Sacred Tattoos

Filled with mysticism and offering special powers and protection to devotees, Sak Yant, a unique form of tattoo art, has experienced a revival across Southeast Asia. Two new books explain the allure and craft of the tattoos.

By Ron Gluckman / Bangkok, Thailand

ACROSS SOUTHEAST ASIA, some tattoos are considered so sacred that this summer the government of Thailand considered making it illegal for foreigners to obtain them. Intricate but primitive-looking, with distinctive blue-black, hand-scrawled letters, often accompanied by cartoonish animals or demons, sak yant supposedly protect wearers from harm and give them mystical powers.

Mixing religious beliefs and folklore from India, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand, sak yant evolved over centuries and appeal to a broad range of people. The lower classes and criminal elements are big fans. But it is foreigners who are partly responsible for the tattoo's recent resurgence. Even non-aficionados flocked to see Angelina Jolie baring her skin on video to get a sak yant tattoo in 2004.

Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos
By Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat
Visionary World, 200 pages, $32.95

Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan
By Joe Cummings and Dan White
Marshall Cavendish, 200 pages, GBP 30

Given the controversy and appeal of sak yant, it's surprising there haven't been English-language books on the topic. The publication of two detailed ones this year is then both unprecedented and much desired. Each is by a seasoned Thailand-based writer: Joe Cummings's "Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan," and Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewchatturat's "Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos."

Although popular across Southeast Asia, this art form is best understood in Thailand, where it is most prominent. Some speculate this is a product of widespread instability in Thai society that causes anxious people to seek supernatural assistance. During last year's street battles in Bangkok, many in the opposition Red Shirts were adorned in sak yant. The distinct Khmer lettering can also be seen creeping down the arms of Thai taxi drivers and motorbike riders.

Drawing from their understanding of Thai society, both authors stress that sak yant can't be written off as mere mumbo-jumbo. With their ancient Khmer writing and synthesis of Hindu, Buddhist and animist symbolism, the tattoos feature a sacred incantation and often a symbolic beast—among them dragons, birds, snakes or tigers, as Ms. Jolie has roaring on her lower back. These are not just decoration, but a powerful statement about a person's beliefs and relationship with the spiritual world.

Equally important, they're a distinct and treasured art form passed down from master to disciple over tens of centuries. The process of tutelage is imbued with ritual and superstition. Tattoo artists spend many years at the feet of the masters, not only learning the artistic style, but all the incantations of a craft wedded to concepts of the sacred.

Both books explain this history well. Mr. Vater and Ms. Aroon's book, "Sacred Skin," delivers a playful yet thorough account of the origins, meaning and mysticism of sak yant. He is also the author of various Southeast Asian guides and the collection "Beyond the Pancake Trench: Road Tales from the Wild East"( Orchid Press, 2004). Long drawn to the underbelly of Asian subcultures, he portrays an assortment of tattoo aficionados and masters. His prose is perfectly paired to Ms. Aroon's photos—riveting shots made even more effective by the various cut-outs and graphic comics-style design.

Mr. Cummings' book, "Sacred Tattoos of Thailand" takes a broader and more academic approach. While Mr. Vater discusses the arrival of sak yant in Thailand from Indian and Khmer lineages, Mr. Cummings digs further into the history of tattooing. He also traces the origins to Tai cultures—an overarching cultural heritage across Southeast Asia—as far afield as southern China and northern Vietnam.

Best known as author of the seminal Lonely Planet guidebook to Thailand, Mr. Cummings is a fluent Thai speaker and scholar of the region's architecture, temples and culture. The author of books about Buddhist temples in Thailand and around Asia, his scholarly approach to sak yant is offset nicely by the clever, colorful photographs by Dan White. Another longtime Thailand correspondent, Mr. White delivers a broad showcase of sak yant art, everything from scripted scalps to full monastic rituals.

It's rare to find a pair of studies appearing in short order that complement rather than contradict each other. Mr. Cummings shows how sak yant permeates all strata of society—actors, musicians and even Thai police detectives. In gripping testimonials, he shows that sak yant are credited with gaining positions, winning lovers and even healing lethal diseases. Mr. Vater describes how one tattoo supposedly protected its wearer from bullets in last year's street battles.

Both writers take readers beyond the tattoo parlors of the tourist trail to the temples and upcountry locations where sak yant traditions thrive and are passed along from recognized masters to new disciples. No detail is left unrecorded, including the exact mix of the ink to the numbers of pricks in a complicated sak yant (thousands), all painfully done by hand using long metal rods with an assortment of different-sized needles.

In the near term, one hopes that the two books will help dissuade Thai authorities from banning sak yant for foreigners. One main concern authorities have is that foreigners lack understanding of the deeper meaning these tattoos hold as, among other things, a window into the soul of the wearer. In the long term, it's exactly such books that will heighten foreigners' understanding on this art form—and in turn Thai society and a subculture important across Southeast Asia.


Ron Gluckman is an American reporter, who has been roaming around Asia for over 20 years for a variety of publications including the Wall Street Journal, which ran this story in November 2011.

Photos courtesy Sacred Tattoos of Thailand: Exploring the Magic, Masters and Mystery of Sak Yan

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