Sak Yant means a yantra or prayer tattooed on the skin. Generally, the wearer uses them as a form of protection, a prayer, or a charm. This tradition originated not among monks but in hermit culture. Today, however, monks and Arjans (Sak Yant masters who are not presently monks) give these wearable protections.
Generally speaking, the person getting a Sak Yant speaks with the monk/Arjan to decide the appropriate symbols for them based on their life, dreams, fears, and aspirations.
Someone with a dangerous job like a Muay Thai fighter, for example, might receive a tiger Sak Yant for protection. A businessperson, on the other hand, might seek out symbols for charm, persuasion, and power. Of course, this is an oversimplification since a true Sak Yant master will incorporate other symbolism and personal meaning into a single tattoo, but sort of symbolic meaning is the essence of Sak Yant.
I received my Sak Yant in late April 2019 in Bangkok, Thailand and the following is my personal experience.
Choosing a guide and Sak Yant master
There are all kinds of tattoo shops. You’ll see lots just walking down the streets in the more touristy parts of Thailand’s cities. Most offer walk-in appointments. If you want a trained Sak Yant master (called an Arjan) who really knows the meaning and does the process in a traditional way, you’ll have to search a little harder.
Ethan and I chose to book a Sak Yant tour through Airbnb Experiences. If it’s your first time hearing of Airbnb’s tours, they’re definitely worth a try. They’re way more personal and authentic than any other tours we’ve tried.
As it turns out, getting an authentic Sak Yant tattoo is quite the process. We understood that we would need to provide a small offering, light incense, repeat prayers in Thai, and communicate with the Arjan in Thai.
Our main requirement was receiving a Sak Yant from a true master and to treat Thai/Buddhist culture with respect. We felt more comfortable leaving all this to a local guide. Ultimately, we decided to book through Airbnb several weeks before arriving in Thailand. The tour sizes are pretty small (ours had only four people) so we were able to ask all of our questions in a very comfortable environment.
Work on celebrities
Sak Yant tattoos became mainstream with the help of American celebrities. Angelina Jolie got her first Sak Yant tattoo in 2003 (from a different Arjan than ours) and now has three. Brad Pitt and tons of other celebrities received Sak Yants too.
This Airbnb tour worked closely with a specific Arjan—Arjan Neng. His claim to fame is tattooing Brook Shields and Steven Seagal. View his Facebook page here or his website here. According to his site, he was an apprentice for 6 years and has been a Sak Yant master since 2002.
Despite tattooing celebrities, he works in a humble Samnak (studio), far from the action in Bangkok’s city center. To me, this was actually refreshing and added to the authenticity of the experience.
Still, he’s the kind of artist you should book before you even arrive in Thailand. We booked our tour then sent a deposit on Paypal about three weeks before the ceremony, and that was in the low tourist season. In other words, simply showing up at his Samnak and hoping for the best probably won’t get you far.
Providing Sak Yant offerings
As the first part of our tour, our guide took us to the market to choose offerings (which cost only about 10 Baht each but they were included in the tour cost so we didn’t need to worry about that). I chose flowers and Ethan chose an offering of sugar cane and bananas for Ganesh, the Hindu elephant-headed god of good fortune.
We arrived at the Arjan’s Samnak fairly early in the morning at about 10 a.m. so we were able to watch him go about his morning ritual and recite his prayers. No video recording is allowed while the Arjan in praying, but other than that, photos and videos were acceptable.
Another couple, separate from our tour group, showed up. It turned out that they had actually booked the Arjan first, so we needed to wait. We had forgotten to eat breakfast, which is recommended before any tattoo. It actually worked out perfectly. Our guide took us to lunch early at a small, nearby Thai restaurant.
After we finished eating, we headed back to the Samnak. The Arjan still wasn’t finished so we ordered Thai-style coffees from a local boy and enjoyed them there while looking at images of the Arjan’s previous tattoos on our guide’s phone.
When she noticed he was almost finished, our guide helped us offer incense and lead us through the prayer. We were thankful for the sign which had the entire prayer written phonetically in an alphabet we knew. She gave us a moment for private prayer and reflection.
Choosing a Sak Yant design
Our guide showed us inside the Samnak and we each took turns choosing our designs. For me, anxiety started to set in. I still wasn’t sure exactly where I wanted my tattoo and I wasn’t certain what type of design I wanted either. Arjan Neng moved quickly and before I knew it, I was sitting in front of him, telling him my job, my age, and what I hoped to get out of a Sak Yant.
I shared that I am an English teacher, but I probably don’t want to be one forever. I also happen to be a rather anxious person who isn’t always sure of her decisions—especially what I want to do next in life and when I ultimately want to return home to the United States. Our guide relayed all this information to him in Thai.
He asked what shape I wanted the tattoo to be—lines, triangle, circle, etc. and where I wanted it placed. I went with my gut and chose the side of my forearm. He looked through his book of sketched and showed me one option.
Asking for what you want in your Sak Yant tattoo
I felt bad telling him I wanted something smaller, but I knew I needed to be honest since I would carry this symbol visibly on my body for the rest of my life. He was patient and sketched a new one on paper. Honestly, I felt glad I asked for the alteration because it was incredible watching him draw a new, customized design. I could see the years of experience at work as he created it. It only took about 2 minutes.
Symbolism in my Sak Yant design
He showed me the second design, and our tour guide translated it English for me. The design included the symbol for wisdom on each side. This shape appears in many Sak Yant tattoo and represents the wavering path life takes that eventually comes to the straight line of Enlightenment and, with it, wisdom.
After that, he chose three symbols representing an abbreviation of the Buddha’s prayer he would recite when he was tempted to choose the wrong path. Next is a symbol for the connected, peaceful mind surrounded by the four symbols for wind, water, earth and fire, to encourage balance. Lastly appears another sign for wisdom and the meandering path to Enlightenment.
The Arjan’s symbols for Ethan
The Arjan selected similar symbols for Ethan, as we experience similar anxieties. He, however, also requested feelings of happiness and peace. The Arjan selected the shape of a large, meditating Buddha. This appears like three stacked, horizontal ovals rather than a pictorial form because, in Thailand, a real image on the body shows disrespect. This is partly because one’s head should remain below that of the Buddha’s. Inside of the ovals were signs for peace and happiness. Ethan’s Buddha sits on the symbols for water, earth, wind, and fire which the Arjan also selected for mine and Ethan’s also includes three symbols for wisdom. As you can see, Ethan selected a triangle shape.
Pain & the process
Out Arjan used a stencil to be sure we were happy with the placement and design. After one final OK, I sat down on the floor, facing away from him with my legs crossed. (You should not point your feet at the Arjan but according to the guidelines he provided, sitting cross-legged is acceptable.)
The Arjan recited a prayer (which again, should not be recorded on video) and started giving the tattoo pretty quickly.
A note on photographing the Sak Yant process: Arjan Neng allowed photography and even videos during the Sak Yant process. However, he does not allow video during the prayers. I’ve read other blogs and their experiences varied. Some were not allowed to make images during tattooing, others were not allowed to make images because they were women. Some Arjans will not tattoo women at all due to their personal religious beliefs.
The pain was definitely present but definitely not unbearable. Aside from its designs, Sak Yant tattooing is known for the long, rod-like needle (rather than a mechanical tattoo gun). It is powered completely by the Arjan. Each contact moves from hand to rod to needle to skin. Arjan Neng’s mastery was obvious, especially when considering his speed.
Though it was “hand-poked,” the whole tattoo took only about 15 minutes.
When people talk about bamboo needle tattoo experiences, they often talk about the pain of the needle. I’m actually unsure whether the needle tip was made of bamboo or metal in the shape of bamboo. That part wasn’t particularly important to me, especially considering that many Sak Yant masters do not change their needles between appointments. All of Arjan Neng’s info made it very clear that he used a fresh needle every single time. Look for clean needle policies before booking a Sak Yant in Thailand.
It didn’t feel so horrible to me, but everyone responds to pain differently. The other guy in my group was completely covered in sweat after he received his tattoo, though the Samnak was air-conditioned. I did not ask whether this was due to nerves or pain. I expect it was a combination of both.
A few more notes on pain
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the process was that an apprentice needed to pull the skin tight so that the Arjan could create the well-defined symbols. Depending on the size of the tattoo, it can take two skin-pullers to get the job done.
Whenever the pain became intense, I focused on my breathing and the phrase my guide told me that people getting Sak Yants look to for strength. Arjan Neng concluded with some additional blessings in an ancient Thai language, shook reeds soaked water over my head and shoulders; and then the process was over.
After the Sak Yant
Arjans have various rules you should adhere to after receiving a Sak Yant. I found these really interesting so I’ll include them here. The following are Arjan Neng’s rules:
- Cursing at your parents and benefactors.
- Do not use illegal drugs.
- Do not have an affair (cheat on your partner).
- Come to pay respect to the annual Wai-kru ceremony.
- Do not eat green lentil, crayfish, reptiles, dog meat, and funeral food and leftover food from other (Apart from your family).
- Do not let people walk over your head.
- Pray to the Ka tha (Magic spell) Arjarn Neng gave you.
Aftercare for a Sak Yant tattoo is essentially the same as any machine-done tattoo. The only thing I’d like to note here is the hot Thai weather. Aftercare in a foreign country, especially a hot one where you might be staying in budget hostels is less than ideal. Ethan also felt that sweat was irritating his tattooed area.
We weren’t aware of it at the time, but many people choose to get their tattoo right before flying home. We still had two days left in Bangkok. That said, it was not a huge issue since we were able to buy lotion, stay in an air-conditioned hostel room, and wash up in a fairly roomy shower.
Just be aware of aftercare before making your Sak Yant appointment.
As of about 1.5 weeks after receiving my Sak Yant tattoo, everything seems to be healing nicely. The area continues to feel quite itchy, but, again, nothing unbearable.
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