Thai-style tattoos are often seen on the skin of Muay Thai fighters. So much so that they are sometimes referred to as Muay Thai tattoos.
The Thai-style tattoos are known as Sak Yant (สักยันต์), where Sak means “to tattoo” and Yant comes from the word “Yantra” (यन्त्र) (Sanskrit) which is a mystical diagram/object used for meditations and designed to protect against negative energies.
Sak Yant is a spiritual and cultural tradition of Thailand, with necessary codes of conduct required of a Sak Yant wearer. But how did this practice come about? What do these cryptic tattoos mean? Why do so many Muay Thai fighters get inked with Sak Yant? Where and how can you get these magic tattoos?
History (Sak Yant & Thai Buddhism)
Buddhism is believed to have arrived in Thailand around 250 BCE and became the dominant religion only in the 12th century. Buddhist beliefs permeate Thai life at many levels, from the Thai monarchy down to everyday routine.
There is a long history of belief in magic and the supernatural in Thailand that continues to this day. Thai Buddhism adopted many of the country’s animist beliefs, developing into a unique brand of Buddhism.
Besides animism, Thai Buddhism also features many elements of Hinduism. Hindu deities like Brahma, Rama, Hanuman, and Ganesh are worshipped by Buddhists and their statues can often be found in Buddhist temples.
The reason why Thai Buddhism has a strong Hinduism undertone is due to the influence of the Khmer empire (modern-day Cambodia). Thailand was under Khmer rule from the second half of 6th century until the mid 13th century. The Khmer Empire followed Hinduism until around the 12th century when its ruler, of the time, Jayavarman VII, a devout Buddhist, began converting the kingdom to Buddhism.
(For more on Buddhism in Thailand, read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhism_in_Thailand)
The inking of skin in Thailand is said to go back to pre-Buddhism days, more than 2000 years ago. Tattoos were etched onto bodies to ward off evil spirits, a practice that was followed due to animism beliefs.
The art of Sak Yant is linked to the legends of “ruesi”. Ruesis (alt. Lersi, also Rishis in Indian Vedic traditions) are ascetics believed to possess sacred knowledge and magic. They can be thought of as sages, medicine men and spiritual healers.
During the times of the Ruesi, they often dispense talisman with Yantra (geometric) designs believed to offer protection and ward off evil spirits. These Yantras formed the basis for the Sak Yant designs. Masks depicting the Ruesis are sometimes used by Sak Yant masters during rituals.
Sak Yant tattoos as we see them today, arose during the time of the Khmer empire. These mystical designs combine the early Ruesi Yantra geometric patterns with Hindu-Buddhist scripture and Hindu iconography. Soldiers adorned with Sak Yant headed into battles believing that they would be protected by the tattoo magic from physical harm.
The wide range of Sak Yant designs developed over time by Sak Yant monks and masters, adding their own interpretation, style and spells. These were then passed down to apprentices over many generations of lineages till this day.
These days, people get tattooed with Sak Yant for a variety of reasons but largely because they believe that Sak Yant can grant wearers such attributes as protection, wealth, success, and good luck.
It is important to note that Sak Yant in itself, is not part of Buddha’s teachings or Buddhist traditions. Like many originally animist/Brahmanist aspects of Thai Buddhism, Sak Yant has been assimilated into the culture over time and generally accepted by Thai Buddhists and monks alike.
Sak Yant & Muay Thai
Sak Yant’s strong presence in Muay Thai arises out of the potential health risks of the sport and the protective powers that are believed to grant its wearer.
Muay Thai fighters, especially those who have trained in Thailand, are inclined to mark themselves with Sak Yant. The painstaking process, done with a long metal spike in place of the modern electric tattoo gun, is seen by some to be a rite of passage. As such, Sak Yant are worn with pride by foreign Muay Thai fighters and also for their time living/training in Thailand.
Like in many other tattoo cultures, Sak Yant carried a stigma as a mark for members of the working class and fringes of society. Sak Yants are said to protect its wearer from dangers of physical and metaphysical nature, which explains why they are popular with gang members, sex workers and boxers – people in high-risk occupations.
Unlike Irezumi (Japanese tattoos) in Japan, Sak Yant is increasingly accepted by the Thai society at large. This is due to a long and large presence of westerners in the country, exposing locals to Western culture/influences where tattoos are seen as body art and a fashion statement.
It’s interesting to note that as more western fighters get inked with Sak Yant, an increasing number of Thai fighters are ditching the Thai-style tattoos for more “fashionable” designs.
Where to Get Sak Yant in Thailand
You can get a Thai-style tattoo that looks like a Sak Yant anywhere in Thailand. But to fully benefit from the magic -if you so believe in them-, they need to be administered by a monk or a Sak Yant Ajarn (master).
A Sak Yant Ajarn is usually a lay Budhhist who has spent a considerable amount of time as a monk and learning Sak Yant from a Sak Yant monk. They are often found in more accessible areas and hence easier to receive a Sak Yant from.
Most Sak Yant temples are located on the outskirts of cities, and many Sak Yant monks are itinerant, making them hard to track down for casual tourists. However, with a bit of asking around, a local can usually point you in the right direction or contact who can set up an appointment with a Sak Yant monk.
Wat Bang Phra, a monastery located 50km west of Bangkok, is the most well-known site to get a Sak Yant done by monks. It also hosts the world-famous Wai Khru festival where thousands turn up to get tattooed or the magic on their Sak Yant recharged.
The most authentic way may be to journey out to temples in Thailand and get inked and blessed by a Sak Yant monk. Alternatively, there are also many Sak Yant Ajarns whom you can get recommendations from locals anywhere in Thailand.
Sak Yant monks and masters are occasionally invited to countries in East and Southeast Asia where Thai Buddhism is practised. Amulet shops in these countries will host the Ajarns so that is another way to get an authentic Sak Yant.
A note about hygiene and this is an important point. Needles are not always properly sterilized in Thailand, and a Sak Yant may dip the needle into the same bottle of alcohol or the same ink pot for everybody. This poses risks of contamination and disease transmission.
In the monasteries like Wat Bang Phra, the level of sterilization is often quite non-existent. If you do not feel comfortable about getting tattooed after visual-checking the conditions, there is no shame in walking out. Better to be safe than sorry.
Sak Yant Ritual
- Getting a Sak Yant is more than simply getting inked – it is akin to going through a magic or spiritual ritual.
Sak Yant rituals differ from tattoo to tattoo and master to master. Each Yant also comes with its own set of precepts that wearers need to adhere to. These may include proper sexual conduct, abstaining from certain foods, and proper speech among others.
When meeting a Sak Yant monk or master, there are certain rules to follow such as taking off your shoes before entering the room/house, not pointing your feet at them, and always showing politeness and respect.
Rituals of Sak Yant done by masters are more elaborate. They are first paid respect, then presented with an offering before the tattoo is applied. After the Sak Yant is completed, the master will chant a blessing and cast a spell. A golden leaf is sometimes placed on the finished Sak Yant for good luck.
If you are accepted as a disciple of the master, there is an additional ritual where a Ruesi mask will be placed on your head with more chants.
Sak Yants by monks involve making an offering, getting inked, and then receiving the blessing by them. Similarly, a golden leaf is sometimes placed on the finished Sak Yant.
You can get a Sak Yant by a monk for a small donation to the temple. The cost of getting a Sak Yant varies between Sak Yant masters and can range from 1000 to 15,000 baht.
Types of Sak Yants and Their Meaning
There are many different Sak Yant designs with artistic differences between the monks and masters who administer them. Sak Yant designs typically feature ancient Khmer script which the Thai people refer to as “Khom”.
Sak Yant can be tattooed onto any part of the body but more commonly on the torso and arms. Here are some of the most popular Sak Yant designs:
Ha Taew ห้าแถว (5 Rows)
The “Ha Taew” is one of three most requested designs among foreign tourists in Thailand. They are often recommended and done by monks, especially for foreigners or Sak Yant newbies who are unsure of which design to get etched.
The design is written in “Khom”, and each line is said to provide a different blessing namely, good luck, protection, safety from black magic, charisma, and wealth.
Paed Tidt แปดทิศ (8 spikes)
Paed Tidt is based on the eightfold path of Buddhism, consisting of eight practices namely, right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditation). In Sak Yant culture, the Paed Tidt offers protection for its wearer against dangers and negative energies from eight different directions.
Gao Yord เก้ายอด (9 Peaks)
The 9 peaks represent the mythical Mount Meru, believed to be the center of the universe. Gao Yord can be described as “Ha Taew” plus, with more magical benefits including authority and popularity. It is also one of the three most commonly-administered Sak Yants for beginners.
Seuu Khood เสือคู่ (Twin Tigers)
Another popular design among locals, tourists and Muay Thai fighters, the “Twin Tigers” represent power, and authority. The tigers also offer protection and that’s why you will see them in many Muay Thai gym logos and apparel designs.
The divine monkey deity, Hanuman is a beloved central character from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Hanuman is the god of strength and there are various Hanuman Sak Yant designs.
They provide blessings like protection against serious injuries, ability to defeat enemies, and the desire to fight and succeed. It is no surprise that Hanuman Sak Yants are popular with fighters.
Ganesh สัก พระพิฆเนศ
In Hinduism, Ganesh (also known as Vinayaka and Ganapati) is the remover of obstacles. He is the god of wealth and success, which is why you will see his statues in many businesses. Ganesh is also the patron of arts, making this Sak Yant a popular design with those in the entertainment industry.
Phra Rahu พระราหู
Phra Rahu is a demon from Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, often depicted with only the upper body and a head, holding an orb to the mouth. The orb is said to represent the sun in mythology and the action signifies an eclipse.
In Sak Yant culture, Rahu is said to be fond of eating negative energies which makes this a protective Yantra that generates positive effects.
Kerake จระเข้ (Crocodile)
This crocodile Sak Yant represents strength and power. As crocodiles have thick and tough skin, these Sak Yants are favored by occupations that involve risks and require physical protection, such as the military, police and firemen.
Overtime, with the popularity of Muay Thai and Thai tourism, Sak Yants have become fashion statements. Some see it as nothing more than body art or a permanent Thai souvenir to bring back home.
A number of tourists opt for an authentic Sak Yant experience but there are also those who get a Thai-style tattoo at regular tattoo parlors.
Some tattoo purists feel that the significance of Sak Yant is lost as more and more people are getting them without understanding the spiritual meaning or following the necessary codes of conduct required of a Sak Yant wearer.
Do you believe in the magic of Sak Yant?