[update: had a video of the process up, but took it down as it contained secret forms]
[update 5/15/14 – see my additional Sangwang Rahu sak yant from Arjan Pi, as well]
Sak Yant – Sacred Tattoo
I’ve gone back and forth about how I feel about sak yant, or sacred tattooing in Thailand, for a long time. On the one hand, I like how they look and my initial understanding of them was an association with Muay Thai, as protective tattoos for warriors. On the other hand, I’m not Thai – it’s not my history or tradition – my understanding of them was pretty limited and the majority of folks I saw donning them (outside of Thai men wearing tanktops that might show them on the street) were western “bros.” In fact, largely, the western men I see with these tattoos are not fighters but instead get the tattoos as a kind of package concept of touring Thailand, getting something “very Thai” that often goes along with training in a Muay Thai camp for a month or two. Because I originally associated these tattoos with Muay Thai, I thought it was silly to see these guys who don’t fight getting the protection tattoos.
I was wrong about a few of these things. The association with Muay Thai is not erroneous, but it’s very incomplete. Not all fighters get them and certainly not only fighters get them. Some of my favorite Thai fighters at the gym have many covering their backs and chests (Big, Wung and JR, to name a few), so I see them in a positive way nearly every day. Like Muay Thai (and perhaps this is the strongest connection, even beyond the “warrior” association) sak yant are most prevalent among the lower classes. I’ve learned that the sacred script (re: texts) and deities depicted are linked with Buddhism, but do not come from nor belong to Buddhism; it has been appropriated to link Thailand’s spiritual history of magic and animism to ceremonies which are informed by Buddhism. But I’m not trying to write an essay here, so I’ll get into what it means to me.
Master K, my founding teacher of Muay Thai and a man who is like my grandfather to me in closeness, tried to make me promise never to get a sak yant, in addition to not getting any more tattoos period. I have several tattoos, one of them extensive, and he has objected to them saying I “look like a lizard”. I never made the promise to Master K, but I listened to him a bunch of times. He has an “invisible” sak yant, which means he went through the process of getting the protection tattoo but didn’t use ink – instead, sesame oil is used and the incantations and processes are complete without a lasting, visible mark. But the magic is still in the skin. He is turning 75 this month. Let me be clear: there is no physical or visible evidence of this tattoo on Master K at all. And yet he’s embarrassed about it, as if it is there. But this is a good illustration of both the magical elements of the process, how it can be without being in a way, as well as the general attitude of middle and upper-class Thais toward sak yant tattoos. They’re seen as a symbol of ignorance – perhaps even criminal associations in the way that some tattoos in the US connote incarceration, gang membership, or just plain low-class associations, especially in previous decades before they became “self-expressions” for most. (My own father still associates tattoos to sailors and criminals, and he’s only in his early 60’s.) For instance in Thailand, you won’t find visible sak yant on school teachers or educated government workers.
This is also true of all the tattoos I already have in the west. I worked in a bar in the US and because it considered itself to be “upscale” I was not allowed to have my tattoos visible, demonstrating negative associations or at least conflict between “good image” and tattoos. So, while I acknowledge that I do not fully understand all the associations, meanings or connotations involved in sak yant tattoos in Thailand, I do appreciate the obvious associations, assumptions and difficulties which come from having them and I own it.
I wanted this tattoo because of my linking of them to Muay Thai, with warriors, my love for and complicated relationship with the belief in magic and protection as it appears in practicing Muay Thai. That is, the blessings I receive before entering the ring, going under the bottom rope, wearing a Mongkol and amulets, etc. All of these things are, to me, practicing the things which sak yant profess. So getting a tattoo for protection and luck is in the same vein as making sure I double and triple check that we have the Mongkol with us when we go to a fight (because it’s been forgotten before and I hate fighting without it).
The yant I chose is classified as protection in battle and good luck. There are different reasons for getting sak yant and different blessings or invocations for the different types. This is part of what I love about them, when I finally started investigating their history and meaning. You can get them to bring yourself favor in the eyes of others (you’ll see many bar girls have this tattoo, which makes a lot of sense), for fortune, to ward off evil spirits or anyone who might wish to harm you, images of deities like Hanuman or Garuda, tigers for strength and esteem (this one is common), etc. For me, the incantation or spell or magic of the tattoo is making a physical representation of something I want to feel about myself – strength and protection. So, as I was having the tattoo inked into my skin, I chanted the entire time words which express what it is that this tattoo does for me.
The artist – I’m not entirely sure what to call him; he’s more than a tattoo artist and not an ordained monk – spends his time moving between Chiang Mai, Bangkok and increasingly Taiwan and other places. We were in contact with him for some time before he returned to Chiang Mai and we were able to go visit him. I actually intended to go visit him first and make an appointment for the tattoo in a couple of days, but when he emerged and began making preparations for my tattoo I felt no desire to delay it. I spoke first with his assistant – neither really speaks English, so it was as much Thai as I could give and a little more than I could understand, but we communicated pretty well. I explained that I’m a nakmuay (fighter) and wanted a protection tattoo on my elbow. I pointed to a few in the books the assistant had given me to indicate the general shape I wanted – there is a trainer at the gym with elbow tattoos but I had never seen them elsewhere and they weren’t, in fact, in the book. When Arjanpi Bangkating came out he heard from his assistant the same information I’d told him, nodded and told his assistant to find a picture on his tablet. The assistant searched while Arjanpi Bangkating went through a ceremony before his elaborate and beautiful shrine. His assistant located the image and showed it to me – it was a dark and muddy, slightly blurry photo of a heavily tattooed man’s elbow as he was receiving a sak yant on his opposite shoulder. But the yant on his elbow was one (I assume) Arjanpi had done and it was the correct shape and had been solicited by Arjanpi himself when he told the assistant to locate it, so it must be for the purposes which I stated. I nodded and was directed to go sit in front of Arjanpi with my elbow bent.
He began drawing on my elbow with a marker, looking for shape and symmetry for a general outline. He drew it twice and erased it twice with rubbing alcohol, then began the actual tattoo. I’ve spent extensive time in tattoo chairs for my other tattoos. My very first tattoo took nine hours and I’ve had maybe six hours collectively for my others, but always with a tattoo gun. I was surprised by what a vastly different experience being tattooed with bamboo (or the technique of bamboo, even if the rod is aluminum or otherwise) is. The pain is similar, but there’s no “grinding” or “scratching” the way there is with a gun. Instead you just feel each individual tap. You can actually feel the tattooer’s “fist”, to borrow a term from cryptology, indicating the unique pattern or “handwriting” of someone performing Morse Code. You can feel his hand get lighter or heavier for different areas of skin or to change the thickness of the line he’s tattooing. And you can actually feel the dryness of the bamboo/aluminum rod running over the skin of the fingers on his stabilizing hand.
And he works incredibly fast. The whole tattoo took maybe 40-50 minutes and he was able to make the spires on the tip of each “ray” with what seemed like only a few taps. Periodically he would stop and go back to work with the marker, the erase it and begin again with the needle. When he began the spires on the ends of the rays (these are in every sak yant and can be found in temple art) he chanted and blew on the tattoo. When it was finished, he cleaned it up and put a square of gold leaf on the center, again chanting and blowing on the tattoo. I’ve never seen any other artist or practitioner put gold leaf on a tattoo but it is very widely practiced in ceremonial prayers at temples, where people will put these exact same gold leaf squares on statues when they go to request favors or ask for luck or fortune. It’s an appropriate act for these sak yant as you are requesting protection or luck or fortune from the spirits and the tattoo artist is literally making an image upon which this “magic” or request is to take form. Plus, it’s crazy beautiful. Lastly, he had me face him and he put a wooden mask/helmet of what looks like Hanuman but might be a different deity (I’ve seen it at many old temples) over my head while he blessed me and chanted. Unbelievably unique and impressive experience right there.
At one point, fairly early in the process of actually receiving the tattoo, a young Thai woman appeared at the door and spoke with both the assistant and Arjanpi Bangkating while she flipped through the three books of different sak yant. They spoke in Thai and I understood only pieces of their conversation, but one part I did get clear was when the woman asked if the tattoos were only in black. Arjanpi said, “only black” and the woman continued with another question about other color choices. With something far short of impatience but also not entirely inviting, Arjanpi asked her “what color would you like?” and the woman giggled and said she didn’t know, just wanted to know if it had to be black. What was interesting about this exchange were two things: 1) I’ve seen his work include both red and white ink, but rarely; 2) the inquiry toward “different color” choices rather than directly asking for red ink, for example, implies a kind of “ornamental” desire within the acquiring of a tattoo. That’s not unusual for non-sak yant tattoos, which are traditional in many senses and carry deep personal meaning for some people and absolutely none for others, but a sak yant is not decorative in its intent and purpose. It might be like acquiring prayer beads or a small statue that will bring you luck and focus your prayers or meditation (or whatever) and asking what other colors it comes in. It stood out to me mostly because, unlike my other tattoos, the meaning is inherent in the form, whereas my other tattoos were designed to represent something to me but have no obvious or outside significance. Sak yant has it’s own power which is instilled in the wearer of the symbol.
For more on sak yant you can check out this website or contact the man who runs it, as he has extensive knowledge of the history and processes. And here’s a rundown of the powers instilled by various animal depictions in sak yant, as well as a brief history of sak yant, and a short bio of Arjanpi Bangkating’s master Arjan Noo Kanpai (who created the five line sak yant popularized by Angelina Jolie).
You can find Arjanpi Bangkating on Facebook. He does not read or write English so it can be difficult communicating with him, though he does have a lot of Thai and international followers there and puts up his day’s work all the time. You can scroll down and see some spectacular sak yant. His assistant does speak some English, but not a great deal. Generally though if you word a message carefully (and simply) you can discover the dates he’ll be in Chiang Mai (or Bangkok), and you can just go and visit.
Find him on Facebook
fan page: facebook.com/arjanpibangkating
Twitter Page: @arjanpi_sakyan
His house in Chiang Mai is about 10-15 minute drive from the Old City. This Google Map will give you the exact location. The house is part of a gated residential community. There are signs outside pointing to.
Enter the community through the guard gate and take an immediate right on to the first street. Continue down about 200 feet. The house is on the right with a picture of Arjan Pi on the front fence/gate.
Here is the Google Map link to the community.
If you have trouble you can maybe tweet me and I can help you locate it. But please be serious about your sak yant, it is not a decoration tattoo in the western sense.