22 October 2016
Body art can be a religious expression or a fashion statement, depending on what its wearer wants it to be. Photo: Brendon Hong
Body art can be a religious expression or a fashion statement, depending on what its wearer wants it to be. Photo: Brendon Hong

What’s up with the mystical Buddhist tattoos of Thailand?

It pays to start early if you’re doing Bangkok’s mystical Buddhist tattoo tour.

The journey starts at the Victory Monument junction where you can buy a ticket from a vendor outside a 7-Eleven store.

You can’t miss her. She is the one behind cans of Nestle espresso stacked high, presumably as fuel for a long day.

An hour’s ride leads to a highway where a footbridge across the road saves having to pick your way around an obstacle course and an assortment of vehicles trying to beat the chaotic traffic.

Now you’re safely on the other side.

Motorbike drivers will whisk you to the next leg of the journey for about 100 baht (US$2.80).

They know where to take you. You’re heading to Wat Bang Phra, a temple on the outskirts of Bangkok, about 50 kilometers west of the Thai capital.

It’s a shrine to Theravada worship. There, university students make offerings for better grades and families pray for safe travels and secure futures.

But its biggest attraction may be the monks who create sak yant, a form of mystical tattoo popular in Thailand but also practised in Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

Depending on the design, yant is said to bring power, protection and fortune.

During World War II, Thailand’s “ghost” soldiers were covered in them, with the belief that their inked bodies were bullet-proof.

Continuing the tradition, muay thai fighters sport mystical tattoos.

Some of Angelina Jolie’s back body art was done in the same way; you can see it in the film Wanted.

Whether yant is superstition, religious devotion or a fashion statement, it’s a kind of art pilgrims and visitors would gladly suffer for.

The monks, themselves covered in faded yant, would pray with you, perhaps listen to what you have to say but don’t say much.

But they decide the design and execute it.

One or two other people might help, holding you down as you offer your skin as canvas.

The monk clutches a bamboo or steel rod, dips its tip in black ink possibly mixed with snake venom or the ashes of cremated holy men and pierces you.

Every strike burns.

It takes a few seconds for your insides to be flooded with endorphins, which gives you an amazing high.

When it subsides, it burns again and the cycle repeats itself.

This may last five minutes or half an hour or longer, depending on what the monk decides to ink into you.

For the yant magic to work, the monk may tell you to give up something — sex, alcohol, white fish, whatever.

The most ardent followers follow those instructions religiously.

The ink’s power supposedly decreases with time, so it’s ideal to top up the tattoos once a year.

The ritual is called wai khru and the largest one is held, as you might expect, in Wat Bang Phra.

Devotees fall into a trance and act like the beasts tattooed on their bodies — tigers, monkeys, birds.

Things can get a little rough, so the police are around to maintain order.

As with many religious rituals, sak yant is an invention.

Its mythology is rooted in ancient animist belief which became entwined with Theravada Buddhism.

Modern  tattoo parlors offer hip yant patterns, without the pomp and circumstance that Thai monks shroud their work in.

But like everything else, yant is only as spiritual or holy as you want it to be.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Each strike of the needle burns and it takes seconds for your boy to be flooded with endorphins. Photo: Brendon Hong

Offerings left by university students after praying for good grades. Photo: Brendon Hong

EJ Insight contributor

EJI Weekly Newsletter