The Thai Tradition of Tattooing (Sak Yant)
The custom of tattooing has a long history in Thailand. Tattoos are generally divided into two categories, those for loving-kindness (metta) and those for invulnerability and empowerment. These tattoos are part of Thai magic (Sak Yant) and not for beautification. Thus, Sak Yant is an ancient magical practice using Buddhist, Brahman and animist imagery. In particular, Wat Bang Phra in Nakhom Pathom Province is known for Yantra tattooing by monks living in the temple. During March each year there is a tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra.
Tattoos for loving-kindness serve to enhance in the person a feeling of benevolence and kindness towards others and simultaneously instill in others the same feelings to oneself. Some tattoo motifs for loving-kindness are:
Swan – the swan is the vehicle of the great God Brahma (Phra Prom) and it promises liberation from worldly bondage.
Turtle – since turtles appear to be slow and clumsy, they arouse compassion and pity. Thus, nobody truly wants to harm them. Thus, the Great Turtle Yantra also stands for auspicious blessings.
House Lizard – the house lizard is supposed to warn people. Hence, according to Thai belief if one hears the cry of a house lizard when about to leave the house, it is recommend not to go because something awful might happen.
Mynah Bird– the common mynah bird is sometimes tattooed on the tongue, since its song is enchanting and causes those who hear it to experience great joy.
Buddha – since the Buddha is an enlightened being, he feels compassion and loving-kindness towards all living creatures.
Sak Yant, the tattoos for invulnerability, however, have been selected for the intrinsic power that they possess. These characteristics may be fierceness, speed, strength, cunning and endurance among others. The tattoos are supposed to protect the wearer from bullets, knifes and other weapons. In particular, people who work in high risk occupations like soldiers, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers like to wear these kinds of tattoos.
In addition, tattoos for invulnerability are also sought after by people with a criminal background like gang members and convicts. Nevertheless, Sak Yant tattoos or Yantra tattooing are nowadays very popular both with Thai people and Westerners. However, some Thai people think that Westerners fail to appreciate the true meaning and spirituality of the Sak Yant. Tattoos for invulnerability are:
Dragon – the dragon stands for fearlessness, strength and wisdom.
King Cobra – the cobra is a venomous fearless snake that will attack rather than retreat.
Eel – the eel stands for the ability to escape because it is very slippery and hard to catch.
Hanuman – the monkey god from the Ramakien is known for having powers of invulnerability and invincibility from the God Shiva.
Tiger & Mythical Lion – they represent cunning, strength and fierceness.
Toad – the toad is supposed to be a robust animal since it has coarse skin.
The Thai tattoo master is called ajahn (teacher) which is a title of respect. He is different from other tattooist because he is most often a Buddhist monk and knows the magic of symbols, figures, cabalistic signs and verses of power. It is also important to note that each tattoo has a ‘heart’ wherein the power lies. Merely the tattooist knows the location of the heart of the tattoo. Verses of power are often reduced to a few letters or even numbers. Hence, each tattoo master knows which verse is represented by the particular groups of letters. Thus, their power is protected. The following clip shows Luang Pi Pant tattooing Wat Ko Poon in Singhburi.
Summing up, we may claim that the art of Thai Tattoos are both spiritual and traditional. However, today Yantra tattooing has become an international phenomenon and there are also places in Western countries that offer these kind of tattoos. Nevertheless, people should not forget about the origin and spiritual and ‘magical’ meaning of the Sak Yant.
(Reference: Writing From Asia. Treasures Myths and Traditions. The National Museum Volunteers Group, 1996)