Beginners guide to Sak Yant Tattoos

Sak Yant
Photo: Tom Hoops

Sak Yant สักยันต์ is a spiritual form of tattoo that originated in the Khmer Empire (1400 years ago). The tattoos are typically performed by Buddhist monks or rishi, an accomplished and enlightened person. The tattoo designs consist of animal, deity and geometrical designs accompanied by Pali phrases to offer the bearer protection, fortune and power. The tattoos are traditionally made using metal rods sharpened at the end into a point called a Khem Sak.

Sak Yant tattoos

Those who receive a Sak Yant must follow the five precepts of Buddha’s teachings. Firstly, do not kill another living creature, do not take what is not your own. Refrain from sexual misconduct or sexual offences, no lying or gossip and finally, do not indulge in anything that would cloud the mind, such as drugs or alcohol. Bearers of the tattoo are also encouraged to meditate often.

For Thailand, in particular, most Buddhists believe in magic and the supernatural. Sak Yant is given by Buddhist monks or Brahmin holy men. Prayers are chanted during the ceremony. In the past, monks would tattoo soldiers before they left for war to provide them with strength and protect them.

Just a few of the popular Sak Yant designs in Thailand:

Sak Yant Designs

Kao Yod

Kao yod (nine spires) is one of the most sacred tattoos. People believe that Kao Yod can protect them from fatal accidents. Nine is a lucky number in Thai culture related to the nine levels of heaven before one reaches nirvana. Kao Yod is tattooed on the top centre of your back, just below the neck.

Suea Koo

Suea Koo (2 tigers) the tiger is one of the most feared animals in Thailand. This tattoo represents strength, power and protection from any danger. Usually, people would have Suea Too tattooed on their back. Suea Koh is a popular tattoo among Thai kickboxers.

Hanuman

Hanuman (Hindu Monkey God) The Hanuman is one of the characters from the Indian Epic Ramayana. This tattoo represents invincibility and is usually tattooed on the back.

Ong Phra

Ong Phra (buddha) The most popular tattoo in Thailand, this tattoo represents guidance and insight.

Ruesi

Ruesi (hermit) This design represents knowledge and also brings happiness into a persons life.

Dragon

Dragon, a mythical creature which is known for its destructive power. It represents protection from any harm and good fortune. This design is popular among the military and also some government officers.

Four Sided yant

The four-sided yant represents the earthly elements Earth, Wind, Water and Fire.

The Paed Tidt

The Paed Tidt (8 directions) represents eight Buddha representations. There are 8 poses of Buddha in Thailand. Those bearing this tattoo are meant to be safe from harm whilst travelling and are also said to be protected from evil spirits.

Hong Ku

Two golden swans. In one of Buddha’s stories, he came back to earth as a magical swan, and all the birds in the forest appointed him as their leader. This tattoo gives power, popularity and charm.

Crocodile

The Crocodile represents endurance, power and strength. Having been around for more than 50 million years. Since the skin of a crocodile is so tough and hard, people with this tattoo believe that they are protected against knives. It’s a popular tattoo among Thai boxers.

Where to get a Sak Yant tattoo

One of the most famous temples where most Thais would get tattoos is Wat Bang Phra in Nakorn Chaisi

Once a year, this temple will hold a tattoo festival or Wai Kru festival, usually in March. People with Sak Yant would gather at the temple to empower their tattoos, believing that their power in their tattoos would decrease with time. During the day, a senior monk chants on stage, at which point many people go into a trance like state. Depending on the tattoo on their skin the person may begin to act in a similar manner. So someone with a tiger may well begin to roar like a tiger. Or those with a Hanuman may act like a monkey.

Sak Yant tatoo
Photo: Tom Hoops
Sak Yant tattoos at Wat bang Phra temple
Photo: Tom Hoops

At the festival, the local monks often tattoo Thais looking for protection. People can be seen waiting in line for a tattoo from very early in the morning. Tattoos can cost as little as 70thb or a few dollars. The monk will chose the design of the tattoo for you after a short ceremony.

If you prefer something more private there are a number of Sak Yant masters who will do a private session in Bangkok.

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