Tattoos have recorded the pain, triumph, and identity of nearly every indigenous culture in the world. The Buddhist monks of Thailand have been using the same tattoo methods for centuries, passing the art from master to disciple, leaving the tradition of sak yant nearly untouched.
A stronghold of Thai culture long before Angelina Jolie got one, these tattoos are said to give Muay Thai fighters super strength, protect elephant trainers from attack, and even make soldiers impenetrable to gunfire. But be forewarned, sak yant (also called sak yan or yantra) tattoos aren’t just about pleasing symmetry. These designs have a much deeper significance.
Sak, meaning “to tattoo,” and yant, meaning “mystical insignia,” is given by the temple ajarn (senior monk), who you’ll find wrapped in a robe and sitting on a cushion, flanked by pots of ink and holy water. He determines the design you need (it is chosen for you) and the placement (most are given on the upper back and chest) after reading your aura. The soul is believed to reside in the head, so the closer the tattoo is to the crown, the more power the tattoo will have.
As two helpers hold the skin taught, the ajarn uses a sharpened bamboo quill or metal rod to insert the ink into the skin with swift jabs. The process hasn’t strayed from its traditional roots, and therein lies the mastery. The hand tapping takes an incredibly steady hand and focused mind. Sak yant is handed down from master to student in strict lineages, and the “transmission” of the ajarn to the apprentice is integral in protecting the mystical powers and artistry.
The ink is a personal recipe formulated by the ajarn himself, usually consisting of charcoal and other mystical ingredients ranging from sesame oil to snake venom. Tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak has seen ajarns use everything from sandalwood steeped in herbs, to oil extracted from wild animals “such as elephants, galls of tiger, bear, and python, and even cobra venom or the chin fat from a corpse.” These ingredients, he writes, heighten the tattoo’s protective qualities.
After the design is finished, the ajarn performs a chanted sutra then blows the prayer into the skin to active the tattoo’s powers. This is said to create a powerful channel, bringing down the kung of the ajarn, his teachers, and the teachings of Buddha into the body.
Legend has it that Thailand has never been occupied by a foreign country thanks to Thai army “ghost soldiers” who were invisible to the eyes of invaders, thanks to the powers of their sak yant tattoos.
“The sak yan tradition is not simply animism and Buddhism practiced side by side, but rather an integrated system of magic in which neither can exist without the other.” – Joe Cummings, author of Sacred Tattoos of Thailand
There are caveats to getting sak yant. First, don’t get tattooed by a hack. A new industry has cropped up in Thailand offering sak yant knock-offs to tourists. There are even people waiting outside the temples to lure you off to their tattoo shops. And don’t risk getting a sak yant design without the guidance of a trained ajarn. Misrepresentation of these symbols has landed some people in jail, leading the Thai cultural minister to threaten banning tourists from getting religious tattoos altogether.
And secondly, follow “The Way.” As Cummings writes, “the tradition is also deeply entwined in the Buddhist moral code that the designs can lose their powers if a wearer errs from their spiritual path.” Upon completion, the ajarn gives you a set of Buddhist precepts to obey, including refraining from killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, and improper sexual intercourse. The more dharma (good behavior) a person is able to uphold, the greater the strength of their tattoo.
“You have to have faith to get a tattoo for it to work. You have to believe in it. Otherwise these tattoos are worthless. You need to understand dharma before you get a tattoo. Simple things like cleaning the floor with a broom focus the mind on doing good to help society; and these actions build a pure heart.” – Ajarn Luang Pi Nunn
The sacred designs of sak yant combine geometric patterns with sanskrit or khom, the sacred calligraphy of the ancient Khmer language. Together they “form a portal for the entry of weecha—the magical power transferred from master to disciple—into the body,” writes Cummings. Ajarns have an encyclopedic range of sak yant in their memory, but here are some of the most recognized designs:
This “Eight Direction Yant” contains the eight mantras written in two concentric circles; said to give protection in whichever direction you are traveling and ward off evil.
“Nine spires” represents the nine peaks of Mount Meru, the center of the universe in Buddhist and Hindu mythology. A small Buddha sits on the top of each spire with a unaalome above him representing the path to enlightenment. Unaalome is a spiral symbolizing the path of life, at first meandering through the earthly distractions of daily life, then gradually becoming straighter as we grow older and wiser; signifying the path to Nirvana, or true enlightenment.
“Five sacred lines” represent different sacred blessings bestowed by the ajarn, each punctuated by an unaalome. These verses give a range of powers, including loving kindness, good luck, protection from evil, and great charm or charisma.
For more about the symbology check out this breakdown of the symbols.
Emily Hill is a nomadic health and wellness journalist. In her travels from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Auckland, New Zealand, she’s reported on everything from underground electronic music to nerdy nutrition science. Emily is an avid women’s cycling advocate and amateur yogi. Her favorite food is red wine. Follow her @EmilybyNight.