Tattoos have been around for centuries, with many cultural tattoo traditions linked to spirituality and religion. One type of tattoo with a rich spiritual history that is still practised today is the Sak Yant tattoo. The tattoo art originated in Southeast Asia thousands of years ago. As a substitute for taking protective amulets into battle, warriors would get sacred images inked onto their bodies as protection.
Sak means “to tap” and yantra is a geometrical design or pattern. The pattern is therefore tattooed onto the skin using the ancient bamboo tapping method. Sak Yant tattoos are very beautiful and consist of sacred geometrical, animal and deity designs, along with Pali phrases. But more than just art, these tattoos are believed to be magical, bestowing good luck, power, protection, abundance, love and other benefits on the bearer. They are practiced mainly in temples by Buddhist monks or ex-monks who have undergone rigorous training, so you would have to travel to Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia or some other Buddhist country for your Sak Yant tattoo.
There are many traditional types and designs, but one of the most well-known and popular is the Ha-thaeo (meaning five rows), which is typically tattooed on the back left shoulder, with each of the five lines relating to a different blessing for success and good luck. Angelina Jolie had her Ha-thaeo inked in Cambodia, along with several other Sak Yant tattoos over the years, all done by ex-monk Ajarn Noo Kanpai. Incidentally, monks are forbidden from touching females, so if you’re a lady wanting a Sak Yant tattoo, you would need to find a monk willing to perform the tattoo wearing gloves and using a cloth to hold your skin taut, or as Angelina did, get your ink done by an ex-monk tattooist.
Other popular choices are the Kao-yot (meaning nine spires), which is normally tattooed on the top centre of the back, the Si-yot (meaning four spires), said to influence the feelings or actions of others, the Panchamukhi, depicting five Deva faces and tattooed to ward off illness and danger, and the Suea, which depicts twin tigers that represent power and authority. The latter is popular with Muy Thai fighters.
Much of the symbolism and script used in Sak Yant tattoos relates directly to the Buddhist faith and may include a sacred chant or a mantra; for this reason, it’s important to research your Sak Yant tattoo before you get it or have it done by a professional tattooist Monk, who might even ask you a few questions and then decide for themselves which tattoo is best for you. If you just do it randomly by a street artist, you could end up with a tattoo that has no meaning or worse - a negative meaning.
The important thing to know is that the tattoo only holds its power while you practise the “laws” of Sak Yant. These may vary from temple to temple, but essentially they involve Buddhism principles like: do not steal, do not lie, do not kill any sentient being, and the trickiest of all, do not get intoxicated. The last one doesn’t mean you can’t drink at all; it simply means you are to avoid getting drunk or high – so a beer or two is fine.
It is believed that the power of sacred tattoos decreases with time and of course if you fail to observe the rules. So to re-empower them each year, Sak Yant masters and their devotees attend the annual Wai Khru festival, where the tattoos gain their power again through chanting and various other rituals. So if after receiving one of these tattoos, you have a big night out, or tell a few pork pies, you would need to travel back to the place you received it, to receive a blessing from the monk who tattooed you, or attend the Wai Khru festival and voila! - your good luck is back!
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