Buddhist Tattoos – Get The Ritual
Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand and manifests itself in all forms of Thai life. Tattooing is as established part of Buddhist life that is not only condoned by monks but actually carried out by them as well. ‘Sak yan’ is the tradition of tattooing that has not only existed for several thousand years but its practitioners can trace the lineage back over many generations. ’Yan’, from the Sanskrit word yantra, means a geometrical design used to aid meditation. In Thai culture, the ‘yan’, or ‘yant’ as it is sometimes spelt, has incorporated iconographic imagery from the three main religious influences on Thailand: early, primitive Animism, or nature worship; sHinduism and Buddhism, both introduced from India two thousand years ago.
Getting a Thai tattoo is a serious business, you don’t just pop in from the street and lie on a couch getting inked while you listen to some chilling music on your headphones. First of all you have to pick the most auspicious day of the week, the one when the spirits are at their strongest. Saturdays and Tuesdays are traditionally the best, though the best of all is when one of those days falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. Next, where to go?
Traditionally a wat, or temple, is a good bet. If you’re in Bangkok you can go to Wat Bang Phra, the most famous one and generally acknowledged as the place to go – it’s which is about a forty-minute drive away from the City. Or you may have decided to visit a ‘samnak’, which is the name given to a room, or building used by a non-monk tattooist, a shaman, or Ruesi. Whichever you choose, the ritual process you then follow is very much the same.
On the morning of the day you have picked make sure you have had a shower and you’re wearing fresh, clean clothes. Never go in short trousers. Don’t drink alcohol the night before as the stale smell lingers on the body and can be offensive to the Tattooist. When you arrive take your place and wait your turn. You may already have an idea of what image or design you want. You will probably be offered a book of designs to look through in case you haven’t chosen one yet. Thais believe that the chosen tattoo often comes to mind subconsciously, so don’t worry too much about it, just let the fates decide!
Here are some of the more popular designs, what they signify and the powers they possess
Mythical creatures from the Himaphan Forest, perhaps the oldest and most animistic of Thai designs. These include – ‘Suea’, lions and tigers. ‘Ling’, icons derived from monkeys and ‘manimals’, closely associated with the Hindu god Hannuman. There are dozens of different designs each with their own characteristics and therefore, outcomes if adopted. Deers, snakes, turtles, geckoes and bird images also come under the title of Himaphan Forest creatures, as do the ever present in Thai culture, Garuda, part man – part bird.
You can also choose from Erawan, the Thai manifestation of the Hindu god Bramah, who appears as a three headed elephant and was the symbol of the old Lan dynasty from northern Thailand. This yant is associated with controlling the unruly. And there are many, many more symbolic animal tattoos, love-birds, crocodiles, wild boars, peacocks and tigers, and we haven’t got to the Deities yet! Before looking at these, let’s look at pattern tattoos.
These are, in a sense, ‘grids’, or geometric patterned designs and may be thought of as a kind of substitute for body armour. Each Samnak brings their own variants to their creation. There is the square or triangular Yant Maha Ud. The Gao Yord, or ‘Nine Peaks’, symbolising the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe, possibly the most popular choice for a first time tattoo, which consists of nine spiralling lines made up of words written in Pali.
Sometimes the grids can consist of boxes which include text, sometimes they are magic squares containing more magical incantations! Muay Thai boxers often choose the ‘five spire’ variant to be tattooed with, believing that the lines will help aid the receiver by giving them charm, good luck, protection from evil spirits, success in all aspects of life. Also popular with these fighters are yants that will bestow bravery and courage, such as depictions of Hannuman, the monkey god, and images of a tiger, or better still, two tigers. Often the tigers are depicted looking backwards, this is to protect the wearer from attacks from behind – literally, the tiger is watching your back. Some folk have their entire back and neck covered meticulously with letters and symbols all building up into a mystical diagram, the basic purpose of which is to protect the wearer from evil influences.
Perhaps the person looking at a tattoo wants to make a fresh start in life, in which case they may choose an image of the Hindu god Ganesha, symbol of strength and the ability to overcome obstacles. Of course, a devotional depiction of Buddha may be the chosen design. Frankly, there are as many to choose from as there are samnak practitioners, each one adding to and adapting existing designs by bringing their own brand of magic into the process.
So when you’ve chosen your tattoo imagery, you’re ready to decide which part of your body you want the tattoo to be inked on. According to Thai belief, different parts of the body are worthy of different degrees of respect. The feet, for example, are the least favourable place for a tattoo because they are in contact with dirt on the ground. At the opposite end, the head is considered to be the place where a person’s soul resides, therefore it is the most holy place on the body. Occasionally somebody may shave their head and have a tattoo of the buddha on the very top as a guarantee of maximum protection, but more popular is the ‘unalom’ or zig-zag line leading up to a magical number or letter. This is usually tattooed on the throat though very occasionally people have had it tattooed on their foreheads to ‘open’ the third eye. Thai etiquette is still uncertain about tattoos and although the upper classes may have a discrete charm tattooed somewhere on their body, to actually display a tattoo, particularly in such open view, is regarded as low class and vulgar, though this attitude is changing along with the old tradition of sak yan being strictly a male preserve. Angelina Jolie certainly revolutionised the whole world of Thai tattoo when she had a five spire tattoo on her shoulder when she was in Nonthaburi.
All decisions made – at last it’s time to go ahead.
First you should make a small, symbolic offering to the samnak – some small flowers, perhaps a pack of cigarettes, incense, a candle and a few coins, but always adding up to an odd number and preferably ending in nine, that being a most spiritual number.
You will be helped into position and the tattooist’s helpers will hold you and pull your skin taut for the work to begin. The samnak will start chanting, this is to invoke the spirit that will inhabit him while he carries to the tattooing. Using a metal or wood shaft the samnak begins to incise the skin all the time chanting ‘gatha’ or magical spells.
A word about hygiene. If you are concerned about the fact that the same tattoo shafts are used repeatedly for each customer you probably have a point (no pun intended). In between sessions they are placed in jars of alcohol to clean them, but the prevalence of hepatitis makes having a sak yant a slightly risky business. On a similar point, the AIDS virus dies on contact with the open air so at least that’s a very minor worry. Some monks and Ruesi have told people who expressed concern about hygiene that you will only catch an infection if it’s your karma! It has to be said that Wat Bang Phra has upped its game and now use individual ink pots; tissues are used for wiping away blood rather than a re-used cloth and the needles are sterilised to a higher standard.
When the tattoo is finished the polite thing to do is turn and bow (wai) to the monk and then make an offering. This should be cash and the manner in which it is offered has strict rules – put the cash in an envelope, put the envelope on a tray and then politely bow and hand it over.
You may think the ritual is now done, but if you want to follow Thai cultural practice you should adhere to the following rules for the yant to remain efficacious – remember, you’ve just had a magical spell inscribed on your skin for the rest of your life! You should abstain from sex for seven days and avoid eating any gourd fruit; don’t walk under banana trees and never eat left-over food; don’t eat food at a wedding or a funeral, the list goes on. Also, strictly speaking, you should recharge your tattoo’s magical potency once a year by attending a ‘wai khru’ or ‘teacher honouring’ ceremony. The one at Wat Bang Phra takes place every March.
Ritual footnote – Modern ‘invisible’ tattoos
In the past having an ‘invisible’ sak yant was most popular with women, but now its also popular with people whose jobs forbid tattoos. The ink used is sesame oil and it only leaves a faint mark, but the magic has been done and the charm will have the same effects as a visible one. As an aid to the efficacy of the magical tattoo you can also have designs painted onto a vest or sleeveless jacket which is worn over the real tattoos, but the big question is – does the magic really work? As any sensible Thai will tell you, either it will or it won’t but isn’t it best to be certain and have one done!
As you’re a fan of Buddhist tattoos, you may want to check out our Buddha Necklace store too!