Phra Ajarn Gamtorn nodded in appreciation as I set my gift of three strawberry sodas and a neatly folded bill down next to a small mountain of cigarettes and flowers. He adjusted his dull crimson robe and revealed a constellation of geometric designs and serpentine tigers chasing inked patterns along the whole of his body.
He motioned for me to take my shirt off as he dipped a three-foot-long steel rod in a tiny cap of ink. “Snake venom, Chinese charcoal, and palm oil,” chirped the tiny woman behind me. I bobbed my head politely as I listened. This little Thai woman to my back was my only translator as I sifted through buckets of rice paper covered in looping geometric designs. She didn’t have to come with me, but once she heard what I was doing this day she insisted.
“Every monk different recipe,” she continued as she set another silver bucket in front of me. “These more like what you want for your life.” I finally selected a blessing that fit my lifestyle, one that was supposed to encourage adventure and promote fame. I handed it to Phra Ajarn Gamtorn.
The monk took it from me with one hand as he sterilized the needle tip of the steel rod in a flame. He looked into my eyes for a while and then casually picked up a new blessing from his side as he harpooned the pot of sacred ink in preparation. He motioned for me to sit cross-legged in front of him and he brought the needle up to my skin.
Then he gave me a tattoo.
Technically, the process is called, “Sak Yant.” This is the sacred art of tattooing mystical blessings. Originally a Cambodian practice, it has reached the zenith of its popularity in Thailand during the last few years. It was still fairly rare for a foreigner to get one back when Tawny and I went on a quest for a monk in the middle of Thailand. But we did it anyway.
Sak, meaning “to tap,” and Yant, meaning “Yantra or Mantra,” has been used for hundreds of years as a way to bless the warriors and the citizens of Thailand. The Thai people believed that the right Yant could turn an arrow or prevent harm from a blade. The Yants have a whole range of uses, from increasing fertility and bringing good luck to protecting your home. A traditional Yant is chosen for you by your monk once you explain the type of blessing you are seeking.
A Yant’s power comes from not only the design but also the placement on the body. The higher up you get the Yant, the more sacred that Yant really is. Originally these tattoos were applied with a long bamboo rod sharpened to a fine point. Today the ritual isn’t too much different, except steel is used more commonly because it’s easy to sterilize (and it lasts longer as a needle).
More popular Sak Yant practitioners might tattoo more than 50 people a day. Sterilization and sanitation are increasing concerns for many monks. We were sure to find a reputable monk with a great history before we went for our Yant. We even recorded the whole experience; you can watch it in action.
Viewfinder Tip: If you opt for a Sak Yant, find a monk who uses different ink for each person to minimize the risk of contracting disease.
Tawny and I saw our first yant on a trip to Thailand in 2009. We caught just a glimpse of it, five delicate lines dripping down a young woman’s shoulder. We did our investigation and unearthed the history of the Sak Yants. We became obsessed. A unique blessing, forged into your skin by the deft hand of a monk. It was too tempting to resist.
It wasn’t long until we booked our fare back to Thailand and began searching for a true master. Sadly, Sak Yant is a dying art. More and more foreigners come to Thailand and want the tattoo without honoring the tradition. Many tattoo parlors offer knock-off Yants. To be a true Sak Yant, the mark must come from a practicing Buddhist monk. The monk typically only will accept donations, not payment. This usually comes in the form of food, sodas, or most commonly, cigarettes.
Nothing will prepare you for the feeling of getting your Sak Yant. I’m not sure if it was the snake venom in the ink, the searing hot steel, or the magic of the Yant, but once Phra Ajarn Gamtorn struck that first letter my skin went flush.
At first, it felt like I had fallen into a thistle patch crawling with fire ants, but then the sensation succumbed to a dull ache. I could hear the needle roaring down my shoulder, carving five lines in succession. Then, as quickly as it began, it was over.
Phra Ajarn Gamtorn began a chant, rhythmically blowing across my fresh tattoo as he did so. This is the magic, the key to the whole endeavor. The monk gives life to the blessing with his breath and imbues it into the ink.
As I got up and turned to bow, Phra Ajarn Gamtorn smiled and sent me on my way. My translator helped me understand what I had just gotten stamped on my body. In a mirror it looked like a leopard had taken a swipe at my shoulder. “Five lines,” she told me. “This one, protection while traveling, next one success in your endeavors, middle one good for charm, next one protection for where you stay when you travel, and last one supposed to bring change for you when a situation not right.” The few people in the room came to inspect my new blessing and all nodded in approval.
Thailand left a mark on me. One that has helped me navigate my life.