Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo in Thailand: A Forever Souvenir
I got to the shop a little early. My appointment wasn’t until 5, but I got there at about 4:20pm. They said to be 15 minutes early. I’ve always been overly punctual, but this time I felt a little extra time was warranted. I stood outside the shop for a few minutes eating a quick snack. I didn’t want to go in on an empty stomach. I overheard a few travellers such as myself coming out. They were talking and showing off their new souvenirs. I was ready. I took off my shoes and stepped into the shop. I was met with the smell of incense and the quick chatter of Thai I had become accustomed to, but couldn’t understand.
I was the only “farang” (foreigner) in the lobby. When the bells above the door jingled, the Thai ceased, they looked up at me and said, “Hello, how can we help you?” “I have a 5 o’clock appointment.” She asked me, “Do you know what you would like?” I swallowed, I didn’t. I was hoping they could help me with that. “No, I haven’t made a decision yet.” She smiled the sweet, easy smile you are greeted with so often here. “That’s okay, take this and have a look. When you know, just tell me and I can get the process started.” Now, in my hand was a giant book. A book of options. A book of permanent options. This was a big decision…
I knew I wanted a Sak Yant when I came to Thailand. After getting it and showing it off, I realise a lot of people don’t quite understand what a Sak Yant is. Some haven’t even heard of it. I’ve collected those people’s questions and I will answer them all right now.
About Sak Yants
What is a Sak Yant? What does it mean?
Broken down, sak means “to tap” and yant is derived from the Sanskrit word yantra, meaning sacred. Literally, the sacred tap. This translates to the tapping or tattooing of sacred text; a tattoo that carries with it special meaning and purpose.
What makes it different from a regular tattoo?
A Sak Yant is different from a regular tattoo in a lot of ways. First, the designs are predetermined. You can pick what you like, but there is a set of designs that have specific meaning. In certain cases you can have the monk choose your design. I’ll talk about that later. If you want a tattoo of your mom’s name on your arm, you won’t be able to get this from a Sak Yant artist. The designs themselves are blessed and therefore cannot be altered.
Second, the needle is different. It’s called a Khem Sak and instead of a tattoo gun, the artist uses a piece of bamboo in a metal sheath. Basically, instead of a machine, it’s done by hand.
Lastly, the artist is not typical. Your Sak Yant will be performed by a monk. The monk will pray with you and give you a blessing before and after the tattooing.
How do they choose your design?
In my experience, I chose my design. I was given a book filled with different designs, their meanings listed along with their prices. They offered to help me with my decision, but in the end it’s you who needs to know what intent you hope to manifest with your tattoo. You can do your own research and create your own design, you just need to be sure you send it to them before your appointment to ensure they can create it. This is often a little more expensive as well. Depending on where you choose to go, the process may be different. Some studios, called samnaks, will have a monk choose a design after asking about your life and your experiences. This information can normally be found on their website. Once again, it’s up to the experience you are hoping to have.
Where do you go to find the artist?
Honestly, I just googled it. I know that doesn’t sound very spiritual or anything, but I researched what city I wanted it done in and what sort of experience I wanted and this helped me decide where to go. Smaller towns in Thailand do not seem to offer this to the public. But cities like Chiang Mai (where I got mine), Chiang Rai, Sukhothai, Bangkok, Phuket, etc., often have Sak Yant studios.
How does it compare to getting a tattoo in the States (pain/experience/aftercare)?
Pain: I have 6 other tattoos, my Sak Yant was my 7th. The Thai people who assist the monk had me all worked up that the pain was going to be terrible and much worse than my other tattoos. I didn’t feel that way at all. Obviously, if you are getting it on a sensitive part of your body, it’s going to hurt. Obviously, if it’s your first tattoo, you’re probably going to think it hurts. Obviously, if you are sensitive to the pain, it’s going to hurt. I personally did not think it was worse than any of my others.
Experience: The experience is very different from that of any other tattoos I’ve ever gotten. There are a lot of rules the monks must abide by. The monks often don’t speak English, so it’s interesting having a translator in the room with you. I have never been blessed when getting another tattoo, so that is truly unique experience.
Aftercare: The aftercare is exactly the same as any other tattoos. No swimming, so sunlight, no harsh or scented soaps, and make sure you use a healing ointment. They will go over all of that with you after they finish.Only monks and the oldest living generation of Thais can speak, read and write the language of Sak Yants. Click To Tweet
What does your specific design mean?
I chose my design for reasons all my own. Each Sak Yant has its own meaning. There is a wide range of meanings you can pick from. Your studio should be able to help you understand the meanings. You can always research what you would like beforehand. It will be up to you to decide what you need in your life. A Sak Yant is to help you manifest and curate certain qualities, so only you can decide what those will be.
What is the pricing like?
The pricing is extremely reasonable compared to Western “regular” tattoos. My piece was 2,000 THB, about $50-$60 USD. They can range from 2,000-6,000 THB. The 6,000 THB pieces are quite large. Often times, studios offer a discount if you book online ahead of time. I would recommend this regardless. During high season (November-February), the studios book up pretty quickly.
Is it sanitary/safe?
This was my mother’s first question. If you are going somewhere reputable, yes, it’s completely safe. They sanitise and use new needles and ink for each client. One thing to keep in mind, though, you are getting a tattoo in a foreign country. If you plan to donate blood or sell plasma in the near future, a Sak Yant may not be for you.
How long did it take?
My actual tattoo took about 15 minutes. The process is similar to a Western tattoo; the more intricate or the bigger the design, the longer it will take. And that is just the actual tattooing time. There are other pieces to a Sak Yant that will add to the amount of time it takes. All in all, my tattoo took under an hour.
Can I bring people with me to watch?
Yes, you may! When you make your appointment online, there is usually an option to include others or a comment section to make a note of it. This is accepted at nearly all the studios I researched, but do your own research for your area and your specific studio, they all have their own rules. If this is something very important to you and your experience, it’s an option.
The Religion and Tradition of a Sak Yant
For Thai people, this is something that carries a lot of religious and cultural significance. Because of its spiritual implications, there are many ritualistic aspects and rules to to understand and abide by.
There are certain rules that Thais believe you must abide by once you have received a Sak Yant: No killing, try not to get drunk, no speaking badly of anyone’s mother, no cheating on your spouse, no stealing, and no lying.
Depending on the studio you have chosen, the experience you want, and the time you have, you may decide to do a temple tour as well. Some studios will offer the option (usually for an additional fee) to spend time with monks at a temple. This usually includes prayers and blessings and a translator speaking with you about the history and the process. Not all places will offer this option, so if this is something you wish to include in your Sak Yant experience, make sure you do your research and that your studio of choice will include this option. That information should be available on their website.
If you choose a temple tour, keep in mind that this will add time to your experience. It may also add to the cost. Each studio has their own pricing and procedure for appointments. Most will allow other people to join you as well, they just may have to pay a fee.
Attitude and Expectations
If you want to do a temple tour, this next piece is very important as everyone will be required to adhere to these rules I’m about to talk about. This is a religious experience, so the rules that apply at temples apply while getting a Sak Yant as well. You must have covered shoulders. No crop tops, short shorts, and hats. The staff will help you to maintain your… privacy while getting your tattoo. Because your tattoo is being performed by a monk, it needs to be treated as a religious experience.
Women and Sak Yant
Unfortunately, ladies, there are a few more rules for us. Monks are prohibited from touching women or seeing too much of them. This does not mean you can’t get a Sak Yant, this just means there are a few more things we have to do and be aware of. If you come with a man, the rules are a bit more lax. Make sure you are wearing the proper clothing. If you plan to do a temple tour, many require that you have a man with you. I was not able to do a temple tour for this reason and I just simply did not have the time.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the monks are not allowed to touch women, so their contact with you will be very limited. They will avoid touching you as much as possible. This is just because of their religion. Don’t take it personally. My Sak Yant is on my back. I was not allowed to be turned towards the monk at all, and he was very careful to maintain as little contact as possible. If you have long hair, prepare for them to ask you to wear it tied up as the monks will not be allowed to touch it.
My biggest piece of advice in regards to clothing is if you are planning your Sak Yant on your upper body, wear a button up. This way you can adhere to these rules as much as possible while getting your tattoo. They can keep you as covered as possible during the tattooing. This is not for you, this is for the monk. So it’s important to follow these rules.
Offerings for the Monk
Before your tattoo begins, you will meet your monk and give him an offering. My studio provided my offering. That is pretty standard. If the expectation is that you make an offering, that is something they will provide for you. This isn’t something you need to plan out beforehand or anything. This is simply a heads up that this is a piece of the process.
Tattoo Shops in Thailand
Most tattoo studios offer bamboo tattoos. So if a bamboo tattoo is all you want, there are other options. But if you are looking to have a true Sak Yant, you do need to find a Samnak studio. You can have a Sak Yant-inspired design tattooed with bamboo at a tattoo parlor, but it will not be a Sak Yant. The parlour may turn you away if you ask. It is a religious symbol and action, so a standard parlour may not feel comfortable doing a Sak Yant design. Parlours are often times more expensive as well.
A Sak Yant is not for everyone, but it is a culturally unique experience. I was so happy to have had the opportunity to make this part of my experience in Thailand.
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