Sacred Skin : An exploration of Thailand's sak yant tattoo culture

Almost like a cartographic reference to ancient wisdom, the ink on the man’s body stands out in dramatic detail on the monochromatic image on the cover of “Sacred Skin: Thailand’s Spirit Tattoos.”

His skin has been transformed into a magical canvas, a manifestation of his faith, on which archaic geometrical patterns interspersed with ancient script, Buddhist iconography, deities from the Hindu pantheon, heavenly creatures and earthly animals are woven into a primeval codex designed to protect the wearer from accidents, misfortune and crime.

It is this sacred Thai tattoo tradition, sak yant, that is the focus of writer Tom Vater and his photographer wife Aroon Thaewchatturat’s new collaboration in print.

Sacred Skin is“the first book that looks comprehensively at a really important aspect of Thai culture that most foreigners know absolutely nothing about,” says Tom, who has published non-fiction books and travel guides and co-written a number of documentary screenplays for European television.

"Sacred Skin" is an introduction to Thailand's spirit tattoos, highlighting the men and women who make them come alive on their skin.

Aroon, an assignment and stock photographer around Asia since 2004, has shot three photo books.

In 2005, she won an Emmy for her role as associate producer on "The Sea Gypsies," a documentary on the plight of Thailand’s Moken sea nomads in the wake of the 2004 tsunami.

Here the two of them talk about their latest project.

How did the idea for this book develop?

Aroon: In 2003, we attended the annual tattoo festival at Wat Bang Phra and Tom wrote about it for the “Fortean Times.”

Tom: We kept returning and in 2009 we approached a Hong Kong-based publisher.

What is the origin of sak yant?

Tom: Most of these signs come from India. In the 4th century, India was ruled by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka who sent missionaries out to spread the religion.

Worried, the Hindus in turn dispatched Brahmins, who were already using sacred yantra (mystical diagrams) on cloth and metal as protective symbols.

And in Southeast Asia, it got transferred from cloth to skin.

Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat at the court of Angkor in the 13th century noted that the kings of Angkor had metal yantras inserted under their skin. So already 1,000 years ago this was in use in Cambodia and most likely in Thailand too.

We also found yants of tribal origin. So it’s a whole amalgamation of different religious and esoteric beliefs.

"Koy is a 23 year old chef in her parents’ restaurant," says Tom. "When her sister was abused by her husband, Koy attacked her brother in law and paralyzed him. She feels that the warrior yant and a tiger yant on her back enabled her to defend her sister."

Why get a sak yant?

Tom: The wearers believe that it stops bullets or knives and has miraculous effects. Perhaps, those who wear sak yant have a need to stop bullets and knives as it turns out that some are quite shady.

But in order to get the tattoos and for them to work, you have to follow a set of rules the tattoo master gives you. A lot of the advice is commonsense: to stop taking drugs, or getting drunk.

A shop-owner who wants to attract new customers will be told to be polite and friendly.

You follow these rules, your life will improve a bit, and you might think that these tattoos are really working; they are in a way. As one master said, sak yant is a powerful reminder to stay on the right path. The vast majority who have sak yant for the moment are working class, though many get done in oil to escape the stigma.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, all peddle certain rather unlikely truths, so, why not believe in the power of a ancient diagram?

How does one become a tattoo master?

Aroon: You cannot just set up a sak yant studio. You have to find a master, study and learn the mantras.

First he will allow you to tattoo junior devotees, then at a ceremony he will put a "risi" mask on you, making you a master.

Tom: It would take years to learn, not just the tattoo technique but the mantras that are chanted while it is being done.

The writing on the skin is Pali, an old Indian language, and the earliest liturgical language of Buddhism.

But when they tattoo they transliterate from Pali into Khom, an old Cambodian alphabet, so what you read is Pali but written in Khom.

To make each yant unique so that it can’t be copied, they switch the letters around. It’s like a copyright, the master’s signature.

"25 year old Yod is the son of shaman and grew up in a spiritual environment," says Tom. "He feels destined to wear sacred tattoos."

Your biggest challenge?

Tom: Getting these people to trust us and gaining access to them as some of them have been burned by sensationalist TV and tabloid journalism.

An interesting anecdote you came across?

Tom: A petite 23-year-old cook had an amazing story to tell. Her brother-in-law got involved in some shady business and she went with her sister to get him home.

At the meeting he began hitting his wife, at which point this girl bit his shoulder and tore out a part, paralysing him. She believes that her tiger yant took over, giving her superhuman strength.

Her tattoo master told her that though it had worked, she shouldn’t overestimate its power. He told us that when she got the tiger tattoo on her back, she went into a khong khuen (trance) and even four guys couldn’t hold her down.

Aroon:Her brother-in-law returned home and became a nice quiet guy.

What do you think about the Ministry of Culture’s decision to crack down on religious tattoos?

Tom: We assume that the ministry is largely concerned with what commercial tattoo studios do. This might not have anything to do with sak yant, as such.

That said, the ministry would be better off educating people about sacred tattoos than trying to ban all sorts of things considered un-Thai or bashing foreigners; many Thais also wear commercial religious tattoos.

It is a storm in an inkpot; perhaps the relevant authorities need to look active prior to the upcoming elections.

The movie "Hangover II" is grossly insensitive to religious sensibilities, but I don’t see the authorities complaining about it.

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