For an experience that's both physical and spiritual, Sak Yant tattoos are a sacred art form with a mystical touch.
The ancient practice of Sak Yant
Few souvenirs are as personal—or as permanent—as a tattoo. It's a lasting way to remember any trip, but the Sak Yant tattoos of Southeast Asia are more than just stylish mementos. Believed to have magical powers that bestow protection, luck, and good fortune on the receiver, the practice of Sak Yant is deeply connected to Buddhist culture, although its origins stretch even further back to animist times.
Sak Yant tattoos are created today as they have been for 2,000 years, by meticulously poking intricate black ink designs into the skin followed by a blessing to activate the tattoo's power. That's why they are only given by trained monks or ajahns, who are spiritual scholars.
A young monk's Sak Yant
Steel needles called khem are used to create a Sak Yant
Power and meaning of Sak Yant designs
There are many different designs, or yants, that incorporate a combination of geographic symbols along with prayers in the ancient Pali script. Each design has a unique meaning, so it's important to go in with an idea of what you want. A common myth is that the monk chooses the design, but in reality, the individual should pick the yant that most resonates with them.
Before you travel, research the tradition and designs to discover which yant is right for you. An excellent resource is Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yant by author and long-time Thailand resident Joe Cummings. Once you're ready to commit, a local guide can accompany you so nothing gets lost in translation.
A book of Yant designs
A Sak Yant tattoo in progress
Where to get a Sak Yant tattoo
Once practiced across Southeast Asia from Myanmar to China, now Sak Yant artists are mostly found in Thailand with ample options around Bangkok and Chiangmai. Some monks work directly from the temple, but others have created their own consecrated spaces.
Cummings recommends Ajahn Neng in Bangkok, who studied under one of the late Sak Yant masters. Another option is The Siam Hotel in Bangkok, which has a designated studio where guests can get a traditional sacred tattoo from Ajahn Boo.
A Thai Buddha amulet worn over a Sak Yant tattoo
Ready for a Sak Yant tattoo?
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