Buddhist monk working on a tattoo

Sak Yant Tattoos

In the last years, I have seen more and more people having traditional Thai tattoos on their backs, shoulders and chest. That picked my interest and I researched about this traditional tattoo art and technique. Here is what I found out: 

What is a Sak Yant Tattoo

Sak Yant Tattoos sometimes also called Yantra tattoos are permanent tattoos created by buddhist monks to create protection for the wearers and to stir away bad luck and danger. The tattoos often combine beautiful geometric forms with traditional buddhist texts.

The Buddhist monks use traditional instruments and techniques that have been passed from generation to generation by word of mouth in the temples of Thailand. Inked people say that the tattoos help them in attracting luck and health to their lives. 

Sak Yant Tattoo Meaning

The tattoos follow well defined patterns that are easily recognizable. Here I will introduce some of these patterns so you can identify them going forward. 

History of Sak Yant Tattoos

The tradition of Yantra tattoos reach back for thousands of years. The roots of the Thai Sak Yant tattoos can be found in the temples of Thailand. The phenomenon is present in the whole region and the Yantra tattoos might have originated from Khmer culture where it is still very popular to the day. Besides Cambodia and Thailand, Myanmar shares much of the same history in terms of Sak Yant Tattoos. The history of wars of these three regional powers and the competition in sports, especially of Muay Thai and Burmese Lethwei has also increased the need for protection against knives, arrows and blows. The tattoos also command respect from the adversary and the tattoos work magic to this day.

Fast forward to the modern age. People from China to Australia and from France to Canada have become more and more interested in Muay Thai and with it in the tattoos of the Muay Thai fighters. In the recent two decades, tattoos have become more and more popular globally. Tourists flock to Thailand in increasing numbers and the West has become more interested in Buddhism since the 70s of the previous century.

In the end, Tourists helped create the global phenomenon that Sak Yant Tattoos have become. Tourists make up a large share of tattoo wearers in some areas. 

The tourists are a mixed blessing but clearly, the international attention has helped to spread the popularity of Sak Yant Tattoos.

Sak Yant Tattoo Instruments and Techniques

Machines are not used for Sak Yant Tattoos. The monks use the traditional instruments of sharpened bamboo or metal spikes to insert the ink underneath the highest skin layers one poke at a time. 

The bamboo or metal needle is dipped into ink and then poked several times on your skin by the monk. This technique can take a very long time and demands a high level of concentration by the monk.

After a tattoo is finished, the monks clean the needles with alcohol to prevent spreading diseases. Still, the technique to dip needles in the ink is debatable. While modern tattoo machines have ink containers that don’t mix with blood and skin cells, the practice of dipping the needle in the same ink for many sessions might not be the safest way. 

The ink used in Sak Yant Tattoos is not purchased at specialised stores or off the shelves, but created in a secret way by the monks themselves. Matthew writes about snake venom, coal , and human remains as potential ingredients.  

Sak Yant Tattoo Designs

The basic forms

The five lines

The nine peaks

The eight directions

The monkey God

Tiger Sak Yant Tattoo

Your Sak Yant Tattoo

How to behave at a Sak Yant Tattoo ceremony

Communication with the monks

Only a minority of the monks in Thailand speak English. If you speak Thai, this is clearly a big plus as you will then also understand many of the cultural aspects of the Sak Yant tradition. 

As in most communication in Thailand, be respectful and polite. This being said it can also be very beneficial to have a conversation so the monk understands your situation and life history. This can only work if there is a bit more time and you have a trusted translator with you. 

In some monasteries on some days, there are so many people waiting to get their tattoo that there is little time for a conversation. 

Be patient and wait

Sometimes, 30-40 people are waiting in a temple to get a chance to get inked. Usually, there is no prior appointment, so it is just a long waiting line. Be patient. If you can’t sit on a mat for hours, you might not want to go to get a traditional Sak Yant Tattoo. 

Understanding the meaning

You might have already read what I wrote above about the meaning of Sak Yant Tattoos and about the meaning of specific designs and that is a great preparation before you consider getting a Sak Yant Tattoo.

However, what does it mean for you specifically? You will inevitably get asked by your friends and family about the tattoo later and while knowing the meaning of the design is great the real question is what the meaning is for you. Do you have a life situation corresponding with the tattoo? Do you respect and believe in the support that your tattoo will bring you?

Gifts and payment

While in most cases in the monasteries, Sak Yant Tattoos are performed without a fee or cost, all devotees will bring some gifts. This can range from cigarettes to food or a mixture of these things. In Wat Bang Phra and other very common places with hundreds of visitors every day, gift baskets are prepared that can be purchased for some dollars. 

Good gifts for monks include (vegetarian) food, items of daily use, tea, incense, candles, matches, and sometimes cigarettes. A mix of the above gifts and providing them in a graceful way goes a long way.  

Please don’t think that monks will necessarily consume all these items. Sometimes, they can be given back to shops in the temple to be sold again and thus generate some income for the temple.

Silence

symbol for silence
Silence - an asian woman holding her index finger before her mouth

Try to be quiet during the Sak Yant Tattoo ceremony. This helps the monk to concentrate but it is also appropriate for the place. 

Best is to have already a short talk with the monk before the ceremony so the monk understands the specific life situation if there is anything special. Speak in low voice. 

During the actual tattoo session, the providing of gifts and after that, not much words need to be exchanged. 

Your existing tattoos (Buddha head tattoo and others)

Before you consider going for a Sak Yant Tattoo, you need to check your existing tattoos. 

Is there anything that could negate the positive meaning of a Sak Yant Tattoo? Specifically, you should not go to a Sak Yant Tattoo session if you have any inappropriate tattoo especially tattoos depicting the Buddha in a not commonly accepted way. In case you are not sure, consult with your friends or experts before. 

Prepare yourself

rule of thumb: no sunburn for 7 days prior to getting a new tattoo
Many vacationers have sever sunburn - don't get a tattoo then

Being polite is important but there is more you can do to get prepared for a Sak Yant Tatoo session. 

The ceremony is very different compared to what another tattoo experience might be. The differences in techniques are important. While the traditional methods are usually not bad, there is not always the same hygienic standard compared to modern techniques. Diseases could in theory spread from one wearer to another even alcohol is used to disinfect the needles. Personally, I haven’t seen a statistic on the internet about this potential danger. 

If you have hairy shoulders or back, make sure to remove those hair before going to get a tattoo and check that your skin is not irritated after the waxing or shaving.

What I have seen however, is a rather common, unhealthy situation. Some tourists got their Sak Yant Tattoos on sunburnt skin. This is not good practice. Make sure your skin is clean and not irritated before getting a Sak Yant. Definitely avoid getting even a slight sunburn in the week prior to any tattoo and very importantly: prevent sunburn of new tattoos! Later, frequent sunburns and sun exposure can also damage your tattoo. 

Rules for Sak Yant Tattoo Wearer

Additional rules apply for wearers of Sak Yant Tattoos. Most tourists do not take these rules too serious but in my opinion if you are getting a traditional tattoo in a temple, you should make an effort in knowing what is expected of you in terms of right behavior afterwards. 

Mostly, this is related to food and beverages and our social and romantic contacts. 

Where to get a Sak Yant in Thailand

Obviously, you want to get a Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand and not anywhere else.

Best is to familiarize yourself with several options and talk with people who went through this experience first. 

One of the most popular places is Wat Bang Phra, a large, traditional temple 30 Kilometer north-west of Bangkok. Thais from the capital came here for hundreds of years to receive their protective Sak Yant Tattoo. 

 

How much does it cost to get a Sak Yant Tattoo

This is a much debated topic.

Traditional Sak Yant Tattoos don’t have a price tag. Still, it is a social requirement to provide appropriate gifts to the monks. A small gift basket can be cheap at 1-2 USD and go up to 30 USD or more. 

Besides, you might want to have the help of translators and professionals that can help you navigate and understand Sak Yant better. This can sometimes have a price of 500-2000 Thai Baht. 

Sak Yant Tattoo Experience

I have researched this topic thoroughly, visited temples but the most valuable information I got from people that went through the experience. Here are some quotes that you might want to know about.

Matthew of expert vagabond went through the experience and got a Yant Gao Yord. He wrote that he might go again and get another Sak Yant Tattoo. 

 

Learning how to create Sak Yant Tattoos in Thailand

1 thought on “Sak Yant Tattoo”

  1. Sak Yants have not been free since they stopped cutting down and using free bamboo for the needle decades ago. Thai people will buy the offering for 1-2 dollars and then give a cash donation as well. Bloggers who do not understand this often copy each others misinformation and spread the myth a Sak Yant is done by donation, not understanding this means a fee. Not giving a cash donation means you do not get to choose the design you want and get what the Master feels like giving you (another myth).

    It is better to give a cash donation, based on asking how much for the design you want. There is no reason to have a tattoo for life you do not like

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