masters who provide them.
The tradition is steeped in religion, mysticism and superstition, and while Sak Yant is taken very seriously by those who follow the practice, the Thanksgiving or Wai Kru at Wat Bang Phra is hardly a solemn affair.
Under the sweltering heat of the tropical sun, tens of thousands of tattoo aficionados, both Thai and foreign, gather in the dusty courtyard outside the temple. Monks recite incantations which they believe recharge the magic contained in the ancient scripts and geometrical patterns inked on to their followers' skin. Then they blast the festival-goers with holy water, straight from a high-pressure hose. At this point, something strange happens. Worshippers and devotees go into Khong Khuen, a powerful trance-like state that causes them to lose control of their body and run in a mad dash towards the giant bronze statue of Luang Pho Poean, the late master and former head monk of Wat Bang Phra. They are possessed by the spirit of their tattoo.
Photo: Aroon Thaewchatturat
“It’s hot as hell, everybody’s sitting down and whoever becomes possessed will rise as the presence of his tattoo fills him and will then act out the characteristics of the tattoo. The monkeys will run, the snakes will slither, the hermit will limp along,” says Tom Vater, author of Sacred Skin: Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos.
For onlookers, this frenzied expression of Sak Yant's power can be intimidating. "When so many people are in a trance, and they can't control themselves, and they run towards the statue of the late monk, Luang Pho Poean – it can be scary." Says Sacred Skin photographer, Aroon Thaewchatturat. She attended the recent Wai Kru and assured me that even if it gets overwhelming at times, the overall atmosphere is very peaceful. Attendees have a singular focus: to pay their respects to the masters of Sak Yant.
Angelina Jolie is a notable fan of the ancient art, having been inked by Ajarn Noo (Ajarn is a Thai term for master) early last year for the second time. The practice became further publicised after a spate of stars got their own ink. Michelle Rodriguez and girlfriend Cara Delevingne got matching Sak Yant tattoos, albeit sewn with invisible ink. Steven Seagal has one, too. And many more celebrities from Thailand and the West have followed suit.
But don’t be fooled by the streams of celebrity endorsement – these tattoos have significance beyond the aesthetic. Sak Yant has its origins in India, where ancient Hindus drew yantras – a magical diagram used as a focal point during meditation – onto wood, metal, stone, cloth or whatever was available. These designs were imported into South East Asia in the sixth or seventh century where the predominately Buddhist civilisations in the area adopted them. It’s not entirely clear how they made the jump from objects to skin, but one theory is that warriors would wear jackets adorned with magic symbols of protection when going into battle, but it became easier to print them straight onto the skin where the wearer could never lose them.
The process for getting a Sak Yant starts with finding a legitimate Ajarn. I was warned by Thaewchatturat that there are some less authentic practitioners than others. The artists in tattoo parlours cluttered along Khao San Road will do sacred-looking tattoos, but they won’t have any of the mystical properties of a Sak Yant inked on by a real Ajarn. The secret of the tattoo lies in the mantras or Katas applied by a master, not so much the ink itself. “It’s easy to learn how to make those tattoos, purely as a craft,” says Vater. “But to learn the Katas and all the esoteric stuff around it takes a long time. If you want to learn, you need a guru who takes you through that, who will bring you on as an apprentice and build you into an Ajarn.”
What’s more, the Katas are spoken in Pali – a liturgical language for Buddhists and the script is written in Khom, which is an ancient Cambodian alphabet. A proper Ajarn will understand both of these languages as well as Thai, and be able to translate effortlessly between all three.
the farmers, factory workers and poor people have absolutely no platform in this country. The Sak Yant is one way in which they can express themselves.”
As part of the process, an offering is made to the old masters. A flower, a candle, incense and a pack of cigarettes is considered standard practice – along with a small donation. Getting inked by Ajarn Noo – the master who gave Jolie her Sak Yant – requires more than pocket change; he reportedly charges in the thousands for his sacred designs. Otherwise, a spot with a non-celebrity Ajarn can be secured for as little as AU$30.
While Sak Yant is becoming increasingly popular with celebrities and socialites, the practice is not exclusive to those in high society. On the contrary. "I would say it's mostly working-class people and a few very, very high upper-class people who have those tattoos," says Vater. "And it's very important in that sense because in Thailand the working class has no voice in mainstream media or mainstream culture. So there's this idealisation thing going on and the farmers, factory workers and poor people have absolutely no platform in this country. The Sak Yant is one way in which they can express themselves.”
"a couple of the bullets went right through the jeans, but they didn’t touch me. And that’s because of the Sak Yant"
During Vater’s investigation into the world of sacred tattoos, he spoke to a number of small-time gangsters, who were convinced their tattoos had bestowed upon them protection against their enemies. “One guy was telling me that he had just been in a gunfight the day before and that his adversaries had been shooting at him and he said ‘the bullets were just zipping around me’. He was wearing a pair of jeans, and he said, ‘Yesterday I was also wearing a pair of jeans and a couple of the bullets went right through the jeans, but they didn’t touch me. And that’s because of the Sak Yant’.”
The conservative Thai government has railed against the use of Buddhist iconography by Westerners who may not fully appreciate its significance. As a foreigner getting tattooed, it would be wise to get advice before jumping in the deep end of Sak Yant. In the Buddhist faith, the head is viewed as the most sacred part of the body, with lower body parts such as the feet and legs considered more base. That means no tattoos of Buddha on a skateboard, and definitely no Sak Yant below the waist. Vater tells me that the Thai government have been very clear on the issue of Westerners receiving sacred tattoos. “Several years ago the Ministry of Culture published a leaflet which went to all the tattoo shops in Thailand, thousands of them, advising the tattooists not to put sacred tattoos on sensitive body parts, where it would indicate a lack of respect.
This request, it seems, has been unanimously ignored. Foreigners looking for Sak Yant, or any kind of tattoo, will not find it difficult to get inked in Thailand.
As Sak Yant explodes into the mainstream with more celebrities and high-flyers getting inked, I question whether the tradition can hold up against the forces of globalisation. According to Vater, the Ajarns aren't worried. "I don't know if the old school guys are particularly taken aback by the impact of Western celebrities on the Sak Yant traditions. Ajarn Noo did very well out of that and all the other Ajarns I know, they’re all happy to tattoo foreigners. There’s not one that – at least the ones that have a public profile – doesn’t welcome foreigners. So I think they quite easily adapted to new circumstances and it means a better income for them, even if some of the traditional aspects of the art are lost.”