Tattooed by a Monk: My Sak Yant Tattoo

The smoky fragrance of incense, opening up to a complete stranger about my passions, fears, and desires, and being able to share it all with Sarah will leave as indelible a mark on my memory as it has on my skin. 

Last week, Sarah and I ventured out of Chiang Mai into a smaller community where I received a Sak Yant through a practice that has been performed in this area for over 2,000 years.

A Sak Yant is a traditional, hand-etched Thai tattoo given by an Ajarn (monk who is a master tattoo artist in this case) and blessed to provide protection and good fortune, enhance or suppress desired characteristics of the bearer, and influence people and events the bearer may come into contact with. In the past, they were mostly given to warriors to protect them from physical harm during battle but over time they’ve spread to incorporate other virtues.

While there are a near infinite number of places and ways to receive a Sak Yant here in Thailand, Sarah and I decided to organize a guide so we could better understand the ceremony and communicate with my Ajarn.

Smiling for the camera from left to right, are Ben, our Ajarn, and our tour guide.

Smiling for the camera from left to right, are Ben, our Ajarn, and our tour guide.

We were picked up at our AirBnB in Chiang Mai at 9am by our guide, Louie, and drove for about 30 minutes to a smaller community well outside the city. We turned down a small unpaved road and arrived at the samnak (tattoo studio), greeted by the wagging tails and friendly barks of the Ajarn’s pet dogs.

After removing our shoes, we stepped into the open air samnak and were greeted by the monk I would be working with. We all took a seat and I was asked a very simple but undeniably deep question, “What are your expectations for this tattoo?”

The samnak where I received my tattoo. If you look closely, the statues surrounding the Ajarn are all very important. On the left side of the photo the first statue is the Buddha. Next to Buddha is a statue of the Ajarn's great-grandfather who was also a tattoo artist. To the right of the Ajarn is a statue of his master, and behind that statue is a picture of the Ajarn's grandfather. The man in the white shirt was our driver.

The samnak where I received my tattoo. If you look closely, the statues surrounding the Ajarn are all very important. On the left side of the photo the first statue is the Buddha. Next to Buddha is a statue of the Ajarn’s great-grandfather who was also a tattoo artist. To the right of the Ajarn is a statue of his master, and behind that statue is a picture of the Ajarn’s grandfather. The man in the white shirt was our driver. 

Coming from a western country in which tattoos are used in a more passive sense (for decoration, remembrance, etc.), it is a bit strange to consider the belief that tattoos could take a more active role and actually influence people and events. My response was probably something uninspiring but luckily our guide was there to continue probing.

Over a fifteen minute period, we discussed everything from my date of birth to successes and failures, hopes and dreams, and passions and fears with the Ajarn scribbling away the whole time. Eventually, he held up a sheet of paper with a quick drawing and walked through the meaning of each component and how it related to our discussion.

This is what the Ajarn was jotting down while I was talking. The below text is the Thai translation for the Bali Sanscrit verse that makes up the base of the tattoo.

This is what the Ajarn was jotting down while I was talking. The below text is the Thai translation for the Bali Sanscrit verse that makes up the base of the tattoo.

With the tattoo design finished, the ceremony started. It began with a donation which I placed into a bowl that I jointly held with the monk, bowed my head, and received a blessing.

Receiving a blessing and making an offering to the Ajarn.

Receiving a blessing and making an offering to the Ajarn.

After that, I was led over to an effigy of his master where I lit incense and made a wish for the things my tattoo was to bring me, bringing further focus to my hopes and to carry my conviction to the Ajarn through the power of his master. 

Lighting the incense and making a wish for the tattoo.

Lighting the incense and making a wish for the tattoo.

With the beginning ceremony complete, it was tattoo time. The Ajarn attached the metal needle to the end of a bamboo rod while telling us the needle was passed down from his ancestors. We found out later that the needle belonged to his great grandfather and had been passed down from father to son through generations. He pressed the cold metal against my back and in perfect English asked, “Are you ready?”

The Ajarn getting the needle ready to start the tattoo.

The Ajarn getting the needle ready to start the tattoo.

The pain is so different from what I’d experienced from a tattoo gun that it’s difficult to compare them. Also, because the Sak Yant is a series of outlines, there isn’t anything to fill in which greatly reduces the time spent getting the tattoo. I was probably in the chair (a term I use pretty loosely here given it was lime green, plastic, and child-sized) for 15 minutes when the monk put his hand on my shoulder and said, “All done!”

It only took 15 minutes for the tattoo to be completed.

It only took 15 minutes for the tattoo to be completed.

He had me hold still for another minute. I thought it was for a final piece of the ceremony but he was actually just taking a picture of the tattoo. Once a year, his followers will gather to have their tattoos “re-blessed” and given not everybody can make it, he’ll run through his tattoo photos and offer blessings for those absent.

It’s been nearly a week since I received my Sak Yant and, though I’m thrilled with it, I’m still processing the experience. A part of me would like to believe in its inherent power. I would love to believe that because of the tattoo, I will not only be protected, but also be a stronger, better, more peaceful version of myself. There’s another part of me that says it’s nothing more than a cool experience that comes with an everlasting souvenir. 

The final product.

The final product.

I guess it doesn’t really matter either way. Reflecting on who I am today, what I value, and who I would like to become is enhanced by the presence of a constant reminder of ink, leaving a mark much deeper than skin.

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