Tattoo Is a Cultural Sacred Design

I wrote a post on Is Tattoo Just A Body Art or A Cultural Sacred Design and this has been my most popular post as many people are interested in tattoo. There are 2 main reasons as to why people decide to get tattoo, as for some, they only see tattoo as a body art, the canvas is on the human body, a very fascinating concept to me. I don’t have a tattoo, but I do see the beauty in tattoos and this type of tattoo is more popular amongst women and very popular in Japan from what I have came across.

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Tattoo Bride Photo by Nahpan

Uploaded by Jose M. Ruiz Garrido, actress Angelina Jolie attends the premiere of “Ocean’s Thirteen”; at the Grauman’s Chinese theatre in Hollywood, California June 5, 2007. The tattoos on Jolie’s arm represent the coordinates of the birth places of her children.

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This video of Thai spiritual tattoo, also known as Sak Yant by Ajahn Noo Kanpai is very interesting, I’ve seen the actual temple tattoo on a friend, which I think it’s fascinating because it’s not your ordinary tattoo; the design has a religious feel to it.

Ajarn Noo does 2 types of tattoos, and both are cultural sacred designs. The first is at the very beginning of the video where the designs of the tattoo is invisible, but the main purpose is to gain wisdom, possess power of kindness as he uses a special ointment of varnt (special roots from plants), the process of Sak Yant is exactly the same as using black ink, in this case a very sacred design.

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Another is the sacred design that deemed to possess magic power of protection; he puts Monh (magic) of prayers inside the design, which I believed was written in Pali, Sanskrit. Thai Temple tattoo of Sak Yant (photo on right hand side,) which is geometrically designs that deemed to possess magic powers of protection is very popular amongst Asian warriors, such as the Thais, Laotians, and Khmers in the old days and still very popular today.

There are other designs such as the lion (Singhto), which is a symbol of bravery and cunning. Thai men would choose a tiger design, not just a picture of a tiger but tattoo their body to look like tiger, many have had designs that covered every square inches of their body. The reason for the tiger design is that Thai people, especially the Lanna, believed that their ancestors were once tiger, therefore to show respect and in remembrance of their ancestors, they’d choose the tiger design. Another popular one is the hanuman, which is the Hindu monkey god, which is to protect against illness, against being shot, against being cut, and to give courage.

In part of the video where the men have strange reaction, it is believed that the sacred designs that were tattooed (Sak) into their body, whether it be the tiger, dragon, or hanuman would come out and they’d act like the animal that they chose, and this is a sign that that person truly gained the power of protection. Sak Yant is very fascinating to me; to the Thais, Laotians, Khmers, and many others, tattoo is not just a body art but also a sacred design.

A photo below, a young monk has a tattoo of prayers added to his back at Wat Bang Pra, Thailand; photo by Stephen Shaver

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Ajarn Sua completes a sak yant protection tattoo with a ritual that involves symbolically cutting the devotee with a knife. The tattoo is believed to be able to stop a bullet.

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Ajarn Sua by scottgibsoncarney

A full back tattoo from the studio of Ajarn Sua outside Bangkok. The tattoo is believed to protect the devotee from harm.

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Back Sak Yant Tattoo by scottgibsoncarney

Ajarn Sua completes a protection tattoo with a ritual.

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Sak Yant Tattoo by scottgibsoncarney

Ink supplies at the Wat Bang Pra Temple.

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Tattoo Ink by scottgibsoncarney

Hand tattoo, monks at the wat bang pra temple outside bangkok use a two foot long needle to ink devotees.

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Hand Tattoo by scottgibsoncarney

As I’ve mentioned in my previous post, these tattoos are not like the modern tattoos that are merely a fashion statement, but more of a cultural belief and most, if not all have Monh (magic) of prayers in the design, of course, along with the tattoo came few rules that one has to follow to keep the magic strong,

Updated 4/23/2008: Please read here for health and sanitation concern.

Updated 5/05/2008: To those who wear the Sacred Yant Tattoo:

Rules of Abstention:

1. Do not eat Star fruit, Pumpkin, or any other “Gourd” type Vegetable.

2. Do not Be anybody’s Lover who is already married

3. FORBIDDEN in Extreme, to slander anybody’s Mother (this means most women, if you think about it).

4. Do not eat food from a Wedding, or Funeral banquet.

5. Do not Eat left-Overs.

6. Do not Duck under a Washing Line, or an overhanging building.

7. Do not Duck under a Banana Tree of the type Thaanii (classed as important to avoid).

8. Do not cross a single head bridge; Large or Small bridges are not Forbidden.

9. Do not sit on a Ceramic Urn (Common in Thailand). Especially a Cracked, or Broken one.

10. Do not let a Woman Lie on Top of You, or Sit on Top either.

11. Do not permit a Man to be Brushed by the blouse or skirt of a Woman, or crossed in Front of; Especially during the Menstrual Period.

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58 thoughts on “Tattoo Is a Cultural Sacred Design

  1. What a fascinating post. Thank you.

    I thought that having a machine made tattoo was painful, but some of your pics just make my hair stand on end. The devotion is beautiful, painful, but beautiful…

  2. Hi Vienne, thanks for the visit. I would never have thought seeing something like this could be described as beautiful but I do have to agree with you and would love to see this in person, maybe the next time when I visit Thailand. I think it’s the cultural beliefs and understanding of the true meaning of the devotion that make this beautiful.

  3. Looks painful but interesting. I almost got tempted to have a henna-tats somewhere in my ankle or wrist for arts sake. My worst enemy however is that, would it make me look “cooler” or just crazy?

    I love tats however, it’s not for everybody.

  4. Interesting! I really want one of Phraya Nak. I was thinking of getting one in Laos during my trip there at the end of the year. But I’m really worried about the sanitary issue.

  5. K, I like tattoos but I see it more as Art or a cultural sacred design, very much like “a picture is worth a thousand words” that refers to the idea that complex stories can be described with just a single still image. One of my co-workers asked me to have one done with her, but it’s not for me, and besides, I’m afraid of needle; you’d have thought that I want one since I posted about tattoos, but I’m more fascinated with the image and story behind it.

    Hi Bassak, thanks for the visit. I think it’s a good idea to get one in Laos, it’d make the trip more memorable, I’ve not gone back but hoping to be able to visit Laos in the near future. As for the sanitary issue, I think it’s everywhere, even in the United States, and the Phraya Nak made me think of Pern Pomdan Thai song that I used to listen when I was little, starting out with 7 heads/tails dragon with paws, claws, and lots of scales, but he couldn’t bear the pain, so it ends up being a little worm. With that said, good luck with your Phraya Nak. 🙂

  6. Good point, I still have plenty of time to ponder about this. Although a worm with fangs are also very scary.

  7. Is it safe as far as HIV? and other blood infectious diseases? Is it culturally ok for woman to get them. I know Angelina Jolie has it but trully it acceptable in their culture for woman to have one? What shoul I know before I get one?
    Thanks for any input.

    • I got tattooed at Wat Bang Phra and there were a few women there waiting to get tattooed so I’m pretty sure it’s ok for women to get tattooed there.

  8. p.s. I was referring to safety in getting a tattoo in a monk temple in Thyland, haw safe is it?
    Thank you .

  9. Hi Kik, apparently you have to make a judgment call on this, but I just want to mention that before going to Thailand, it’d be a good idea to get vaccinated for Hepatitis, which is given in 2 dosages of 6 months apart (recommended for any third world country,) which will lessen your exposure to this disease, and one less things to worry about. Below is the information from Wikipedia about Wat Bang Phra Tattooing.

    Health: The sanitation of the needle and ink are unknown. Receiving a tattoo at the Wat Bang Phra temple potentially exposes a person to HIV, Hepatitis B, or Hepatitis C. There are approximately 580,000 people living with AIDS in Thailand. However, it is important to note that according to the “UNAIDS 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic” there are no recorded cases of contracting HIV or AIDS from a tattoo needle due to the absence of a reservoir inside the needle containing enough blood to deliver the virus into the body to pass infection.

    Before the tattoo, Tattoo Selections on the temple wall: A person wanting a tattoo will arrive at the temple around 8:00 AM. Each tattoo takes about 15 minutes. Before entering the temple, the person will purchase flowers and cigarettes as an offering to Buddha and to support the Wat. These offerings are then recycled back into the place where purchased and the money used for up-keep for the Wat. Upon removing your shoes and entering the Wat, a person will sit down in line. The offerings are kept in the center of the room. The tattoos are done in groups of about 20 people. When the previous group is complete, the monk blesses the next batch of offerings and the next group of people. Then, the tattooing begins again. The typical person receiving a tattoo has been observed to be between 18 and 30.

    Tattoo options Monk tattooing at Wat Bang Phra: Upon entering the Wat (Buddhist Temple,) one of the first things a person sees on the wall is a very large banner of tattoos available. Unless there is a specific choice requested, the monk will begin with a simple tattoo at the top of the back.

    Daily Tattooing: Right before reaching the monk, the people next in line to the one being tattooed will assist the monk with holding the one receiving the tattoo still. The monk uses a single long thin needle about 18 inches in length and about four millimeters in width. There are about 8 of these needles in a pot of a type of cleaning solution. Sometimes the monk will sharpen the needle with fine grade sandpaper before beginning. The monk will then select from several different rubber templates with the design of choice. He will apply the template to ink and then press it on to the recipients back to transfer the design. When ready to begin, he will dip the tip of the needle into a mix of oil, probably palm oil, Chinese charcoal ink, and possibly snake venom. [note from Ginger: I think the ink is shared by others as well, so it’s not like it’s mixed only for you] He then begins to trace the pattern. The typical tattoo takes about 3,000 stikes over 12 to 15 minutes to complete. The monk dips the needle into the ink about every 30 seconds. When complete, he blesses the tattoo and blows on it to infuse it with power. For men, the monk uses the charcoal ink. For women he uses a transparent ink and will use a glove in order to not touch the female body. (Yes, it is culturally acceptable for women to have one)

    Thailand Sak Yant tattoo at Wat Bang Phra temple, Part 1

    Thailand Sak Yant tattoo at Wat Bang Phra temple, Part 2

    The address of the temple Wat Bang Phra is:
    Phra Udomprachanat (Luang Phor Poen)
    Wat Bangphra Tambol Bangkaewfa
    Amphor Nakornchaisri Nakornpathom
    Tel: (034) 389-3333

  10. Would anyone know if it’s just possible to put Sak Yant tattoos at the Wat Bang Phra temple? If not, where else?
    Also, is it true that Sak Yant tattoos are not allowed from the waist down?
    Thanks in advance.

  11. Jolien, I don’t live in Thailand and don’t know about the places of where you can get tattoos, but Wat Bang Pra is a well-known place of Sak Yant from Ajarn or Sak Yant Master, but not the only place, I believed anyone can get a Sak Yant at Wat Bang Pra (please read my previous comment here). There are hundreds of ‘Samnak Ajarn Sak’ ( Sak Yant Master Offices) in Thailand, but not all masters are monks, they are Brahmin that wear white robes and respect the 5 vows of purity, I believed that they can do as good of a job as Ajarns or monks.

    As for Yant below the waist, I think it depends on who is doing the tattooing, a Sak Yant Master Offices might do it anywhere for you, but Wat Bang Pra might not do it, but then again, I don’t really know the answer, you might have better luck asking the question in this Sak-Yant Forum.

    As for me personally, I think it’s inappropriate to Sak Yant below the waist because of the meaning of Yant, Yantra in Sanskrit means a design with sacred geometrical symbolism inflected. The lines drawn in the Yant represent the umbilical cord of the Buddha and are traditionally known as ‘the bones of the yant.’ There are many varied forms of Yantra such as round yant which represents the face of the Buddha, Triangular Yant which represents the Triple Gem of the Buddha Dharma and Sangha (source), and as a Buddhist myself, Yant designs are very sacred and to place below the waist would be kind of rude and disrespectful, but to others, this might not be the case, I think it’s a personal decision on this one.

    You don’t have to answer this, but I’m just curious, why do you want to get a Yant? (question open to anyone)

    You can learn more about Yant at Sak-Yant.com

  12. hello i need a sak yant tattoo like angelina jolie. where i find a Template? please help me.

  13. Hi shizandra, I don’t think there is a template for Angelina Jolie’s tattoo because the tattoo on Jolie’s arm represents the coordinates of the birthplaces of her children written in Pali (Sanskrit) language I believed, which has special meaning for her but I’d not think to anyone else.

  14. Hi viva, thanks for the visit. When I wrote the post, I didn’t realize that Tattoo is such a hot topic, especially Yant Tattoo and I’m thankful that I was able to find some really good photos, people have the tendency to look at the photos first, if they look interesting, then they’ll read the post, same concept as advertisement.

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  16. i wonder whether it is allowed to bring same(new) needles to be used only for me or not?i guess they’re special for the temple,right?

    • cglr, that I don’t know, but it’d not hurt to bring one to ask if you’re there. I know the temple have their own needles and I’m sure they’re used to using the type that they have.

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  18. Just read Kik’s comments.. “I know Angelina Jolie has it [..]” & “Thyland” when it’s spelled correctly even one post up. Hope that guy didn’t get a tattoo; I mean from the looks of things, how was he gonna deal with it? L0l, anyway….

  19. P.S. Good thing about her geographical locations (Jolie’s), that way other women in a hurry can use their GPS locators to get to their needed destinations, when in labor! :-F

  20. I really enjoyed this post a lot. It is well written and the photos are awesome. I have a number of tattoos that I got in Thailand (from legendary tattoo artist Jimmy Wong) as well as some from artists in Japan. I have seen many of the Buddhist-style tattoos or magical tattoos done by Buddhist Monks.

    • Hi Jeffrey, I’ve learned so much from this post. I’ve seen cultural sacred design tattoos growing up and have always been fascinated with the meaning behind them, but I don’t have any tattoo. 🙂

  21. This web was very useful in my search for info on sak yant tattoos. A couple of friends and I visited Thailand last month and got a sak yant from Wat Bang Phra by Hlwong Pi Plaew (he is the monk in Steven Shaver’s photo – I recognize his leg tattoos). The wat is about an hours’ drive from central Bangkok and we found someone to take us through the hotel we stayed at. The temple complex is, apart from the tattooing, very interesting in itself. Hlwong Pi Plaew tattoos on a terrace behind the big white temple on the right as you enter the complex. An adequate donation to the temple would be Bhat 1000 (about 20 Euros) if you want to get a tattoo. You line up and it is therefore a good idea to get there early in the morning. However, we were done first for some reason.
    For people contemplating receiving a sak yant – for us it was a very special experience and something we had wanted to do for some time. The sight of that two foot long, double-pronged needle is quite off putting and it is definitely NOT a painless experience, put perfectly tolerable. Afterwards we had no problems at all with the tattoo, no inflamation, no pain and no special care needed. Small tattoos take between 10 and 15 minutes. Mine, a gao yord, took about 30 minutes and of course if you are talking about large ones I believe that they may be done in more than one session. It may be a good idea to take a picture or have the name of the tattoo you want to receive, although the monk may refuse if he doesn’t think it is the right one for you.

    • Hi Anna, thanks for stopping by. It’s nice to hear a good feed back from someone that actually had it done, I have a friend that was thinking about having it done in Laos, but I don’t think they’re as experienced as the ones in Thailand in terms of tattooing for tourists. I especially like the part about the donation, 1000 Bhat seems reasonable and it’s good to know that they would only do the tattoo that they think is appropriate for you.

  22. Coolest! I’ve one, All we known Ha-Taew(Five Rolls),,,It’s juz like Angel Jolie did but otherwise, we tattooed that on the different side from women. (Right shoulder for men) Yearh! Rock onnnnn!!!!

  23. Anyone know if its okay for women to have the black charcol ink? I would rather not have transparent ink … seems pointless … but dont want to offend the monks by asking there and then.

    • I had also heard that women were usually tattooed with invisible ink, but when I had my gao yord done I was asked (through an interpreter) if I wanted it invisible or charcoal and the monk didn’t pose any problem when I said I wanted charcoal. See my comments of a couple of months ago as to where to go and how.
      I don’t know if you go on your own what would happen, basically because of the language barrier. We took a driver called Bandit (with an accent on the i) from the hotel we stayed at – the Bellaire Princess on Sukhumvit 5 – and he acted as guide and interpreter for us. I have his card somewhere.
      What is true is that a Bhuddist monk cannot touch the female body so he will use some tissue paper between your skin and his fingers.
      As regards the tattoos themselves, I can only say that it is a special experience and, for me worthwhile. Painful, yes but nothing that is not supportable. As I say in my previous comments, it is a good idea to take a print or something of what you want done. Maybe the monk will do it or modify it,as in my case, according to their own cannons.
      At Wat Bang Phra they are used to foreigners so there is no problem All you have to do is respect their ways which is not a problem.
      My friend and I intend to return to Thailand this year and, if possible, get another tattoo done. I would like the tigers but I am not sure that the monk will do them on a woman.

  24. i want to learn more about the old way of tattoing. iam protattoist in pilipinas. iam jhay-z

  25. iam very grateful to see n learn about the way you do of a sacred tattoo, jhay-z vampire tattoo studio phil.

  26. to have a real tattoo. tattoo even it is not sacred as traditional. modern or old passion it should be wel sanitize

    • jose maria christian gotidoc, if I ever visit Thailand again, I would like to see one done. I like the old fashion needle technique better than the modern one.

  27. ok thats good, but 1st i want to have a sacred trad. tattoo in ifugao mountain provincephils., after that i’ll visit thailand.

    • Jose, I don’t want to have one, I just want to watch. This must be an emotional transformation to go through, and I like to hear the story behind it. I heard from a friend that he wants one because he wants it in memory of his deceased dad.

  28. if somebody wants to have a tattoo it should be meaningful to her or his life or dedicated for a special person..

    • Why is the reason you want yours, and what do you have in mind? I know many people see it as a body art, I have several co-workers that have theirs.

      One of my sister in-laws has hers at an awkward place, I think she has it done because her friend was having one done, and now she regrets and wants it removed.

  29. I got tattooed by Loum Pi Pow (probably not spelled right). I had such a wonderful experience there. I enjoyed every moment of it from waking around and seeing all the beautiful buildings, to lunch, to the tattoo and especially waiting with everyone to get tattooed. There were about 20 people waiting when I get there and only a few spoke english. They were very nice and my cab driver waited with me and helped translate.

    The design I got is the triangular shaped design between the shoulder blades. I had seen it several times since I got to Thailand and it just seemed right. I have several tattoos done by machine, and honestly the hand poked tattoo hurt less than the machine. It was great having the other people waiting stretch the skin and they took my picture.

    Afterward, I went to the main temple and had an older monk bless the tattoo. I hope to be able to go back and get another yant soon. I really feel that it has protected me from harm on several occasions. Very magical experience and well worth it and more for anyone interested.

  30. The info that Angelina Jolies Ha Taew tattoo contains here specific astrological data is not true. Her astrological data was looked at, and Ha taew was chosen as the fitting yant for her. But the Kata contained within it is the same he uses for other Ha Taew designs.

    His Kata is different from all other Ajarns for Yant Ha Taew, and it is (as most other Kata in his Yant) mostly unreadable, because many of the Kata are in Khmer Magical language not Pali Sanskrit. I found this out years after my beginning phase of learning, when i learned how to make Tagrud amulets with Ajarn Thoy Dabos – the formula he gave me with the spell in it, was not understandable at all to me although i have studied Pali Grammar. It was gobbledygook to me and sounded very Khmer indeed (staccato).

    Basically though, Ha Taew is a Yant which covers five auspicious aspects of life, and increases the auspicious influences. I wrote a page about this and also explain it in more detail in my ebook ‘sak yant Buddhist tattoos’

    as to Ian saying maybe he spelled Luang Pi Pow wrong.. well as soon as you take thai letters and try to spell in english they are all wrong my friend! because Thai is Thai and you can’t spell Thai in Eenglish so you can sp[ell it any way you want. The normal way is ‘Laung Pi Phaew’ if you were to follow how i pushed the spelling to be. I began spelling ‘Luang’ as ‘Hlwong’ because its more accurate, but in the end i have had to follow suit with everyone else and use the ‘Luang’ spelling, in order to get google search results on my page. I still believe Hlwong is better though as in Thai the word has a silent H at the beginning

  31. The “mohn” is written in Khmer. The Khmer language is believed to be runic and have magical properties.

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