Angelina Jolie visited Thailand in 2003 and had a sak yant inked – a spiritual tattoo applied by a Buddhist monk or a so called ajarn (teacher), said to bestow their wearers with supernatural powers. The Hollywood star made this hitherto obscure spiritual tradition internationally famous and soon other foreigners came to Thailand to investigate this ancient tradition.
To learn more about Sak Yant, I visited the studio of Ajarn Neng, who has been tattooing Sak Yant for the past 15 years. The 44-year-old inks Thais and foreigners, the famous and the unknown, seven days a week, from morning to evening.
“Sak Yant are becoming more and more popular with foreigners. Nowadays, visitors don’t just drop by. They communicate before they arrive. Some come just for the tattoo. Others combine the tattoo with their holidays. Muay Thai athletes especially spend a lot of time here and they like to have Sak Yant tattooed.”
The origins of Sak Yant can be traced back to India. Yantras, sacred geometric diagrams designed to help people meditate, have been used on the subcontinent for thousands of years—they were usually put onto cloth, wood, metal, or stone.
With maritime trade increasing from the 3rd century, scores of Brahmins left India during the reign of Buddhist emperor Ashoka. Many headed to Southeast Asia and settled in various nation states, bringing the Yantra with them. Chinese diplomat Chaou Ta Kuan, who lived at the court of Angkor in the 13th century, noted how people would place Yantras, often on copper rolls, under their skin.
No one is sure when these designs migrated onto human skin but there are tales of royal messengers having their heads tattooed with Yant to convey secret messages during the Ayutthaya period.
Since then, the diagrams have been joined by other imagery that draws on animist and Buddhist sources from around Southeast Asia, including Himaphan animals, human shapes, and phallic charms.
Across Thailand, monks in temples and ajarns in their studios serve the community by applying sak yant to countless devotees. Receiving a sacred tattoo is about a lot more than a few minutes under the needle. Every yant also contains mantras in Pali, Buddhism’s liturgical language, transcribed into Khom, an ancient Khmer script. This makes each tattoo unique, both for the wearer and the master. The yant is accompanied by a kata, a mantra which the tattoo master recites while he inks his devotee.
“I choose the tattoos for the clients, depending on their needs. The social aspect of this tradition is really important. I am here to help people who come with questions and with a thirst for a new life.”
The relationship between the master and devotee is integral to the application of sak yant. Neng performs the work of a community counselor, both for local people, and visitors from around the world.
“Some of those who come to me are drowning- I throw them a life vest, but it is up to them to put it on and get out of the situation themselves”
While Ajarn Neng and I are talking, a customer arrives. Brian, a successful American architect has come to see Ajarn Neng to talk about getting a Sak Yant for inner peace. Ajarn Neng selects an oval diagram and inks it onto his client’s chest.
“Everyone has problems,” the Ajarn says, “Typically Thais come because they want to run a better business. The Chinese are in search of tattoos that promise a financial fortune. The westerners, are looking for Yant that will help them solve problems in their hearts and minds. I try and help all of them.”
The American found the experience quite different from having a commercial tattoo inked. “With the Sak Yant, you’re focusing on the pain; whereas with a normal tattoo, it’s the opposite—you’re not focusing on the pain, instead you’re trying to distract yourself from it. When the needle was going in, I kept on focusing on the reason for getting the tattoo—for the contentment of heart and mind. The whole time I was thinking about the good things in my life—the travel that I’ve done, my wife, and my son.”
For the power of the tattoo to work, devotees should follow a series of rules: the five Buddhist precepts for starters, along with particular laws an Ajarn might attribute to his Yant.
“I forgot the mantra that Ajarn Neng told me within the first three minutes of leaving,” Brian admits. “But I feel it’s a good reminder. Particularly as I can see it every day. People leave themselves sticky notes with reminders. I feel this is the best reminder, as it’s a part of my skin now.”
“Sak yant have become fashionable. Young, commercial tattooists come up with new designs, but the roots are no longer the same, the spirit has changed. They don’t understand the mantras they tattoo, as they don’t read Pali or Khom. So, it’s simply aesthetic and has no supernatural power.”
Neng is not worried about the authenticity of the tradition.
“I am sought after, because I do it the ancient way. Many people look for an authentic experience. Others just go to the local tattoo shop. But if the artist doesn’t understand the kata he tattoos, he might unleash negative energies. A lack of knowledge and understanding can potentially cause harm.”
This is why, come Monday, Ajarn Neng’s sala will be packed, as it is every day, with devotees from the local community and travelers from around the world, all waiting to be inked with magic.