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tattoo you: sacred art + unique expression

travel + culture

on the road and what's out there.


tattoo you: sacred art + unique expression

Caitlin Surakitbanharn

tattoos.  love 'em or hate 'em - they are a part of the cultural conversation.

back when we were kids, tattoos were of the thug variation.  i remember seeing people with full sleeves or huge tattoos and thinking that maybe they were some kind of outcast in society.  i don't know how/where i picked that up, but i didn't see it as art.  NOW... and again this might come with age or perception, but tattoos are opening up a new medium for art and expression amongst adults.  no longer just bikers or thugs...but now it's models, artists, office-workers, dancers, engineers, scientists, chefs, computer programmers...we are all now of the inked variety.  it's become a way to express your character...who you are and what means something to you.  and this form of expression is becoming much more accepted by society.

i have four - all representative of things that matter to me.  the first...a small token of adulthood/rebellion/striking out for my own style.  the second...a rendition of a part of who i am by birth (a scorpion).  the third...the place where my love for my husband was written into legality and we became family.  the fourth...a magic buddhist spell for the protection of that family i've created and am still creating.

tattoos have a long history dating back thousands of years but it is believed that the english word tattoo comes from the Samoan word "tatau" - which ...means tattoo.  Samoans are some of the most bad-ass-mother-f'ers around when it comes to getting inked, where boys endure hours and hours of excruciating pain from manual needle tattooing, signifying their right of passage into manhood.  in Japan, tattoos are considered "criminal" and in most public places, you are banned from showing your tattoos.  some women in remote areas of China tattoo their faces in order to appear more ugly so they are not raped.  other women in different parts of China tattoo their bodies and arms as a right of passage into adulthood and then tattoo their hands upon marriage.  here in Thailand... buddhist tattoos are done manually with long bamboo needles and then blessed for a kind of special magic.

i most recently received one of these magic tattoos here in Bangkok.  the tattoo style is called 


"sak yant." Sak means tattoo, yant means magical blessing.  it is done with a long, manual needle and there are certain designs very specific to the style.  each design has its own meaning and must be placed specifically on the body.  the sak yant i got is called a 

เก้ายอด or

 "gaow yordt" which means "nine spires" - shown below just before it was finished.  it features (obviously) nine spires in a pattern and each spire represents a different kind of protection or luck for the bearer.

this particular tattoo, the nine spires, is the most sacred and most powerful yant possible.  it is typically the first sak yant someone receives, and no other sak yant may be higher than the highest spire of the gaow yord.  thai buddhism has many beliefs about the sacredness of the head.... in Thailand it is considered rude to touch someone on the head, and therefore since the middle spire is the closest to the head and the most sacred...nothing can be above it.

i had my sak yant done by Ajarn Thoei, a sak-yant master here in Bangkok.  he looks like Lil' Wayne, and his "shop" is a small hut behind a temple in On Nut.  by western standards.... people would probably run for the hills.  but i've lived here long enough to know that appearances are often deceiving, as the best food is often from the place with the kid size plastic chairs.  i knew i was going for the gaow yordt, so when it was my turn, i sat down on the little stool infant of him...told him what i wanted...and Jao and one of Ajarn Thoei's assistants/friends held onto my back.  and off i went....

every gaow yordt is different, and the only "choice" i had in what mine would be was in deciding how high i wanted the top spire to be.  mine is lower than what is typical so that it doesn't creep up onto my neck.  other than that, i was flying blind and trusting Ajarn Thoei.  i had no clue what it would look like.  this might seem odd, but in reality, my desire for this tattoo is less about the ink itself and more about what it means.  it's luck, protection, safety, fortune, and more protection for the people i love.  it's a reminder to be a good person, be good to the people i love, and it is a symbol for all the good things in my heart that i believe in and stand for.  what it looks like was of minor concern.

all of that being said - oh my LORD it was painful.  as i said, i have three other tattoos, all in fairly delicate areas, done by machine needles.  this manual process of tattooing (as a friend said...prison style!) makes machine needles look like it's for wimps.  and let me tell you - my other three tattoos were not a pain-free situation!

you can see the pain in my body - it was EXTREMELY painful.  it's deep, it's on the bone, and it's PAINFUL.  it only took Ajarn Thoei about 20 minutes to complete the tattoo (which he did not draw on me...he simply made lines of reference to my spine and then created the sak yant as he went along) - and around minute 12, i had a moment of doubt as to whether or not i would make it.  but there's no stopping.  he completes his work regardless of tears or pain, and the sweetest relief is the moment he starts to chant the magical prayer to bless the sak yant and you know it is over and you begin to pray with him....

and it's so powerful ... you literally feel his prayers washing over your body and when he blows onto the sak yant to seal the magic... it shivers through your body and you know it's for real.  the catch - a list of rules you must follow in order to keep the magic alive... no killing people, no drugs, no speaking poorly of or to your parents, no lying to cause harm, don't step over people on purpose... things of that nature.

it's a beautiful piece of art.  i love it, it was worth the extreme pain.  a few minutes of pain to hopefully save the people i love some pain in the future.  i love seeing that top spire peek out from the neckline of my dress every now and's a beautiful, elemental reminder to live wholly and peacefully and with lots and lots of love.

***one thing that is important to note: you can get a manual needle tattoo in many places in Thailand.  you can even get these sak yant designs and many places.  but it can only be called a sak yant if the ajarn (which translates to master or professor) is deemed by a certain faction of the government (the Thai government is composed of civilians, military and buddhist monks.  buddhism is a very large part of life here) to be a master.  there are only 5 or so masters here in Bangkok, a few up in Chiang Mai.... and it is important to do your research.  you can definitely get a manual needle tattoo, but it won't be blessed unless its from a sak yant master.  the blessings they give to the sak yant is way old, way serious, and is not to be messed with.  so it needs to be done correctly and with a certain seriousness in order for them to be considered Ajarn.