The morning of a new tattoo is like Christmas for children who like to piss off their grandparents with body modification. It should be a national holiday. But today wasn't even just a regular tattoo day - I had scheduled a Sak Yant appointment with an Ajarn (tattoo master/retired monk) for that day at 12PM and could not have been more excited. It was the nervous kind of excitement where I couldn’t wait to have the tattoo but was not even remotely excited for the impending pain but wasn't going to back out bc mama didn't raise no b*tch. Talk about mixed emotions. We grabbed a quick breakfast of fried egg over rice – delicious – from a nearby street food cart before heading to the tattoo shop to pick a design and meet my Ajarn.
For those of you who don't know what a Sak Yant is, let me drop some knowledge on you. I personally didn't know much about them before getting to Southeast Asia, but as soon as I realized I could get one, I did my research to make sure it was the right choice for me. Sak Yant (sak meaning "tap" and Yant being the Thai word for what we call a "yantra") is the Thai name for the tattooing of sacred geometrical designs on the skin, often performed by Buddhist monks. Sak Yants are not strictly part of the original Buddhist traditions, but as the religion spread and expanded, many pre-existing religions that did not directly contradict Buddhism had elements that were incorporated in one way or another. The designs are imbued with certain powers intended to protect or bring good fortune to the recipient through psalms and mystical charms written in Thai around the yant known as "Khata" or "prayers". Normally, the Monk or Ajarn who preforms the Sak Yant has extensively studied the magical side of the ancient traditions and incorporates charms and magical blessings in addition to the design of the Sak Yant itself. As monks are usually not allowed to touch women, I went with an Ajarn to keep things a little simpler and less formal. You can get a Sak Yant at several temples in Chiang Mai and Bangkok, or you can take the route I did, which was to go through a reputable company that provided translators and lessons on the customary behaviors people should exhibit when interacting with a monk or an Ajarn that operates from a Sunnak (holy room where the Sak Yants can be performed) off location from their temple.
So I'll walk you through my experience, bc it was exponentially more incredible than I ever could have imagined and I believe it's worth sharing. On arrival - I went with a company called Chiang Mai Sak Yant which had great reviews in regards to service and cleanliness - we were welcomed by my translator, Ging, who would be the go-between for the Ajarn and I to communicate before the work began. I had originally planned on a tattoo of the eight directions of the universe - meant for travelers - but changed my mind on arrival when I met a girl named Luna who had the design book open to a piece with a three-headed elephant. For those of you who don't know, I love elephants, and my sisters and I make three girls, AND it was a tattoo meant to protect travelers. As if that wasn't enough, I was planning on spending the next day hanging out with a bunch of freaking elephants! Are you kidding me? I didn't even have to think about it. Golfie (another coworker) and Ging helped me put together my offering of incense, flowers, cigarettes and a monetary donation, and Ky and I headed into the Sunnak. I gave the Ajarn my offering and bowed deeply, as I was instructed by Ging was the custom. The monk looked over the design I had chosen and decided that it was an acceptable choice for who I am and how I am before creating a template for the drawing and setting to work.
Now for anyone who's not aware, I had 4 tattoos when I walked into this building, including a rib piece that took a total of five hours. As of now, I would almost rather do that rib piece over again than do another 45 minute Sak Yant session on my spine. Don't get me wrong, I know the spine isn't exactly the most tattoo friendly location, but oh my GOD. What's worse is it's not like you can cuss in front of a monk bc like obviously that's gotta be some kind of serious sacrilege right, which makes it 1000x worse bc ALL my favorite words are expletives! And science says obscenities aid in pain relief! Come ON! And not only could I not cuss, I couldn't even TALK bc it's a spiritual experience to actually GET the tattoo! And I love to talk. Like it's my job. So I resorted to singing to myself in my head and doing my best not to shout obscenities and offend the monk. Thankfully I had Ky giving me quiet updates on where we were at in terms of how much tattoo had been done, or else I think I may have lost my actual mind. My Ajarn didn't speak English except to ask "You okay?" every once and awhile, to which it was all I could do to nod and clench my fists. Not ideal. When he finished the elephants themselves, he chanted prayers as he tattooed the Khata free-hand in a semicircle under my tattoo. It was amazing. At this stage I also wasn't sure how much longer I would make it before needing a break, so please believe I breathed an audible sigh of relief when I heard the snap of the latex gloves as he removed them and wiped down my piece. I could have cried with joy.
But it wasn't over. Ging told me he would now perform the blessing, which involved a palm-leaf brush, lots of water, and even more chanted prayers. To be completely honest, the entire blessing felt so surreal, I truly couldn't even process that I had actually had the honor of getting a Sak Yant from a reputable Thai Ajarn, let alone the privilege of having it blessed by him. It was an incredible experience. Bc it was with an Ajarn rather than a monk, the rules were a little more relaxed, so Kyle was able to videotape pieces of the process! If you're interested in seeing a video of the blessing or the tattoo itself, you're welcome to check my Facebook page under the Thailand photo album - if we're not Facebook friends already you're welcome to add me, the link to my Facebook page is on the contact tab of the blog!
When the piece and the blessing were done, we headed back out into the reception area where I was given matches, a candle, and incense and encouraged to visit a temple to say a few prayers. It was such an unexpected gift, but it totally changed the game for me. I had seen a temple earlier that day that I was absolutely enamored with and knew right away that that's where I would go to pray and give thanks. Ky waited on the street while I climbed up the temple steps and found myself in front of a massive Buddha who seemed to be ready and waiting to hear what I had to say. Ging had told me to pray for the life I envisioned for myself and for my friends and family, and so I did. It was a surprisingly emotional experience for someone who is not a practitioner of Buddhism, and it made me feel so much more connected with not only my tattoo but the experience and culture as a whole. I'm a firm believer that whatever god you believe in, we all come from the same one, and I will never forget the time I spent on those temple steps.
As you may have noticed, Ky did not get a Sak Yant when I did. As of this week, he had never gotten a tattoo and wasn't sure (totally understandably) that he wanted one. He thought about it long and hard for the 72h following my tattoo, and I could see on his face that he was sure of his decision when he woke me up to head to the Sunnuk at 7.30AM (jerk) on Monday. He handled it like a champ - I'd like to attribute that to the fact that his was on the shoulder blade rather than the spine AND he had time for the Tylenol he took to actually kick in before the tattooing started (I took mine right before my Ajarn started tattooing so it did absolutely nothing for me). For those of you who have tattoos, you know that Tylenol is usually not recommended as it is a blood thinner, but the Sak Yants don't pierce the skin as deeply bc it's literally a massive needle getting tapped into your skin rather than a machine operated set of needles, so it's okay. Ky's piece was done by a monk rather than an Ajarn, so unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures or videos of the process bc they're not allowed to be photographed. I did get one of the end result, however, which you can see below! He seems to be reaaally happy with it, which is good bc, you know, it's permanent.
I hope I gave a decent articulation of the Sak Yant process - I truly can't even begin to tell you how glad I am that I was able to get one. And with that, tattoo #5 is done in country #22, and I am a very happy girl.
That's all for now folx, until next time!
The rules of conduct once you have gotten a Sak Yant are as follows:
About the Author
Mouth like a sailor, great lacker of empathy, paper cut survivor, avid arguer, harsh critic of people who put clothes on their pets, easily distracte
USA, Mexico, Iceland, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Morocco, Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Hungary, England, Poland, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Scotland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Croatia, Greece
(in August in the US)