A NIGHT OF SPIRITS AND SAK YANTS // BANGKOK
Ajarn Dum’s tattoo studio is a cosy, dimly lit room on the bottom floor of his home in Bang Wa, just outside Bangkok. It’s located nowhere in particular – a small village-like neighbourhood on a quiet street near the Ratcha Montri canal. Despite its low-key facade, local monks, devout Buddhists and even Thai and foreigners of other faiths travel near and far for one, or hundreds, of his tattoos. Ajarn Dum is a Sak Yant tattoo artist, but more than that, his needle weaves magic into the skin of those he paints.
As we duck our head in to say hello, the hazy smell of burning incense and dripping candle wax gently welcomes us. Ajarn Dum waves us in from his cross-legged position in front of a mystical tower of glittering gold Buddhist statues, amulets, candles, offerings and gifts – mostly bottles of energy drinks, the tattoo master’s favourite.
The ancient art of Sak Yant tattoos has been practised throughout South East Asia for centuries, a ritual formed from a mix of Buddhist, Hindu and Animist beliefs. Also a Khmer tradition in Cambodia (and made farang famous by the likes of Ms Angelina Jolie), Sak Yant has had origins in Thailand since the old Ayutthaya period of the 16th–18th centuries; the tattoos protected the soldiers as they went into battle against the Burmese. Sak means ‘to tap’, while Yant is short for ‘Yantra’, sacred geometric patterns of religious scripts, almost like magic spells. With the knowledge of a Sak Yant master (known as an ajarn, but sometimes practised by monks or shamans), these blessed patterns and Buddhist iconography evoke spirits, drawing power into the body.
For believers of the Sak Yant, the tattoo is not created for aesthetics or a loving memory as tattoos of the West are often chosen. Like the Buddhist amulets, these tattoos, etched into the skin from head to toe, are about good luck, strength and protection. “Each tattoo gives me strength. Every day I’m getting stronger,” says Boy, one of ajarn Dum’s loyal customers. Boy peels off his shirt revealing both his arms, chest and back almost entirely covered with ink. Every day for about a year, he’s been coming here for a new tattoo. “In Cambodia I was told by a monk that someone had cast a dark magic curse on me, so I came to ajarn Dum. I don’t worry anymore, I am protected by the Sak Yant,” he says.
There are plenty of war stories prevailed upon us to prove the magic of these tattoos. Ajarn Dum tells us of an Austrian traveller who visits him yearly – after he had his first tattoo, his prostate cancer mysteriously disappeared. Another customer, Om, also ajarn Dum’s administrator for his Facebook page, tells the story of a motorbike accident he had riding at a speed of 100 kilometres an hour. His motorbike was completely crushed, but he remained unscathed. Boy tells us how he never feels the urge to drink alcohol or go to nightclubs, and it’s the rules of the Sak Yant that help him resist this.
And if you want the power of the Sak Yant, the rules are important. First up, a blessing to thank the Master, ajarn Dum’s teacher, for their knowledge must be recited. Next, you have to promise to follow the rules of your ajarn. Each has a different set of rules, but these are ajarn Dum’s passed down to him by his master:
1. Don’t be rude to any mother
2. No love affairs
3. Do not steal
4. Don’t walk underneath hanging washing
5. Don’t eat or drink from a wedding or funeral banquet
6. No drinking leftover alcohol
7. Don’t eat food made for a ghost
8. Don't allow a woman to lie on top of you
It’s also generally asked of Sak Yant wearers not to drink alcohol, fight and commit evil deeds. "I tell my clients that if they have a tattoo, you have to do good things. You can't expect to get a tattoo and good things will just happen to you,” says ajarn Dum. “My master always said to me, ‘you have to follow the rules, otherwise the tattoo is only ink’.”
Another part of the ritual is to free a fish into the canal. Boy has picked up five fish from the local market for each of us to release into the water, and before we know it, we’re whisked off to the bridge overlooking the Ratcha Montri canal with the bucket of flailing fish.
Ajarn Dum says a blessing – sending a merit to our family and anyone who has done bad things to us, to forgive them for this good deed we are doing. As a group we tip the bucket, and the fish tumble into the stream below. “I’ve done this about 400 times, I’ve saved many fishes’ lives. That’s why my clients have survived serious accidents, the donation will turn back onto the owner,” explains ajarn Dum. “When I die I can’t bring money with me, but I can bring merit.”
Back in the studio, a monk has arrived for a tattoo. The tattoo process is a continued tradition from the old days. He uses a long khem sak steel needle with a shark-tooth split tip and black tattoo ink, a modern change from the natural dyes and bamboo needles of the past. The process is not for the faint-hearted, the needle is slowly tapped into the skin, and it’s not changed between clients as it’s said to carry a certain power – it’s simply cleaned in a jar of alcohol each time. “It takes three seconds for HIV to die. There is almost 0% chance of passing on a disease,” says ajarn Dum. Whether or not that’s true, he’s never had a case of infection among his clients.
It’s Boy’s turn, and he’s eager to get started. He’s getting a blessing added to his left shoulder, just above an image of Ganesh – a Hindu god representing generosity and protection. Ajarn Dum uses a different needle on Boy, slightly curved to go deeper into the skin. This makes the tattoo scar, creating a raised pattern on his skin. I ask if it hurts, “If anyone says it doesn't hurt, they're a liar,” laughs ajarn Dum. Other clients, and friends of the ajarn help out, holding down Boy as the painful process begins, and wiping the bleeding ink from the skin.
There are more than 100 Sak Yant designs, but you can’t control which one you get – it’s all up to the ajarn to choose the most fitting tattoo to help the client. “I often choose by their occupation,” says ajarn Dum. “Some occupations have a high risk, so I’ll do tattoos to help them survive. Muay Thai boxers often come for tattoo,” he says, beginning to laugh. “Even though boxers are strong, they still cry with pain!”
After he’s finished, it’s time for the spirit to enter the body. Ajarn Dum begins chanting a blessing, stroking Boy’s tattoo with a small bamboo brush. Boy groans and screams – a sign of the spirit entering the skin. “I didn’t feel conscious, I didn’t feel anything,” says Boy, puffed out from the experience.
[Watch our video to see an intimate look into this experience]
It’s now 9pm, pitch black outside and the ajarn has finished for the evening. We’re all tired and hungry so ajarn Dum orders plates of pad ka prao (spicy minced pork on rice) for all from the local shophouse next door. As we eat on the floor, ajarn Dum tells us it was the lure of magic that made him quit his regular office job at the age of 40 to begin the process of learning Sak Yant. Since then his master has tattooed his entire body, and he’s been a practising ajarn for the past five years, tattooing more than 50 customers a week.
“At first I liked the traditions and the magic of it, but the best thing I like about it is I have become a giver. I feel generous,” says the master. “After they get their tattoos, my clients have a good life, and this makes me happy. I can change their life.”
Photography: Leigh Griffiths
Words: Eloise Basuki