Holy Ink: Getting a Yak Sant Tattoo in Thailand
What is it that makes us look in a mirror and want something different? What instinct are we born with that makes us cut our hair a certain way or shave or wear clothes at all? I want to say the artist in me sees a blank canvas when I look down at my arms and skin. The creator in me wants to have a little fun in this life and toy around with the façade a little. The truth is deep down I probably wanna look cool, my version of cool in the universe between my ears. I look at my heroes and friends with pictures running stories across their arms and skin and I start getting this feeling like I don’t want to be left out. If an archeologist digs me up one day I want to make it interesting for him.
Some people’s cool is a cowboy hat and boots and others is an name tattooed on their chest, whichever they choose it shouldn’t matter as long as it makes them happy.Some people say the body is a temple, but I’ve never seen a blank boring mundane temple. There’s flying buttresses and stain glass. Even a church has gargoyles to scare the demons away, so why should it be a big deal if people have a couple perched on their shoulder blades?
What does this all have to do with traveling and me? I’m going to tell you. I waited 30 years to get a tattoo and then when I had it I got another one 2 weeks later. It took me a long time because I’m both a perfectionist and I wanted it to mean something to me, to be worthwhile, like and entire lifetime worthwhile. But that is the thing about traveling; you are constantly finding yourself in unique situations where the uncommon becomes common. Additionally, I had created an understanding within myself that while on the road I wasn’t to say no to any unique experiences, everything was for the taking. So, when I was living and training Muay Thai in Bangkok, Thailand a unique experience is precisely what happened.
Several of my buddies I was training with had pretty unusual, but beautiful and very cool tattoos. They called them Yak Sant tattoos and they were holy Buddhist tattoos. The only people you can really get the tattoos from are monks and holy men. The tattoos are also believed to be blessings and contain prayers that can either empower or protect a person.
On one of our off days a couple of the guys were pretty excited and they were heading out of our kickboxing complex somewhere. I asked them where they were going and they said they were getting Yak Sant tattoos and then they asked me if I wanted to tag along and get some of my own. With my yes man logic kicking in I made the brash, but awesome decision to go along and get one of my own.On the way we stopped at a convenient store and picked up a carton of smokes. This wasn’t for us, we were training and didn’t partake in bad habits. It was to be an offering for the holy men that would be tattooing us. When we eventually showed up to an unassuming little house we walked inside to find a holy place hiding in plain sight. A shrine of statues and pictures covered the entire front wall and men in white robes sat looking through books of strange pictures.
The art of Yak Sant tattooing is passed down from monk to monk or from holy man to holy man who pass it down from father to son. The reason that it is so special is within the design of the tattoos there are the characters of a dead language. It is the original language of Buddha. Anytime you’ve ever heard a monk chant, “Ommmm,” you have heard this language. The reason it is so special, aside from it being Buddha’s language, is that only the monks and the holy men remain as the people who still know it and are fluent.
After we paid our respects to the shrine within the house and placed our carton of smokes below an area of burning incense we were given books to look through with designs of Yak Sant tattoos. I knew where I wanted the tattoo placed, I just had to find a design I liked of the right size. But that is the interesting thing of a Yak Sant tattoo, you don’t have a say in what the final tattoo you get to receive as the monks and holy men are the ones that ultimately decide. They have to match the tattoo to the person, and what you get may not necessarily be what you picked, adding both an element of surprise and both excitement to the entire process. It’s like gambling to see what will be engraved in your skin forever. And that is exactly what happened to me. The first designs I picked out I could not get, not because they did not match me, but because they had to fit my body symmetrically. That is the other factor of Yak Sant tattoos that makes them special, they have to be tattooed on the body to fit a symmetrical pattern, and there must be balance, very Buddhist. So the initial design I picked out I was told I would have to receive on both of my arms for balance. This posed an issue, because I only wanted one tattoo. After the holy men that were to tattoo me dug out a couple more books they finally found a single design we agreed upon that fit me to tattoo on my arm.
As it would go, of my four friends I went with I was the last to get tattooed. After watching my friends wincing faces go before me one by one I became a bit nervous. When it was finally my turn I walked up and sat on a tiny stool in front of the holy man tattooing me. There were actually two men tattooing that day, they were father and son, and I was to be tattooed by the son. There were other men too who were like volunteers who came and participated during the process. As I sat down and the initial design was laid out on my arm, these local men placed their hands on me. There were about three of them. The holy man dipped his 2 foot long needle into the ink and began piercing my arm. Later everyone would ask me if it hurt, but what I remember is actually somewhat of a peaceful religious experience.
When the man began pushing the ink under my skin with the needle I sort of let myself zone out into the moment. I felt a calm pour over me as pungent incense filled the air. The chanting of the monk praying over me and blessing me as he tattooed became the predominant sound in the room. And aside from the feeling of the needle piercing in and out again and again in my arm I felt the hands of the men sitting in a circle around me on my arms and shoulders, not just holding me still, but also reassuring me. It was a feeling I had never experienced before.
The design that was chosen for me and was being permanently placed in my arm was that of a lotus flower. The lotus flower is an important and predominate symbol of Buddhism. It is both a symbol of enlightenment and endurance, which goes along perfectly with the symmetrical idea of balance. You can’t have one without the other. The life of the lotus flower also tells the story of human suffering. It grows in the bottom of the pond where it is dirty and muddy and there is not light. But as the flower grows it makes it’s way up through the pond ever growing towards the light until ultimately it purges the surface to the sun and blossoms and blooms beautifully. This is the same as a person struggling through life, starting off in the muck, suffering, but growing, and ultimately one day maturing and breaching through into enlightenment. This is a thing I can live with on my arm.
The holy man finished his work and with a final blessing told me I was finished. But it wasn’t finished, for his father, the elder holy man, saw his son’s work and decided the design needed something more. So the process began again, but this time with the father tattooing another outer ring on his son’s lotus flower and blessing me a second time, what a lucky dog I was.
When both had finally finished their work on my arm I was given incense, which I lit at the shrine and kneeled and said one last prayer as I received a final blessing. I had to pay for my tattoo, which was also interesting, because you do not pay for the size of the tattoo, but rather for the power of the blessing inscribed upon you. I walked out of the humble house of holy ink with two gifts for the rest of my life, one my tattoo and the other a special incomparable experience.
Traveling can change a person forever in two ways, on the outside and the inside. This experience provided for both.
Lastly, this reminds me of an awesome poem I read on the wall of a bookstore in Suzhou, China. So, I leave you with this:
“Tattoo” by Aku Wuwu
“The day I was born snow drifted
down in all it’s mystery, fell upon
my mother, upon the soft field where she lay.
Like you, my first footprints were innocence.
Through the fresh blood I shed
I tattooed and made the fields my own.
The day I died, sunlight continued
to pitter-patter down upon all living things.
And as I followed my mother into ash
so my body, like yours – sinew, skin and bone –
passed through a raging funreal pyre
to tattoo these fields again.”
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