Welcome to Thai Tattoos
Here you will find interesting posts on ancient Buddhist ‘Sak Yant’ Thai Tattoos as well as posts, books and videos on the artwork as it is today and the effect it’s having on the world outside of Buddhism and Thailand.
Thai Tattoos – Know Your Tattoo’s Ethnology!
Thai tattoos, as with many other forms of body alteration for decoration is a universal activity and one that is finally being acknowledged in some circles as an art form in itself.
“A surface waiting for the imprintation of culture” is how the French anthropologist and ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss described the body in 1963.
Tattooing In Various Cultures
Certainly we know that for at least the last ten thousand years, humans have made marks into and onto their skin, for example through scarification, or by inking, known as ‘tattooing’ in every part of the Earth. Mummified human remains bearing tattoos have been found in the Americas, China, northern Europe, the South Seas and throughout Asia and it is known that marking the body with tattoos has been and still is carried out for a variety of purposes – decorative, religious and as a means of identification. In certain cultures, tattooing goes beyond the decorative and has attained an almost mystical status, with the rituals surrounding the practice and the markings themselves being imbued with magical and talismanic properties. In South East Asia a group of countries share these beliefs and practices related to permanently marking the skin with tattoos.
The Origin of Thai Tattoos
We know from ancient Chinese texts that tattooing was found within the ‘Tai’ cultures of southwestern China and northern Vietnam over two thousand years ago. The practice spread southwards down the Mekong and into Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand and became an established part of the religious practice of those countries. Originally the tattoo designs favoured by the tribes people were based on Animism (worship of the natural world) and clan signifiers, linked to concepts of protection, health, good fortune and were magical talismans of power. The tattoos would have been inscribed into the bearer’s skin by a shaman and would have involved invoking totemic animal spirits to imbue the Thai tattoos with their representative qualities.
Dragon and Garuda Thai tattoos
Archeologists in Thailand have found pottery dating back three thousand years decorated with images of animals such as lizards, snakes, tigers and eagles, all animals that have consistently remained as designs for tattoos up to the present day along with a variety of mythical beasts such as dragons and garudas. Thousands of years ago Animist worshippers venerated the snake and the lizard as gods of the waterways that could guide and protect them. Tigers and eagles represented strength and power. Every shape and every creature used in Thai tattoos resonated with meaning to the person receiving the tattoo and to the person giving it.
The method of making Thai tattoos is basically unchanged from that of two thousand years ago. A design is made on the skin, usually traced in ink, then a long thin shaft of wood or bamboo with a sharp metal tip makes a rapid series of incisions into the skin (nowadays the shaft tends to be made from steel). This is done by holding the shaft with one hand and resting the ‘needle’ end on top of the other hand, rather like a snooker cue is balanced. The hand away from the ‘needle’ tip ‘pumps’ the the shaft while the opposite hand balances and controls the movement of the tip. An experienced tattooist can make two or three incisions per second.
Traditional Thailand Tattoo Ink
The ink used in traditional Thai tattooing is also basically unchanged. The base for black ink is soot and vermillion for red and each tattooist has individual variations for their own inks. Charcoal and lampblack have been used for millennia. There is an ancient Lao recipe that insists that the soot must be made from burning lard and then be mixed with the bile of a wild bull or a bear or a pig! The Shan people of the northern Highlands include dried gekko skin when making an ink for a love tattoo in order to bring domestic harmony. Gekkos are a genus of a range of diverse Southeast Asian geckos. They are colorful and are are also known as ‘true geckos’ or ‘calling geckos’; they live in the rafters of a house and their presence supposedly brings good luck to the family. One more ingredient to mention – evidence suggests that it is also very likely that some inks used for aggressive charm tattoos have included small amounts of fat from a human corpse (nam mun phrai).
The Effect of Buddhism and Hinduism on the Thai tattoo Art Form
Two thousand years ago two new religions spread from India into Southeast Asia – Buddhism and Hinduism – and images from both of these were introduced into the tattooist’s pantheon of designs, extending the tattooist’s range to include Hindu gods and heroes as well as Buddhist iconography. However, it’s important to note that these two new religions co-exist quite happily side by side with the old Animist religion, and a kind of hybrid Thai belief system was created which is still prevalent today. The text used in Thai tattoos is in the main taken from Khom, or Khmer, though Shan, Lao, Thai Lue and Lanna are used as well. Though magical words are written in those languages, the meaning is derived from ‘Pali’ which is an esoteric Buddhist language several thousand years old.
Over the last two thousand years these Hindu, Buddhist and Animist belief systems with their complex codex of deities and symbologies have gradually coalesced into the imagery and creed of present-day Thai tattooing known as ‘sak yan’. Sak means tattoo in Thai, and yan is the Thai pronunciation for the Sanskrit word yantra, a type of mystical diagram used in Dharmic religions. Each sak yan tattoo is a sacred ritual, a mystical compact entered into between the tattooer and the tattooed. Each tattoo is a sacred ritual, a mystical compact entered into between the tattooer and the tattooed. The act of tattooing in Thailand is far removed from the relaxed, ‘laid back’ comfort of a western tattoo parlour. Getting a sak yan is a rigorous undertaking with a strict schedule of rituals that should be adhered to in order for the sak yan’s magic or desired spell to work.
Sak Yan Tattoos
Strictly speaking only two kinds of people can carry out ‘correct’ sak yan. Firstly, an initiated monk who has been trained by an older monk whose own training can be traced all the way back through a direct line ad infinitum. Occasionally the monk will take a name derived from a spirit as they are acting as a medium for this spirit. The second group of people able to correctly carry out sak yan are known as ‘Ruesi’, generally laymen who are famous for their piety and spirituality. The title ‘Ruesi’ is derived from the Hindu ‘Rishi’ or Forest Sage, a holy man aesthete a wild-looking, long-haired mystic who lived outside of conventional society, though times have changed and now Ruesi can be found with mobile phones and driving cars. These Ruesi are more Animistic in their use of spells and magic, their sak yan utilising more pre-Buddhist charms such as tigers and dragons. Monks will often reject animal figures as animals are believed to be derived from a lower spiritual order than humans. The one thing both ‘Samnak’, that is – practitioners of sak yan do share though, is the perceived power of a sak yan’s magic and the absolute necessity to follow the correct procedures when creating a sak yan. The Thai tattoos represents the master’s magical knowledge transferred into the recipient, the recipient is a portal through which that magical knowledge can pass acting as a charm or talisman.
Even today, devotees believe that a tattoo made with the correct incantations can be possessed of an exceptionally strong occult power. It is conceivable, that say, the Samnak could possibly underestimate the intensity of his spell so that the power of the tattoo goes out of control and the devotee can be driven mad! Every March at Wat Bang Phra people gather to pay homage to their inscribers in an annual ritual which sees many of them sent into trances and become wild-eyed, frenzied and uncontrollable. Groups of soldiers protect the stage and the Abbot of the monastery sprays holy water over the crowds to keep them calm.
Tattoo art in Today’s Thai Culture
In today’s Thai culture it would be considered highly inappropriate to have Thai tattoos below the waist, but until around the middle of the 20th century it was still possible to find men in the north and north eastern provinces who were so closely tattooed from the waist to the knees that it looked as if they were wearing tight shorts. These tattoos were contrary to the norm as they were decorative and not magical. Their power lay in the act of tattooing which was seen as a rite of passage, an initiation into adulthood, and, it was regarded as attractive by young girls. A northern proverb stated “Ten or even twenty blankets are not equal to the warmth of the tattooed leg of my beloved”!