what is a sak yant tattoo

What is a Sak Yant Tattoo? A brief history of Traditional Thai Tattoo

Traditional Thai Bamboo Tattoos are known in Thailand as …

สักยันต์ – Sak Yant

Sak – meaning “to tap” or, “to tattoo”, and

Yant – meaning “Yantra”. Originally derived from the Sanskrit word “Yantra”.


Traditional Thai Tattoos

In Thailand the Traditional Thai Tattoo, (sometimes called Bamboo Tattoo) are more commonly known as Sak Yants. This is the process of tattooing sacred geometrical designs (known as Yantra in the India culture) on the skin, accompanied by a magical blessing. Sak Yants are normally tattooed by Buddhist Monks, or Brahmin Holy men referred to as Sak Yant Ajarns.

The Sak Yant tattoo is truly unique having been developed over the centuries under the influence of several different regional religious philosophies. The Yantra designs that already existed in Hindu India were adapted by the Thai Ajarns; using first an animistic based religious ideas, and then a Buddhist influence as it arrived from neighboring India.


What is a Sak Yant Tattoo? A brief history

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1) The Beginnings: Hindi tradition and the 4 elements

In India, the Hindi tradition the 4 elements in life (Air,Earth,Water,Fire) became the backbone of Yantra designs; which were a symbolic representation of Mantra, Tantra and Astrology.  These geometric mystical shapes essentially represent though forms of cosmic powers and divinities.

2) The Animistic Worship

Shaman culture has existed in tribes since the beginning of time, as cultures that lived in nature started to apply specific qualities with the animals that lived around them.  The Animist cultures generally had no specific gods, rather they were a combination of ancestor and nature worship related to their geographic area.  Local tribes had a variety of tattoed animal images used as part of their traditional beliefs.

3) The Ruesi Connection

Ruesui (sometimes referred to as Rushi) were hermit sages that held beliefs in Hindu Vedas and Buddhist Dharma.  Resui usually practiced in solitude their meditations and shamanic practices, but where thought to be influential in the progression of Buddhist teaching throughout the former Khmer empire.  Here the addition of a 5th element (spirit) was added to the local traditions with the inclusion of written script called kata.

This influence spread across the Khmer empire until it was dissolved into what is now known as Thailand and Cambodia. For hundreds of years, Thai and Khmer warriors where renowned and feared for the magical markings tattooed on their skin. These markings were a mix of Buddhist psalms and prayers, and shamanistic spells and sorcery that had survived the Religious transition from the pre-Buddhist, Hindu era and had been incorporated in the belief system of the newly born Buddhist countries.

Since the days of King Nareswon, in the golden era of Ayuttaya, Thai soldiers not only sought protection in the power of Sak Yant and also the wearing and praying of amulets. In World World 2, Korean and Vietnam war, Thai soldiers were nicknamed “Taharn Phee” (ghost soldiers) by the allied forces because of their Sak Yant tattoos and amulets. Many Muay Thai Boxers (”Nak Muay”) seek the magical powers said to be afforded them by Sak Yant tattoos.

4) Traditional Thai Sak Yant Tattoo and Buddhism

The Sak Yant tattoo in itself, is not strictly part of the orthodox Buddhist traditions. As Buddhism influence expanded and spread across Asia, local and pre-existing traditions and religions that had no direct contradiction with Buddhism were integrated into the style of local Buddhist teachings. The Sak Yants came from these previously held traditions in Thai (and other Asian) cultures as part of the Shamanistic traditions that already existed.

In Thailand today, as with the rest of the world, different sects of Buddhism exist each with their specific teachings. Very few Temples in Thailand teach the specialization of Sak Yant Tattoos and magical blessings. Most Temples have specialized educational systems incorporated into their community work, and Monks from different Temples will freely travel to different Temples for specialized services.

While it is very common to see Monks with Sak Yant Tattoos on their bodies, many Monks will have seek out an Ajarn or Sak Yant Monk to obtain one for themselves from different Temples to where they live. Generally almost all Thai Monks accept the validity of Sak Yants even if the tradition is not part of their particular school of thought. Monks with an interest in the Talismans magic of Sak Yant will find a Sak Yant Master (or Temple) and study for a period of 3-4 years before being considered qualified to preform the Sak Yant.

For the last couple of hundred of years in city areas, the Sak Yant began to lose favor with the influx of Christian Missionaries and the social elite adapting to Western influence. While still popular among the rural communities, and with people in dangerous jobs; the resurgence of the Sak Yant really took off when Angelina Jolie received her Sak Yant Tattoo. On very rare occasions you may run across a Monk from this era who has a personal opinion that the Sak Yant is not part of Buddhism. However in today’s Thailand the traditional Thai Tattoo is making a resurgence in popularity


What is a Sak Yant Tattoo in Today’s World

A Yant is a Sacred geometrical design that provide powers of protection and various blessings through Buddhist psalms and magical formulas. The Buddhist psalms written in Thai or Khmer script around the yant are know as “Khata”. A Khata is also known as “Mantra” with the word Mantra, being a Sanskrit word meaning “Prayer”.

The Sak Yant Tattoo has become ingrained in the Thai culture as a way to provide protection and gain good luck through the mystical side of traditional philosophies and the Buddhist influence. Usually the Monk or Ajarn who preforms the Sak Yant has studied the magical side of the ancient traditions and incorporates charms and magical blessings in addition to the design of the Sak Yant itself.

The most common first Sak Yants to receive, and the ones the Monks will select for you .. are the

Master Sak Yants

The 3 Master Sak Yants

1) Hah Taew
2) Paed Tidt
3) Gao Yord

Other, more complex and complicated Sak Yant designs such as animals and sacred geometry are seen as advanced talismans for more serious and dedicated believers.

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If you are a westerner who is looking for your first Sak Yant, 95% of the time it will be one of these designs.

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The 3 parts of the Sak Yant Tattoo
When getting the Sak Yant Tattoo, the meaning associated with the Tattoo comes in 3 parts; It is sometimes possible (It depends on the design itself) to have an imagine you want, but change the text and prayers and final blessing for a specific and special meaning.  The 3 elements are …

1) The Design

This is the picture or design of the Sak Yant.  While all Sak Yants come with their own meaning implicit to the design, if you like a certain design, it might be able to be used but changed to include the Kata and Blessing elements into the final meaning

2) The Kata

This includes the magic spells within the mind of the Sak Yant master as they create the Sak Yant.  The master is reciting special prayers as they apply the design so that it becomes filled with the desired intention of the final design.  The Kata also includes the text written around the Sak Yant.  This text is usually presented incorrectly in drawn images you find online and are corrected by the Master.  This is design to keep the knowledge so that only those qualified to give Sak Yants can give them.

3) The Blessing given

The final blessing given at the end of the Sak Yant Process.  Special intentions and desires can be requested for this.  For example you can get a Five Line Sak Yant and ask for financial prosperity with the blessing.