From outdoor pools to soccer stadiums, tattoos are visible marks of pop culture in the West. Not so in Thailand: A sak yant is an artwork only the fewest masters of the craft can prick – and one for which their followers will happily bear any pain.
This is a story of holy tattoos, but it begins with a bad joke: Two Germans, a Frenchman and a Japanese teenager are sitting beneath a corrugated roof … in Phatthanaphon Village, a district in the east of Bangkok. Dusty streets, cook shops, stray dogs barking. The four foreigners are enjoying the cool air whirling from a fan as they wait to be let into the building. They are waiting for pain, waiting for happiness. But inside, Ajarn Neng is in no hurry.
Ajarn Neng is the name of the tattooist behind the door, although strictly speaking it’s not a name, but a title, an honorific signifying “teacher” or “master.” A master of needle and ink drops his surname, he no longer needs it. Ajarn Neng is sporting a singlet, baggy pants, a Mr. Miyagi beard and glasses. The room is stacked to the ceiling with busts and Buddha statues. The air conditioning is doing battle with the incense sticks. A cockatoo dozes in a cage. With a gesture, the master invites us to sit on the floor. The assistants call in the Japanese boy. He’s scared, you can see it in his eyes, I muse, unsuspecting that by the end of this story, I will feel the same.
Sak yant, sacred tattoos, are a centuries-old tradition in Southeast Asia. They are thought to have been brought there circa 200 to 400 CE by the ships plying the trade routes between India and China. The warriors of the Khmer Empire reputedly had themselves tattooed in order to prevail in wars against the Cham and the Siamese. To this day, the belief that the yants protect their wearer from disease, misfortune and death has lost none of its power – not in Singapore, not in Cambodia or Laos, and most definitely not in Thailand. Whereas subculture and pop culture have turned tattoos into a mass phenomenon in the West, as exhibited by the fully inked arms of professional soccer players, the art of tattooing in Thailand has preserved its mysticism, is still charged with history and faith. You have to look around you to see yants everywhere. On the roof of the taxis they are intended to protect and in the offices of doctors wishing to put their powers to good use in their medicine. While globalization has also come to Thailand, the country has remained profoundly traditional in essence. Politicians commission occultists to curse their rivals, soldiers seek the advice of fortunetellers, and businesspeople wear holy amulets around their neck or at least in the inside pocket of their suit. The more rapid Thailand’s development, the stronger the yants’ power appears to become. They serve as an anchor in the chaos of progress. That’s why a small studio like that of Ajarn Neng is besieged.
The master reaches for the khem sak, a metal rod, and inserts a new needle. The rod is half a meter long. One end rests on the master’s shoulder. The teenager cowers in front of him, his upper body naked, his arms folded, a cushion beneath his chin. The assistants anointed his back after he had paid the 8200 baht, around 210 euros, for a yant sua, a tiger tattoo – in this case two tigers, claws outstretched and in mid-leap, forming a circle. The yants are a blend of nature and culture, legend and prayer, superstition and history, secular desires and religion and combine elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Brahmanism and Animism on the skin. Verses from the Ramayana, the most important epic poem in Hindu literature, are reproduced in ancient Khmer script. The assistants pull the skin on the Japanese youth’s back taut. The needle penetrates without resistance, a few millimeters deep, reemerges again, moves up and down rhythmically at a breathtaking speed, precise as any machine but guided by hand. The boy moans. How much does it hurt? Do I really want to know? Holding the rod between index finger and thumb, Ajarn Neng guides the needle. It looks like he’s trying to kill an ant. Six pricks a second, 360 pricks per minute.
Before Neng became an ajarn, he was a furniture designer by trade. He got some tattoos done himself, first one, then two; he wanted to stand out and became addicted. “I realized that I was destined to prick yants myself. I wanted to leave my old life behind,” he says, puffing away at a curved pipe. He had trained with many masters before becoming one himself. There are no short cuts on this path. You have to prove yourself worthy because the responsibility assumed is great. In itself, the tattoo is merely an ink image without any magical power. That is activated only when the master gently breathes a blessing into it. Ajarns are clairvoyants who connect with the soul of the person. They read it like a book. The Japanese boy is whimpering by now. “Embrace the pain. Life is painful, too. Therefore sak yant is like life,” Neng murmurs from amid an herbal cloud.
There are thousands of these street studios in Thailand. They are also frequented by tourists, by backpackers, hippies, souvenir hunters. At times, they arouse displeasure in the country. Thailand’s former culture minister, Niphit Intharasombat, criticized that many tourists regarded the yants as a mere fashion, and were undermining respect for religion. He feared a watering-down of the tradition, Westernization. To escape that trap, it’s best to head out of Bangkok to Nakhon Pathom province, an hour’s drive away.
Of all the temples in Thailand, Wat Bang Phra is one of the best known because its monks prick countless yants every day. We present ourselves to the abbot and receive permission to take a look around the vast site. Small rooms, neon lighting, long corridors, shaven-headed monks in robes murmuring everywhere, needles in hand, tattoo candidates before them. A hidden-object puzzle.
Every year in March, a Wai Khru takes place here, that’s the festival held to honor the teachers to which the tattooed come to recharge their yants. They make the pilgrimage from all over the country and fill the open courtyard beneath the blazing sun. From a platform, monks bless the masses while assistants hose their bodies of the throng with holy water. Many people fall into a trance. Their yants, it is said, take control of them. You can hear young guys barking, growling, gasping for air, foaming at the mouth. Old men roll on the ground, their eyeballs rolled inward. Some men run toward the platform yelling and have to be restrained by four police officers. A visit to Wai Khru is something you never forget.
But today, too, there is one person to be seen in a trance. Mit, 29, a mechanic from the affluent suburbs of the capital, is seated before Ajarn Tinnawaro. For the past two years, Mit has come only to him for tattoos. This is usual. A person will put his faith in one teacher and remain inseparably connected to him through the yants. Only upon the ajarn’s death is it acceptable to switch to another master. Mit throws his gifts into a bowl – 50 baht in bills, an orchid, a pack of Sai Phon herbal cigarettes. Nearly all of the Wat Bang Phra monks smoke menthol. Ajarn Tinnawaro sketches the yant and anoints Mit’s chest. Then he inserts the needle into his flesh, where it will stay for three long hours. Mit utters no sound, but then it happens: The Ajarn is chanting mantras, the two men sitting forehead to forehead, when Mit’s breathing comes faster and faster and his body is suddenly shaken by tremors. He bites his lips till they bleed, retches, stretches his left arm as though in a cramp and his head flies back and forth. The assistants brace their bodies against his but can barely restrain him. Mit is somewhere else, in a place we do not know. It is khong khuen, the state of arousal when the yants pulsate through the flesh. Then Ajarn Tinnawaro blows three times on the image, breathing the mantra into Mit’s body, and the young man awakens as though nothing at all had happened. What can he remember? What did he see?
Mit’s forehead is beaded with sweat. “I can’t remember and yet at the same time, I can. My heart was racing, I was in pain but the pain was pushed away by a great force. There was light and then everything went black.” His chest is heaving. No drop of blood visible there. Humbug, thinks the Westerner in me. Madness, says the reporter.
The story jumps for a final time – this time to Chao Phraya, the River of Kings, that flows through Bangkok. The Siam is a luxury hotel on the banks of the river, where wealthy Thais and tourists come to spend their vacation beneath fango masks. Stillness, marble, a waiter brings lemonade. There are masks on the walls as we head down the stairs to Ajarn Boo’s realm. The Siam employs its own sak yant master, and this, too, is a clear revelation of the depth of meaning Thai society attributes to sak yant tattoos. Ajarn Boo was 19 when a much-loved uncle died. Not knowing where to turn with his tears, the young man went to the temple, as many Thais do in search of comfort. Boo was permitted to prepare the templates for an ajarn at Wat Bang Phra. Every day, he would watch the master through the half-open door. Boo finally overcame his grief, but stayed on at the temple. And at some point he knew how to prick a yant without ever having held a needle in his hand.
Picture this story as a tattoo and we are now approaching its completion. Only the last few pricks are missing. They will hurt more than any that went before – because I, the reporter, will feel them. Earlier on outside, Ajarn Boo told us he had no more clients today, that an appointment had been cancelled, but that he could tattoo one of us. I recall how the driver recoiled, the translator laughed and the photographer said nothing. I recall raising my hand. Curiosity? Recklessness. I am not religious, not at all spiritual. But I do believe that I need to experience sak yant myself if I am to understand it. Looking on is no longer enough. And so there I crouch – my upper body bared, arms folded, a cushion beneath my chin – before Ajarn Boo. I will not cry out. The master has chosen the gao yord design for me, the nine peaks representing Meru Mountain, the center of the universe in Buddhist cosmology. I have already paid homage at the shrine, made the requisite offering which the hotel obligingly provided since I had come unprepared. Embrace the pain. Let yourself go. Just don’t start crying. I tremble. Ajarn Boo leans toward me.
You aren’t scared?
No, I lie. I cough.
Good, he murmurs. Fear is all part of the process.
Then he inserts the needle.