Through all of my adventures and travels I have never been able to commit to a tattoo. I have hundreds of ideas for tattoos and saved images tucked away in computer folders. But if I’m going to carry this around into my golden years I always wanted it to MEAN something. It’s an understatement to say I tend to overthink things. Especially as something as permanent as a tattoo. So in recent years I’ve convinced myself that if I’m getting a tattoo it’s going to be decorative and devoid of meaning. Pretty lasts forever I told myself. But in the in the end a meaningful tattoo found it’s way to me.
When the opportunity arose to travel to Thailand one of my first thoughts was the ancient tradition of Sak Yant tattooing. This practice originated over 2000 years ago through the Yantra tradition from India. You’re probably most familiar with the concepts of Mandalas and Mantras which are associated with the same tradition. The general idea is that blessings and protections can be encoded into images and sounds which evoke magical powers to defend against physical and spiritual danger. In Thailand this tradition survives with the local Buddhist traditions which train masters or ajarns.
A Sak Yant tattoo uses a system of traditional symbols mixed with written thai prayers and incantations. There are known motifs but each tattoo is created for the bearer and each ajarn uses his own techniques and secret magic ink which can contain anything from snake venom to the remains of powerful elders. Once the tattoo is complete the ajarn awakens the tattoo through a mantra prayer which activates it’s power. Without this blessing the tattoo is considered to be powerless.
Traditionally Sak Yants are given with bamboo needles and are often still referred to this way but today most Sak Yant masters use straight steel needles that have been split at the tip like an ink pen to create an ink reservoir. The tattoos are created manually one stab at a time. And interestingly primarily free hand for such intricate designs. The ajarn will often draw a light grid to make sure everything lines up but then creates the designs from memory.
Katy wasn’t entirely sold on this magic Buddhist tattoo at first but after a little research she was all in. Which creates a little hiccup. Thai monks are not allowed to touch women. There’s nothing strictly forbidding women from receiving Sak Yants but it’s difficult to find a monk that will provide the service. For men, Sak Yants can be found for free at open temples, first come first serve, with a small offering. But to find an ajarn for both of us we turned to a local service that would drive us to such a monk and provide translation services which are fairly important to craft the tattoo. (Our translator also took us to an amulet market and bought us lunch. This adventure took the entire day and to me was one of the highlights of the trip.) The monk still restricted us from taking pictures of him giving Katy the tattoo because of the culture stigma against it. But he was very accommodating and welcoming throughout.
We drove several hours outside of Chiang Mai to a private residence with an open outdoor temple. Our translator told us the temple was constructed like this to assure nothing unsavory would happen involving the women. We were instructed to make an offering of incense and series of prayers to the main shrine. Then the monk had about a 30 minute conversation with each of us before the tattooing to understand what we wanted and to decide if we were worthy of the tattoo. It’s not like a regular tattoo parlor. You have to convince the monk that you’re deserving.
The night before I had written down all of the things I wanted to communicate to the monk to include in the design. But after a short time talking with the translator I realized it would be nearly impossible to communicate the abstract nature of my interests and needs. To me this was deeply personal thought and I struggled with simplifying it into primary language. So I decided to change my strategy a bit and use a more common language.
What I settled on was to focus on a few key points. I wanted a renewed focus on spirituality, especially in the way of Buddhism, the connection between all things, and a reminder that happiness lies in loving kindness. The second was that I was planning on a long journey soon and would like good luck and protection while traveling and to be received by strangers with good will and openness. There exists a design that speaks to just this and I was able to request it knowing that it generally covered my needs. The monk spoke with me at length about these topics through the translator and gave me good advice concerning these ideas. Specifically he told me that people will receive you the way that you present yourself so to always present yourself with a smile and kindness and you will be received well. And that the best way to begin a more fulfilling spiritual practice was to focus on the immediate relationships around me. Don’t focus on the far away but focus on the people in my life and the moments I have immediately. Essentially the revolution starts in your own backyard. These are all good things to hear.
He then pulled out the enormous needle and sang an ominous little song and laughed trying to scare me. =) He had a sense of humor.
All around there was the bustle of chicken and chics in small packs and other animals that resided there. The monk’s mother watched from the top of a set of stairs into the house.
The tattooing did not really hurt as much as I thought it might. And for a straight needle it went pretty quickly. After the design was done he prayed over the tattoo for a while and activated it. Traditionally the tattoo would need to be reactivated each year at the temple but travelers get an exemption from this.
There are also rules that you have to follow to keep from dispelling the power of your tattoo. These vary from monk to monk. Luckily our monk’s set were much more lax than others I’ve read online. Essentially: Don’t use your new power irresponsibly, don’t disrespect your parents, and don’t have sex with women on their period. That’s a big thing here. There’s basically a national phobia against menstrual blood making you impure. It’s mostly subdued but the city pillar in Chiang Mai restricted women from entering for fear of menstrual blood (which Katy was not thrilled about).
After Katy went through the same process the monk gave us both hand knotted bracelets made out of white twine and we were on our way back to the hotel. The online advice was to not get the tattoos wet for 5-7 days which would prove to be a bit of an obstacle as we were flying to Railay beach for the next week.