Getting tattooed by a Buddhist Monk
Waking up before the sun and arranged a taxi for the day with the front desk at my hostel. I had landed in Thailand less than twenty four hours before and other than some very basic phrases, I couldn’t speak Thai. When I crammed into the back of the taxi my driver asked a one word question "tattoo?" I smiled and said yes. The driver let out a loud laugh and we were off.
The Wat, Wat Bang Phra is about an hour outside of Bangkok in the countryside. My driver weaved in and out of traffic through the city, eventually reaching the highway out of town. He spoke English on the same level as I spoke Thai but seeing his determination navigating the streets and the one word he had said to me being in the general wheelhouse of my destination, I felt confident in his directions. I shouldn’t have.
Once we left the main highway my driver stopped multiple times to ask street vendors where he was going, what should have been less than an hour drive turn into two and a half. When I expressed concern, it was rebutted with a thumbs up and then followed with another impromptu stop to talk with locals. Either my driver had a fan club, or we were lost.
After a few more turns in multiple directions we found ourselves driving into a full on parade. An entire village of people were out on the country road, dancing, singing and playing instruments while marching through town. It was barely past dawn and these people were fully engulfed in celebration. Between camera clicks I asked my driver why they were celebrating and he responded with “They are happy!”
Finally we arrived, the driver told me in broken English and hand signals that he would wait and take me back to the city after my visit. He lead to a small two story building behind the main temple and began to speak with two men in street clothes. He would say a few phrases in Thai, point at me, the men would respond, point at me and this went back and forth for about fifteen minutes. One of the men approached me with a smile just said “tattoo.”
He lead me into the next room and motioned me into a seat on a dusty repurposed bus bench. I was alone in the room, on the end where I sat were a few seats, all in different mismatching styles and set up like the waiting room of a DMV, on the other end of the room was a shrine consisting of a large golden buddha surrounded by around a hundred smaller buddhas in all shapes and sizes, everything covered in an ancient layer of dust.
After a few minutes the man returned, followed by my taxi driver. He handed me a binder with nearly a hundred pages of Sak Yant designs. “Sak” is the Thai word for “tap” and “yant” means “yantra” which in its simplest explanation is a holy or mystical design. Between the man and my driver, they managed to explain to me that I could choose from the book and that the prices were by size. Three hundred Bhat would buy you a small, two squared inch, design, that sounds steep until you realize that three hundred Bhat equals to about ten USD.
Before I ever step foot onto Thai soil, I had planned this day. I had researched Sak Yants and the history and origin of the practice. Traditionally the monk preforming the tattoo would read your spirit and choose a design for you based on what he thought would benefit your soul, completely without any input on your part. Each design holds different meaning and a different type of blessing. This is what I had dreamt of, this is what I wanted.
I closed the giant portfolio and set it on my lap and sat alone. Seconds later a small dog ran into the room and hopped up on the bench next to me, climbing into my lap and laying right down as though we were old friends. Seconds later another dog entered the room and then another, before long there were ten or eleven small breed dogs running around the room. In the adjoining room I heard some commotion and a lot of Thai words flying and then silence for a moment.
A heavy set monk draped in a saffron robe entered the room with a giant grin, his cigarette stained teeth shining through the musty atmosphere. He did not say anything to me as we walked around the room for a minute, curiously examining a few statues in the shrine and then taking a seat in a worn in leather recliner in the corner. Again the man from the front entered, my driver tagging along behind him. Both men sat down on each side of me, my driver pushing my small dog friend off the bench as he sat.
They looked at me inquisitively as the ringleader took the binder from my lap and flipped through the book, pointing out a few designs and saying something to me in Thai as he paused on the pages.
“Which one?” The driver caught my attention.
I shook my head and turned to the man with his fingers still skimming the book pages, he smiled.
“I want him to choose it.” I said, pointing to the monk, now covered in small dogs.
The man looked at me in confusion and then spoke Thai, first to the monk and then to the cab driver. The driver spoke back and pointed at me and then toward the monk, the monk stayed silent, petting his dogs and staring off into nothingness. I repeated my request, this time to my driver, him responding always with a big smile and numerous “ok’s!”
After some more conversation I could not even begin to understand, the driver again asked me a single word question.
Finally I was making progress. I shook my head in agreeance and gave an exaggerated thumbs up. Everyone smiled and the three other men laughed and spoke to each other. From their body language and laughter I deducted that I was the butt of some type of joke. Nevertheless the man brought the book over to the lounging monk and placed it in his hands. He returned to me, taking my hand and leading me in front of the monk. He placed my hand in the monks and he held it for a moment and then placed both of his hands on my face, the other man pressing me forward into the holy mans palms. A few more Thai words were spoken and then I was instructed through hand gestures to take off my shirt.
As I pulled off my shirt, damp with sweat, the man ran out of the room and the space fell silent, a moment later he returned with two more men and a small stool. The stool was placed before the monk as the men guided me out of the way. My tattoo artist pulled out a cylinder from beside his recliner, dogs jumped around him then settled with every movement. He opened the wooden cylinder and pulled out a metal rod about three feet long, followed by a package of sterilized needles. Opening one of the packs he showed me the needle and spoke the only English I heard from him all day, “clean.”
Gai Yord is the name of the design he had gifted me, representing the nine peaks of mount Meru, the home of the gods. The design offers the most protection of all Yants and is the most sacred. None of that was communicated to me at the time, I was not even shown a picture of the design I would be permanently placing on my body.
The two new men put one hand above each of my elbows and lowered me into a squatting position on the stool with my back to the monk. A stencil of the design, that I still had not seen, was positioned in between my shoulder blades, just below the nape of my neck. One of the helpers gave me a thumbs up, which I returned with a nervous laugh. Both men placed a hand on each side of the stencil to stretch the skin where the Sak Yant would be inked so that the needle can properly penetrate the top layers of skin.
The monk began to work, I could feel the pricking of the needles on my spine as he moved through the design. At first it was less pain than I expected, being heavily tattooed I was pretty confident in my pain taking abilities. After about 20 minutes in the monk answered a phone call but continued to work, all while a small dog sat on his shoulder. The pain started to become more annoying towards the end, moving from a mild annoyance to a conscious clinching. The monk conversed over the phone while holding the yard long needle and continuing to work.
After he finished he chanted a blessing and blew into the fresh ink, rubbed some Vaseline on the design and a placed piece of thing gold foil on part of the Yant. Traditionally the Yants were paid for with a small donation of orchids, incense or cigarettes and this is one of the few traditions about this experience that is still held onto although in a skewed way. You now have to buy a package of orchids, incense and cigarettes, from the monk and then give it straight back to him, plus the payment of your tattoo in Bhat. This part of the process was highly confusing to me and to be honest a little ridiculous.
While the monk was working on me, a couple of woman had entered the room with another monk, they were also getting Sak Yants. Buddhist monks are not permitted to touch woman, commonly this meant that woman could not receive the sacred tattoos. In modern day rules have been bent and now when a woman is being tattooed, a monk simply just wears heavy gloves while working, preventing any contact with the female skin. As my chauffeur was saying his goodbyes to the monk and his helpers, I watched the woman being tattooed.
She was going through the same process that I had just undergone but with one slight variance, the monk was not using any ink. The design was showing up on her skin as a red blotchy scratch, with the lines and curves slowly filling with small dots of blood. I learned later that many Thai people make pilgrimages to the Wats yearly to receive an inkless yant. These people want the blessing but do not wish for the tattoo, this makes sense when you realize that Thailand is a rather conservative country when you get down to it and woman don’t commonly have tattoos.
In English my monk artist told me thank you and sent me on my way. Just like that it was over and less than 3 minutes later I was back in the taxi fighting traffic towards the city. I was worried about how a tattoo applied in this fashion would hold up with healing and age but it has been a few years and looks just as it did a few weeks after.
When I returned home I read about all of the very specific stipulations that come along with my crest of protection. One being that the blessing would be weakened if I were to cross a path in front of a woman that happened to menstruating, this seemed hard to hold up without asking some very embarrassing and personal questions to every woman I pass by, something I was just not willing to do. In the end this entire experience was the cherry on top of a completely life altering trip and burned memories deep into my psyche. I will never forget the fear, excitement and anxious anticipation from start to finish and I have a lasting mark to remind me of it every time I turn around.