A sak yant tattoo is a type of tattoo given in Buddhist culture by a monk. The tattoo is meant to protect the wearer, however you need to uphold certain ideals once you receive it. To sum it up, you need to be a good human being. If you aren’t, the protection wears off.
The most famous place to get one of these tattoos is a little intimidating to say the least. The monk chooses where the tattoo will go and what it will be. Oh, and he doesn’t tell you, or talk at all for that matter. So, he decides just by looking at you. Then, he uses the same needle and ink he’s been using all day to create a flesh wound, which hopefully won’t get infected.
I hear the word “authentic” used a lot these days. If you want an “authentic” experience, it sometimes comes with the threat of disease. I’d almost given up on the idea when my sister came to the rescue and messaged me about her friend who got a magical tattoo in Thailand. Luckily, the place she went was sanitary, so I jumped at the chance to get one.
Getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand
“I’m going to get a tattoo in Chiang Mai. I thought you should know.”
“You’re what? Why?”
“Oh, and a monks gunna do it…in a temple”
That’s how most of my conversations went before getting inked in Thailand. Well, except my sister. Her response was egging me on more than anything. In fact, she was the one who convinced me to do it.
So, what was holding me back? For starters, Thailand is a developing nation. I’d gotten over my high standards for food preparation and personal hygiene, but I wasn’t exactly itching to have someone stick an unsanitary needle into my skin. I’d done tons of research and my biggest concern was cleanliness. I would not be that girl who ruined her life because she was stupid enough to get a tattoo in Thailand.
Second, I hate the idea of being a cliché. I’ve wanted a Sak Yant tattoo since I first heard about them, but I also read that you can’t tell the monk which one you want. Unfortunately, the most common Sak Yant is the one Angelina Jolie has. I refused to get the same tattoo as a celebrity and have everyone say, “That looks like Angies!” for the rest of my life. No thanks. I’ll pass.
Getting a Sak Yant tattoo for the right reasons
Although more expensive, Sak Yant Chiang Mai always uses sterile needles. The part that really sold me was being able to decide on my own tattoo and having a translator who could communicate with the monk on my behalf. After talking to the staff in the tattoo shop, it was apparent that a lot of westerners come to get these tattoos because they’re pretty and make a great story. Although they are pretty, and they do make a great story, I wanted the monk to know I was getting this tattoo for me. Not for my ego.
I’ve actually gone back and forth on whether or not to write this post because letting go of ego was one of the reasons I received the tattoo in the first place. I wanted to make sure that I was getting this tattoo for me and not because it made a great story. With apps like Instagram, it’s so easy to do things for “likes” instead of for yourself. Now that it’s been two months, I know I got my tattoo for me, and honestly, I don’t care if people think its cool or not.
Choosing a Sak Yant design
When it came time to choose, I decided on “eight points” which is often said to be good for travelers because westerners believe it brings protection from all eight directions. The Buddhist interpretation is that the circle in the center represents your life if things lacking importance distract you. This could include valuing material items too much, having an ego, or being greedy. The outer spires represent reaching enlightenment and escaping that circle. Basically, if you can move past the daily distractions of life, you can be happier.
What it’s like getting tattooed by a Monk in Thailand
Getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand is one of the most painful things I’ve ever done. Seriously. Before heading to the temple, I was offered an Advil, which I declined. Upon arriving, I was instructed to keep breathing so that I wouldn’t pass out from the pain. I thought that was a joke. It wasn’t. Apparently, passing out is fairly common.
Sak Yant tattoos are done by hand with a long metal rod that has been sharpened at the tip. The whole process only takes 20 minutes or so, but the pain is indescribable. As soon as the metal hit my skin, I could feel the blood drain from my face. The only thing that got me through was the deer embroidered pillow I was hugging which looked like it belonged in a lodge in upstate New York. Plus, my guide Johnny’s constant reminder to breathe. Thankfully, I didn’t pass out.
After the tattoo was complete, the monk blessed it with a chant. Some people describe this as “breathing magic” into the tattoo. I’d heard that people get a little emotional at this part. Truth is, I almost started to cry. I’m not sure if it was because I was spiritually moved, or that I was just so relieved the pain was over. Maybe it was a little bit of both, although I have a feeling it was mostly the latter.
Getting a Sak Yant tattoo in Thailand was a big decision for me, but I’m really glad I did it. It’s a constant reminder to let go of ego and attachments to silly things, and it inspires me to live in the present.
Are you thinking about getting a Sak Yant? Ask me any questions in the comments!
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Michelle Della Giovanna
Writer at Full Time Explorer
I’m just your average New Yorker who quit her job in the fashion industry to explore the world. Come find out what it’s like to trade in five-inch heels for squat toilets.