Sak Yant Tattoo | Understanding This Ancient Art
Thailand’s Coolest Tattoo
A sak yant is a form of tattoo that is very popular in Thailand. Sometimes referred to as a Buddhist tattoo or a yantra tattoo, these tattoos have been made internationally famous by Angelina Jolie and Muay Thai fighters. These Buddhist tattoos regularly contain sacred geometry, animals and deities accompanied by sacred mantras.
The sak yant is a representation of mystical Thai Buddhism, also known as Tantric Theravada, in the form of a tattoo. So to understand sak yants, you must first understand this form of mysticism that connects the body, cosmos and a higher power together.
Locals typically brand these tattoos because they are believed to give protection and good luck. Foreigners on the other hand have fallen in love with the simplistic, symmetrical style of these cool-looking tattoos.
To learn more about sak yants, which are just one form of Thai Sacred Geometry, keep reading.
What is an ajarn?
An ajarn is a master who has studied sak yants and the spiritualism and mysticism that surrounds them. They are not monks, but they may have previously been one.
Tradition or Quality?
Monks and ajarns will be able to give you a traditional, personalized experience. They will give you a hand-poked bamboo tattoo. And they will give you a personalized design and blessing.
While tattoo studios differ in quality and cleanliness, top notch shops like Panumart Tattoo in Chiang Mai will give you better looking, longer lasting tattoos. Tattoo shops should/may also be cleaner and more comfortable.
Do you prefer tradition and experience or is the quality of your tattoo more important to you?
If you prefer tradition, go for a monk/ajarn.
If you prefer a great tattoo, go for a tattoo artist.
- Arjan Mai Sakyan (Pattaya)
I’d love to say we are the best, but I’m going to give the #1 spot to Arjan Mai Sakyan. For people looking for an authentic sak yant experience, I cannot recommend anyone higher. His knowledge of various sak yant designs is immense and his tattoos flow beautifully on the body. Unfortunately, I don’t think he speaks English or regularly works with foreigners from what I can tell.
- Panumart Tattoo (Chiang Mai)
At Panumart Tattoo we have an extensive collection of sak yant designs. Our team of highly skilled artists (machine and bamboo tattoos) will give you amazing-looking, long-lasting sak yants. We have multiple English speakers. And our hygiene is second to none.
- Bangkok Ink Tattoo (Bangkok)
These guys do really nice work.
What is a Sak Yant Tattoo?
In Thai “sak” means “tattoo,” while “yant” is the Thai word for yantra (a geometric diagram, or any object, used as an aid to meditation in tantric worship).
According to sak-yant.com:
A yant is a sacred geometry design incorporating Buddhists psalms and magical formulas that invoke various elements and powers of protection and various blessings.
These Buddhist tattoos regularly contain animals and deities.
Thai Sacred Geometry can be found on decorative cloths, clothing and on people’s skin. A sak yant is the name given to Thai Sacred Geometry in the form of a tattoo.
These tattoos are said to deliver magic to the person receiving them. The designs are made up of imagery, text or a combination of the two. The images reveal a history of influence from Buddhist, Brahman and Animist religions.
The text on sak yants are said to be magical incantations, mantras or prayers called “Kata.” These katas come from the Pali language, but are written in a Khmer form of Sanskrit.
A Thai Tattoo With Origins in India
Yantradesigns go back to the days of Brahmins in India. The concept of sacred geometry stems from this Indian past, as does the use of Hindu deities such as Hanuman.
You’ll be surprised to learn the influence India has had on Thailand. Thailand’s national epic is actually a Thai re-telling of the major Sanskrit legend, the Ramayana.
The Birth of Thai Buddhist Tattoos
Buddhism has a 2,000 year history in Thailand. Today toughly 95% of the country practices the Theravada school of Buddhism. But over the centuries Thai Buddhism became fused with mystical beliefs and tantric practices. Magic found its way into Thai Buddhism.
Mystical Thai Buddhism, also known as Tantric Theravada, is a form of Buddhism that links magical, ritualistic practices to a systematic path to Buddhist enlightenment. It makes use of:
- Number symbolism
- Mantras and sacred language
- Magic for protection, healing, good luck, long life and more
- Worship of Devas, Buddhas and Spirits
Sak yants are speculated to be up to two millennia old. Although the oldest definitive use of sak yants date back only to the 1600’s. During that time Thailand was known as The Kingdom of Ayuttaya. Warriors were given yant tattoos and yant shirts in order to protect them in battle. Monks would perform the yantra tattoo using a hand-poked method, known today as bamboo tattooing.
Many of the figures depicted in sak yants come from this story: Devas (divine beings) such as Rama or the mythical “Himapant” animals, which are legendary creatures usually made up of two or three different animals.
The Most Popular Sak Yant Designs (and a little about sak yant meanings)
There are hundreds of different sak yant designs, many having multiple variations. Here is a list of the 6 most-requested sak yants at our tattoo shop, Panumart Tattoo Chiang Mai:
Hah Taew – The 5 Lines Yant
The hah taew (also spelt ha taew) is the most popular sak yant among foreigners.
Each line of the hah taew gives a different blessing. First created centuries ago in Chiang Mai, the original blessings have been changed heavily since then. Now a days, different monks or masters may each have their own unique version of the hah taew. Traditionally the five rows mean this:
- The first row prevents unjust punishment in court cases and provides protection in the place you live.
- The second row reverses and protects against bad horoscope constellations and bad fortune or karma.
- The third row protects you from the use of black magic and curses.
- The fourth row provides you with good luck, fortune and success.
- The fifth row is to bestows charisma and makes you attractive in the search for a lover. It additionally boosts your good luck and fortune from row 4 and strengthens the protection from curses given in row 3.
Unalomes (also spelt unaalome) are representitive of the unwavering path to enlightenment.
The bottom portion is symbolic of the center crown of the head, specifically of enlightened saints called Arahants. The straight line represents their straight, unwavering path to enlightenment.
Another possible meaning of unalomes that is poetic, although maybe not accurate, is that the curves and zig-zags represent the trials and tribulations of life before reaching enlightenment.
Gao Yord – Nine Peaks Yant
Typically the first yant one receives, the gao yord is known as the master yant. It is supposed to placed atop the back along the spine.
The gao yord is said to give a wide range of protections, such as protection from violence, other people’s bad thoughts and from harm in general. Some also said this design represents kindness and will bestow popularity upon you.
Gao means nine in Thai. The meaning and symbolism of this yant differs based on who you ask.
Some say the 9 peaks of the gao yord are meant to represent the nine mythological peaks of Mount Neru – a sacred mountain in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, which is considered to be the center of all of the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
Others say the nine peaks the rise to enlightenment and the direct path to Nirvana.
Single Tiger and the Twin Tigers Sak Yant Tattoos
The tiger is a strong, powerful animal that stands at the top of the food chain. Muay Thai fighters and other Thais who live dangerous lives typically get tiger yants as they hope to receive protect and to gain authority. The twin tigers is the most powerful tiger yant design.
Paed Tidt – 8 Directional Yant
This design is said to protect you during travel. The eight points of the sun symbolize the eight directions of the universe (or what I would call the eight cardinal directions). While the kata inside the circle bless you with protection on your travels.
Known as “Yant Ongk Pra” this design made up of 3 ovals represents Buddha. This yant can be tattooed by itself, but it is most often an adornment to other yants. Most people recognize seeing 9 small Buddhas incorporated into the Gao Yord design. The Yant Ongk Pra typically has an unalome placed above it.
Pali is the foundational, “sacred language” of the Theravada school of Buddhism. Centuries ago Khmers created an alphabet called “Khom Agkhara” to transcribe the Pali language.
Almost every yant has a Vedic or Buddhist mantra written within the design. Khom Agkhara, or Khmer Sanskrit, is the script that these mantras are written in. And it is said that the script itself adds Khmer sorcery to the yant.
This sacred language is used exclusively for Buddhist prayers, mantras, sacred text and magic.
In addition to Khmer Sanskrit there is one more language that sak yants can be written in.
Lanna Sak Yants – The Northern Thai Variation
Some sak yants from the north of Thailand are written in the Lanna language.
You may be surprised to know that it was not until the 18th century that the area now known as northern Thailand joined the Thai Kingdom. Previous to then this area was home to the Lanna Kingdom.
Known as Lanna people, northern Thais come from a distinct ethnic group with their own separate Thai language. Even today northern Thais speak this language at home and among friends, but the historical alphabet called Lanna (which it used to be written in) is no longer commonly used.
For those that believe in the magic of sak yants, here are some of the supposed benefits:
- Animal Powers
The powers and characteristics of the animal yant are passed on to you. This also is the case for the mythological Himapant animals.
- Good Luck and Fortune
Known as “choke lap,” this is a selfish form of black or gray magic intended to bring higher social standing and more money to the wearer.
- Warrior’s or Gangster’s Protection
Physical protection against weapons of battle.
- Warrior’s Paralysis
It may sound like something out of Pokémon, but this stunning spell is said to paralyze someone’s target and make them unable to react in time to the wearer’s strike.
- Popularity and Earned Compassion
People will notice you, take interest in you and desire to help you.
- Power and Influence
Wear this yant if you wish to command respect and obedience.
- Black Magic
Known as “tam kwaam,” this sorcerer’s spell has an infinite amount of uses. It is meant to be used when you want to achieve a specific outcome.
- Protection From Danger and Fatal Accidents
- Charm and Sexual Attraction
Culturally Appropriate Buddhist Tattoos
What Parts of The Body Are NOT Okay For Sak Yants?
Traidtion says that most sak yants and Buddhist tattoos are forbidden to be tattooed below the wait. Men are allowed some animal yants and some sexually-related yants to be placed on their thighs, however. Although women are not given this same privilege.
Additionally, the feet are a no-go for both men and woman.
With that said, tattoo shops and individual tattoo artists may not care about these rules.
Can Women Get Sak Yants?
It depends on where you go.
Tattoo shops will tattoo you without any question. Whereas if you’re looking to get an authentic sak yant experience you may have to jump thru a few hoops to make it happen. Women cannot be tattooed in a temple from our understanding. Some monks may tattoo women outside of the temple. And most, if not all, ajarns will tattoo women (we think).
Also worth mentioning is that monks and ajarns will not place any Buddhist tattoo near your breasts.
Is it Okay to Tattoo a Picture of Buddha?
While we are specifically discussing sak yants on this page, it is worth bringing up images of the Buddha being used for tattoos.
Thailand is a country with both modern and conservative values. More modern Thais wouldn’t take any offense to a tattoo of the Buddha (or at least not enough offense to show any irritation). But more conservative-leaning Buddhists would object to someone tattooing Buddha on their body. Imagery of the Buddha’s head as artwork is especially blasphemous to Thai-Buddhist conservatives.
Learn More About Sak Yants
If you’d like to learn more about sak yant rules of conduct, sak yant meanings, Buddha Magic or more, head on over to sak-yant.com, the most comprehensive source of sak yant information in English.
You might also find this sak yant mini-doc from Vice interesting: