Sak Yant (Magical Tattooing in Thailand).

Three of the most important Sak Yant.

Sak (tattoo) Yant (yantra) is a form of tattooing found in Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos and is believed to have started during the Khmer Empire that covered this region from the 9th – 15th centuries. They are respresented by Buddhist, Hindu and Animist iconography and symbology and are applied with a long lance like needle ( that was traditionally bamboo but is now more often steel) . Traditionally they are given by Buddhist monks, ex monks or Reusi (hermit scholars and protectors of traditional arts/sciences such as traditional medicine, meditation, Sak Yant, alchemy, palmistry, astrology and more). In simple terms Sak Yant are spells put on the body and most people get them to attract what they do want and protect against what they don’t want. I’ve always liked the designs but never thought I would get one , but given that this trip was during a transitional point of my life I decided to explore getting one.

If I have a belief identity then it would be secular humanist Buddhist (not incompatible in my opinion), so I surprised myself a bit by becoming interested in having a magical spell tattooed on my body; but I figured to myself that if I made some intentions for my life , found a tattoo that was in alignment with them and that I liked anyway, then what could go wrong. So I went ahead.

There is a lot of fake Sak Yant being done by regular tattooists which is frowned up by those spiritually initiated into the art , so I went to Sak Yant Chiang Mai which presents itself as an authentic provider. I have no way of verifying that , but it felt genuine to me.

The shrine and tattooing room at Sak Yant Chiang Mai. They also offer to take you to specialist temples where tattooing monks work.

I was consulted on what my priorities and intentions in life were and a design was suggested to me. In the shrine room a ritualistic process included making an offering/donation of fruit , flowers and money to the tattooist who then made some blessings . Then the tattooing process began.

Did it hurt? Yes, more than a normal tattoo but not so much that I yelped.
At the end of the process he chanted some incantations over the tattoo and blew on it .

So what to make of the whole thing ? I did feel that it was a powerful experience. Other tattoos that I’ve had rather felt like an impersonal trip to a barber that I didn’t know; but this felt different. I’m not sure exactly why? Maybe the combination of a ritualistic marking of my body, whilst creating and visualising strong intentions, along with a bit of pain, all together can help create a potent resetting of purpose ? Or is there some shamanistic magical element that I’m unaware of ? Either way if it means that the outcome is that I have a tattoo that I like and it helps me to reflect on my intentions and follow them with determination then this can only be a good thing.

Given that I can’t fully fathom the culture of Sak Yant, and it comes from a world other than my own, my experience and understanding maybe a bit simplistic; but it nonetheless felt important to me. There is a whole world view attached to this aspect of Thai culture. The Sak Yant Chiang Mai website has a lot of information . There is a interview with (unusually) an Italian Reusi in English here . A Ted talk by Thai cultural aficionado Joe Cummings here .

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