July 31, 2014 12:00 am JST

Spiritual inkings

TOM VATER

BANGKOK -- On a sultry Monday morning, Ajarn Neng Onnut's tattoo studio on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok is packed with female customers.

     Monday is the most auspicious day for women to visit a studio, or samnak, to see an ajarn -- an honorary Thai term for a teacher, in this case a community tattoo master. Many believe a sak yant, or sacred tattoo, will protect them from accidents or enemies, increase their attractiveness, help them get rich, or simply calm their troubled minds.

     Thailand's sak yant tradition goes back hundreds of years, but it is changing fast. A decade ago, these tattoos were almost entirely the province of working-class men. Shunned by women, they were viewed with disdain by the middle classes. Now, led by foreign and local celebrities, women from all walks of life are getting inked, including the affluent.

     "People have more money and more independence nowadays," said Neng, speaking in a studio crammed with statues of sages and deities. "As a consequence, the perception of sak yant has changed from having predominantly protective powers to bringing good luck. This makes sak yant more acceptable among the general population."

     The roots of the art lie in India, where yantras -- geometric patterns and diagrams -- have been drawn or carved on cloth, wood, paper, metal and stone for thousands of years. The diagrams are used to focus the mind and are said to have supernatural powers. From the third or fourth century onward, yantras moved east.

     Some say that Hindu Brahman priests, worried about Buddhist domination on the Indian subcontinent, arrived in southern Thailand as maritime trade increased. There, they spread knowledge, commerce and cultural innovations such as yantras.

     Others think that Hindus exported yantras from India directly to Cambodia's Angkor empire, which ruled from the 9th to 15th centuries. When the Siamese plundered Angkor in 1431, they may have taken the yantra tradition with them.

     It is also uncertain when the spiritual symbols were first worn on the skin. Stories from the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which ruled what is now Thailand from the 14th to 18th centuries, suggest that Siamese soldiers lost their yant-embroidered jackets in battle so often that they began to ink sacred spells and images onto their bodies.

     In modern Thailand, the creation of a sak yant by an ajarn or Buddhist monk is a complex business. Mantras, known as kata, are inscribed around sacred images. Once written in Sanskrit, the classical language of ancient India, they are now applied in Khom, an old Khmer script from what is now Cambodia. Before, during and after the application of a yant, the tattoo master must chant incantations in Pali, the liturgical language of Buddhism.

     As a result, every tattoo master must be an expert in both Khom and Pali, as well as possess the moral authority that goes with the tattoos.

     "Sak yant are a powerful reminder for us to stay on the right path," Neng said. Indeed, all sak yant devotees are given a set of rules, starting with the five basic Buddhist precepts: Do not kill, do not steal, do not lie, do not engage in sexual misconduct and do not drink. They must follow these rules if their yant are to retain their protective powers.

The Jolie effect

For the rural working classes, frequently portrayed in the Thai media as yokels, the tattoos have long provided a form of expression outside mainstream culture.

     Sacred tattoos can be seen on any street in downtown Bangkok, poking out of the shirts of taxi drivers, stall vendors, working girls, couriers and cooks -- all economic migrants from the countryside. Soldiers, policemen and gangsters are also known to be partial to the tattoos, some of which promise protection from knives, bullets and other forms of aggression.

     Thailand's middle classes began to see the tradition in a new light in 2003, when Hollywood movie star Angelina Jolie visited the country and had a sak yant inked onto her back by Ajarn Sompong Kanpai, who is known by his nickname "Noo." A year later, Jolie returned for a second tattoo. A stampede of Thai celebrities followed in her footsteps, and Noo has become internationally renowned.

     Not everyone shares Jolie's admiration. Bruce Bart, a veteran tattoo artist from Florida, described a recent encounter with Thailand's best-known tattoo master that suggested Noo is well aware of his celebrity status.

     "Having set up an appointment with the master, we were approached by an apprentice and discussed the yant myself and my partner wanted," Bart said. "He then handed us a note, suggesting we would have to pay 95,000 baht each. I realized that he was trying to charge us about $3,200 for less than an hour of work."

     Charging such rates remains the exception rather than the rule among sacred tattoo masters. But Jolie's visit and the subsequent rush by Thai celebrities has had a profound effect on the role of the tattoos in Thai society.

     One sign of the times: The tattoos have become so popular that Thailand's Ministry of Culture found it necessary to advise studios to be sensitive about where they place sacred images on bodies -- especially those of visiting foreigners.

     Times have also changed at Wat Bang Phra, Thailand's most famous tattoo temple, located a couple of hours' drive west of the capital. There, monks handle the inking. Ten years ago, those who wanted a sacred tattoo had to stay at the temple for several days and fulfill daily chores, such as brushing the yard. Today, there are just too many to make this practical. Sometimes, devotees are given a broom and shovel to clean symbolically for a few minutes.

     Each year, Wat Bang Phra holds a ceremony honoring the late monk Luang Pho Poen, who revived the sak yant tradition. This was once a local affair, but these days the event draws 15,000 tattooed devotees and scores of photographers, TV crews and onlookers.

Beyond Thailand

Num, a follower of Neng who gave only one name, sees himself at the forefront of the new trend. "My generation will make sure that sak yant will filter into all social classes," said the 28-year-old civil engineer, his back covered in sacred images.

     Neng, now 38, once worked as an interior designer. He gave up that career to become a tattoo master after he met an ajarn, who became his mentor. Neng knows he picked the right moment.

     "The public image of sak yant is definitely changing, and the sacred tattoos are finding increasing local acceptance as well as international acclaim," he said.

     Foreign interest in the practice has prompted the publication of several books and documentaries in English. As a result, Neng and many other tattoo masters now travel the world dispensing diagrams and incantations.

     "Chinese people love my tattoos because they think they will make them rich," Neng said. "Sak yant are very popular there. I don't get many Japanese devotees though. I understand tattoos have a bad reputation there because of their association with organized crime. I have noticed that when I visit a Japanese temple, people look at me in a critical way because I have many sacred tattoos."

     There are even a couple of foreign ajarns practicing the art in Thailand. Neng is gently dismissive of these interlopers. "They are not really knowledgeable yet," he said. "They don't know too much Thai, Pali or Khom."

Tom Vater is a Bangkok-based writer and author of novels and nonfiction books, including "Sacred Skin" (with photographer Aroon Thaewchatturat) on traditional Thai tattoo culture. He also heads Crime Wave Press, a Hong Kong-based crime fiction imprint.