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The magic. The ritual. The ceremony. The symbolism. All about my experience getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
a magical design
A Sak Yant tattoo is thought to be a magical tattoo. Sak Yant designs are geometrical styled designs that are thought to provide the bearer magical powers of protection and good luck.
The word "Sak" means to tap and the word "Yant" is from the Sanskrit word "Yantra" which translates into a magical design. So it is essentially a magical design that is tapped onto you. And that's pretty much how it goes.
Pictures of the Sak Yant ceremony are not posted out of respect.
Sak Yant tattoos are traditionally performed by Buddhist Monks, or Ajarns, who are considered Sak Yant Masters well trained in the "Magical Art of Sak Yant".
A Buddhist Monk won't tattoo a female in a temple so women have to go to a location with a blessed Samnak area where Monks and Ajarns can visit to preform tattoos.
The entire ritual to the Sak Yank adds to the magic of the experience. There are several rules you must follow to show the proper respect to the Monk or Ajarn while there.
- As common in Thai culture, you don't wear your shoes indoors. Always remove your shoes and leave them outside before entering.
- You always keep your body lower than the Monk at all time as this symbolizes that you are below the Monk.
- When you greet the Monk, you bow to him, or "wai", by kneeling down, putting your hands together, bringing them up to touch your thumbs to your forehead and then bowing your body all the way down to the ground. You do this 3 times for the Monk, Buddha, and Buddhism.
- To symbolize you believe in the magical powers, you place an "Offering to the Spirits" of flowers, incense, candle, and your cash donation folded into tiny scrolls, and presented in banana leaves. If the cash amount ends in 9, it's considered extra lucky. You hold this with the Monk as he says a blessing incantation.
- When your tattoo is completed, the Monk will recite a blessing directly onto your tattoo while blowing on it in succession, and this is to instill the magic into the tattoo itself. You bow again 3 times to show your appreciation. Then you can go light a candle along with incense to complete your experience.
rules of conduct
There are 6 special Sak Yant Rules that you are supposed to follow to be a good person.
- Do not kill
- Do not steal
- Do not be unfaithful to your spouse
- Do not lie
- Do not get intoxicated
- Do not speak ill of any Mother
I'm totally down with all of these, especially number 1 (because do not kill animals), but number 5 will prove to be a challenge. Or goal. Or idea. Let's just say I'll consider it.
Sak Yant tattoos were traditionally done with bamboo sharpened into a point called Mai Sak. Then they transitioned into bamboo with steel tips. Now they are done with long stainless steel needles called Khem Sak. These have replaceable needle tips so that each person gets a new sterile tip for their own tattoo.
Because these tattoos are done by hand with one single needle, the entire tattoo is a series of individual punctures. These punctures don't penetrate the skin as deep as tattoo gun, so they are completed quickly, don't hurt or bleed, and heal super fast.
Remember the Friends episode where Phoebe gets freaked out by the tattoo pain and Rachel teases hers was licked on by kittens? This tattoo really does feel like it was licked on by kittens. No pain, no discomfort, just a little pressure for 15 minutes.
I was pretty open to both my design and location, so I went into my tattoo experience expecting to be happy with anything. After some discussion, we decided to go with a design that is a blessing of a whole long list of things, but mainly for compassion, protection and prosperity. Which was great because I like/need all those things.
We decided to place it on my forearm so I could always see it and remember the Sak Yant rules to be a good person, and also slightly inspired by Anthony Bourdain.
The long linear lines of the tattoo of the tattoo are called the "Bones of the Yant" and they are each considered magical spells cast just for you as they are done.
The spiral lines at the end of each line are called "Unaalome". The Unaalomes are meant to symbolize enlightened beings on their path to Nirvana. The small round circle within them is the head of the Buddha, then the zig zag line is a chaotic or diverted pathway until it straightens out to a straight line, symbolizing Nirvana, or final enlightenment.
The Ajarn added some additional letters into mine that he thought I especially needed to stay safe while traveling solo. Hey, I'll take all the help I can get. And now I feel a tiny bit braver with my own magical design! Watch out, world!