‘Are you ready?’ he gently said. I took a deep breath in and the Thai Monk began his magical art of blessing me with a Sak Yant Tattoo. Like a precise sewing machine needle, the bamboo tip repeatedly pierced my skin and the pain oozed deep into my back as the red herbal ink became a part of me. ‘Don’t pass out’ I whispered to myself…’You need this’.
Receiving a Sak Yant Tattoo, also known as Sak Yan or Sak Yantra, was an experience I fell into randomly but as usual, the cosmos always seems to ‘have it in for me’ for all the right reasons. What started as an impulsive ‘yes!’ to a random opportunity became one of my most thoughtful, spiritual, uplifting and deeply meaningful experiences in Thailand. Here’s the lowdown on what a Sak Yant Tattoo truly is, how it blows regular aesthetic tattoos out of the water and how to go about getting your own!
Sak means to ‘jab’ and Yant or Yantra means ‘Blessed Tattoo’ so all in all Sak Yant means ‘getting the blessed tattoo’. Dating back 2000 years, the magical geometric designs in these bamboo tattoos can bring you protection, power, good luck and boost your desired qualities to influence how others see you. Administered by a Thai Monk who is an expert in mantras and mind meditation to activate the magic within the Sak Yant, it’s a very special experience and one that is becoming more accessible to foreigners (and women hurrah!). Where should you go though? Which monk tattoo masters are ‘genuine’? Are Sak Yant Tattoos really safe? Read on to have all your questions answered!
The first tattoo I ever received was when I was eighteen. Deep into the sounds of Type O Negative, Nine Inch Nails and lots of dirty, filthy, gothic heavy metal, I’d already had my tongue and nipples pierced. All I needed now to match the black hair dye, cheap Poundland Halloween black lipstick, overpriced corsets from Camden Town and Doctor Martins was a tattoo. I was in a tattoo shop in Leicester, mechanically perusing all of the designs displayed to me through the murky plastic books but I just wanted a goddamn tattoo and picked the first thing I saw.
Luckily, I still like this tattoo. Note the word ‘like’: it’s not love but it’s agreeable. It’s on my lower back, represents freedom and is pretty alright for an impulsive session of body modification. It isn’t perfect though: it’s not 100% symmetrical and the craftsmanship would never make a song and dance in the tattoo design world. The tattoo ‘artist’ also told me colour was impossible to do – only black – and that is most certainly, my friend, a big fat fib.
Fast forward 13 years later and I’d been wanting to get another tattoo for years but could never justify inking myself again without a true passion for a design: an irresistible urge to put something on myself that truly means something from the bottom of my heart. If I could, I’d be covered head to toe with all kinds of weirdness but in this life, teaching English abroad to fund my travels, it just hasn’t been right. Meeting a tall ginger man with a pirate earring in Bangkok on top of a ridiculously expensive sky bar threw the tattoo world right back in my face. He told me tales of magical Thai Tattoos, Thai Monk Blessings and a chance to receive a gift that was a personal Thailand Experience. Of course, I leapt at the chance and discovered Where Sidewalks End are serious experts about Sak Yant Tattoos in Thailand.
When Sak Yant Tattoo Designs come to mind, the Hah Taew Yant, the 5 sacred lines, might have popped into your mind first! Representing five magical spells, Angelina Jolie has made this particular Yant very popular in the West. There are so many Yants out there though and being able to communicate with the monk who is tattooing you, like I was able to do, will give you a truly personal and powerful tattoo that is going to give you what you need in your life.
Thanks to good old Angie, Sak Yant Tattoos have become all the rage with foreigners, which is all well and good but remember that Sak Yant is an ancient art and spiritually significant. You can go to any tattoo parlour and get inked with a Sak Yant design but no Sak Yant Ajarn = no magic = no meaning. Don’t just follow fashion: believe in the power of what you are being blessed with and go to the Thai Monks who possess the skill.
Travelling Thailand and temple hopping regularly, I have come across many monks but for my Sak Yant experience, I was pretty nervous. I wanted to make sure I showed the utmost respect to the Ajarn and followed these simple rules to ensure we got along swimmingly whilst he was holding that bamboo stick.
Take off your shoes when you enter
Do not stand above the monk as a sign of politeness
Do not point your feet towards the monk. Feet are seen as the lowest and filthiest part of the body in Thai culture, so make sure they’re well behaved
As a lady, make sure to wear clothes that cover your shoulders, front and legs but enable you to be tattooed easily. I wore a low back top. You can also wear a shirt backwards
I walked into my experience completely open to the design monk Ajarn Roong thought best for my needs. He could have tattooed three dots on the back of me and I would have been satisfied because this experience was about the meaning, not the ‘look’. Having Alex from Where Sidewalks End with me was really reassuring as his Thai is impeccable. I was able to have a meaningful talk with Ajarn Roong through him and communicate clearly what protection I was seeking. Ajarn Roong listened carefully to my needs and told me he had the perfect design that would bring out my beauty, show others my good qualities, welcome fairness and love into my life and protect me from people wanting to take advantage. As he consulted his book of designs and stopped at this one, I was immediately in love with it!
My tattoo is called ‘Yanpathumphankap Buaphanchan’ which translates as ‘The Lotus coiled in a Thousand Lotuses’. This Yant is original to Northern Thailand and is perfect for ‘Saneha’ which means ‘attraction’. This is not just in a physical sense: it means that people will be attracted to me as a whole person and I will be treated well as a result. A lovely extra bonus about this tattoo is that Ajarn Roong is the only monk who gives this tattoo design, taking it from an old Northern Thai drawing and ‘modernising’ it himself for Sak Yant.
Actually, times are changing! Women deserve the same protection as men right (?) and Sak Yant Thai Monks are beginning to recognise this and offer their services to both sexes. The intention of giving the Sak Yant is good and therefore, some monks will make a special exception when it comes to giving this blessing. More and more Thai women are being tattooed and some are opting for the invisible tattoos with palm oil to handle the taboo which is still there. Due to this taboo, I wasn’t able to take a picture of myself with Ajarn Roong during the tattooing process but I have a fresh ruby red after-photo to show you!
And just two hours later, it looked like this!
Sure does! Not gonna lie about that! Compared to a needle gun tattoo, personally for me it hurt more BUT there are many advantages to a bamboo tattoo. The tattooing time is incredibly fast and the tattoo heals quick. The quality maintains itself throughout the years and being tattooed by a bamboo stick is totally one for the ‘bucket list’. When you’re showing your tattoo to your grandkids, you’ll be the goddamn coolest granny/grandpa on the block.
No one wants to go and get a tattoo then walk out starting to grow a third arm or worse. I made sure to go with Where Sidewalks End as they searched high and low for a clean and hygienic place in Chiang Mai which they could trust. Make sure you do your research and check the conditions of where you choose to get your tattoo done before taking the leap.
Sak Yant designs aren’t just found on the skin. After my tattoo was completed, I paid a visit to the local Chiang Mai Amulet Market where I saw the different designs on cloth which you can hang in your house or wear under your clothes to get that protection you need.
This experience is going to stay with me for a long time. Yes, yes, physically it’s going to be there for a looooooong time but mentally, I am really aware of what I have been given and I’m excited to be bursting through 2016 with this blessing now a part of me!
If you’re looking for more inspiration on alternative tattoos whilst travelling, check out The Broke Backpacker’s special journey to receive a tribal tattoo from Whang Od.