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Tattoos have become seriously popular in mainstream culture. An ancient tradition performed in many different cultures over the centuries, from Mayan and Aztec civilisations in the West to the Lanna, Siam and Chinese dynasties of the East. Seventeenth century European sailors adopted these skills and tattooed one another with their own signifying marks in the hope of being identified if they were swept overboard whilst at sea and their bodies washed ashore. In the last thirty or so years the tattoo scene has grown out subcultures such as punks and motorcycle gangs to be assimilated by celebrities and the general public alike. Every conceivable design and style has been adopted and people who ‘ink’ are now seen as fashionable and trendy. Tattoos have personal significance to the people who choose to go under the needle, but there is a place where the meaning carries a whole lot more weight than your high street studio.
Sak yant are Buddhist tattoos performed by a Thai monk in a temple using a bamboo rod with a steel tip. Having given a small donation or offering, the person bows to the monk and then turns and sits before him while two attendees hold the skin taught. The choice of design and location on the body is determined by the monk alone and – having dipped the needle into the mix of ink, palm oil and snake venom – he commences to tap out the design with swift dexterity and accuracy born out of years of practice. The length of time taken can be anything from 10 to 30 minutes depending on the complexity, but after between 1,000 and 3,000 jabs the sak yant is complete. To finish the process the monk then breathes a blessing into the tattoo bestowing the wearer with a number of attributes such as luck, strength, health, protection from evil, courage, fortitude etc.
The experience is a deeply spiritual one and many Thai people and monks are heavily covered in sak yant tattoos each pertaining to a specific aspect of their life. It is not permitted for a monk to touch a woman and you find many who will not tattoo females at all. However, it is possible to find monks that will, and they often perform their work wearing gloves or leaning with a piece of paper upon the woman’s back. An alternative to this is a visit to an Ajarn. An Ajarn is a master sak yant tattoo artist who was previously a monk. In a blessed studio space and by prior appointment (rather than queuing at the temple) you can undergo a similar treatment. The cost may be higher, but the Ajarn will often talk with the customer and get their views on which sak yant they would like or think best for them. Another advantage of visiting an Ajarn is the standards of hygiene put in place. In the temple the monk will often use the same ink well for multiple people and the steel tips are either just wiped or dipped in alcohol between sessions. The Ajarn will use a new steel tip for each session and change the ink, which can be a mitigating factor in peoples’ decision to pay the extra for a private session with a higher standard of service. Either way the Ajarn will also bless the sak yant by breathing upon it and therefore protect the wearer from harm or bestow power.
There are many different types of sak yant, also known as Yantra. Square yant represent the four elements of the world – earth, wind, fire and water. Triangular yant represent the trinity of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, a circular yant represents the face of Buddha himself, whilst many others are pictorial, showing animals, temples or other Buddhist symbols. Each carries a special meaning and has different magical properties to aid the wearer. Getting tattooed in this way is not for everyone, but those that do really feel that the tattoo brings something into their lives and that the experience was an unforgettable and unique one that they not only look back upon, but carry with them throughout their lives.
For those looking to receive a Sak Yant and blessing from either a monk or ajarn there is something you must know before proceeding. There are five main rules to follow after the tattoo and blessing has been performed (for a monk there can be as many as one hundred). Failure to follow these simple rules will result in the loss of any spiritual power attached by the blessing to the wear. The rules are as follows :-
1. Do not kill another living creature. This includes any sentient being from a human all the way down to the smallest of insects. It does not however prevent a person from the consumption of meat dispatched by another.
2. Do not steal or lie. Fairly self-explanatory and really it relates back to the first rule in not doing harm to others. The lying part can be difficult to uphold in some cases as we sometimes lie to protect others feelings, but if you truly want the blessing to stay with you for life then the rules must be obeyed at all times.
3. Do not be unfaithful. This third rules includes avoiding marital affairs, cheating on partners or loved ones and even the avoidance of desirous thoughts. Only two unattached people should want or connect with one another.
4. Do not become intoxicated. No one said these rules were going to be easy, but they are somewhat open to interpretation. Most Ajarn won’t expect you to remain sober for life in order to retain the power of a Sak Yants blessing. Instead this rule represents the need to avoid losing control of oneself. A drink in itself is ok, being drunk (and certainly being uncontrollably drunk) is not. You have been warned!
5. Do not speak ill of your family. Family is of the utmost importance in Thai culture. Most children do not leave the family home until they are married, with many staying at home well into adulthood. Having respect, particularly for one’s parents and elders is imperative. You must not speak ill of or to those you love and are closest to.
A Monk or Ajarn may ask that you uphold any other rules he wishes and/or that may be of relevance to the properties of the Sak Yant you have received. This can include, but is certainly not limited to – Do not commit evil deeds, do not make claims for or tell others about the magical properties of the tattoo you have received, do not boast, do not have feelings of superiority, but stay humble, do not fight or be violent toward others, do not take drugs, be charitable and giving toward those less fortunate than yourself, do not be jealous, covetous or possessive of another, etc… the list is long, but the five rules as stated above are mandatory for any and all Sak Yant tattoos. What you may be about to embark upon is not just a tattoo, but a spiritual mark connected to a specific aspect of one’s life. It is therefore taken seriously by all followers of the Buddhist faith who undergo the proceeding and should be by you.
Please consider these rules and their significance carefully before deciding to continue down this path. If you wish to know more about the history of Sak Yant and consider getting a tattoo then watch out for our ‘Ink & Eat’ Tattoo tours coming soon…