Sacred Ink? Finding Freedom from Faith in Sak Yant Tattoos

When I moved with my family to Thailand a few years ago, I began noticing an abundance of tattoo parlors, many advertising “bamboo tattoos.” I soon learned that bamboo tattoos are known in the local language as sak yant, which translates literally, “tattoo of sacred image.”

Sak yant tattoos are comprised of ancient symbols and Khmer or Lanna writings that are believed to carry magical powers of charm, protection, and power. The practice dates back thousands of years to a time when warriors wore clothing and armor decorated with magical runes called yantra for protection. If the yantra was cut or damaged in battle, the spell was broken, so warriors began tattooing the yantra directly on their bodies.

a traditional sak yant tattoo

A traditional sak yant called the Gao Yord in the Lanna language of northern Thailand.

When Buddhism was introduced to Thailand, Buddhist text and symbols were incorporated into the tattoos. Thousands of years ago, sak yant was given by shamans, but today Buddhist monks or masters called ajarns practice the art.

a Buddhist monk gives a sak yant tattoo

Ajarn Rung is a fourth generation ajarn but the first in his family to devote his life to being a Buddhist monk.

an ajarn at work

Ajarn Rung at work in his samnak. Buddhism is integral to his practice of sak yant.

A Sak Yant Master at Work

I spent an afternoon talking with a master named Ajarn Daam in his samnak, the studio where he practices sak yant. He explained that, traditionally, tattoos were applied with sharpened bamboo slivers called mai sak. Today, modern practitioners use an instrument called khem sak, an ornate rod with replaceable stainless-steel tips. These rods are often handmade by the ajarn, or sak yant master. Sometimes these rods are passed from master to apprentice. Most have magical spells cast over them.

a sak yant master

Ajarn Daam trained for years to become an ajarn, a sak yant master.

a khem sak, the instrument used to apply sak yant tattoos

This khem sak, the instrument used to apply the tattoos, has a small sacred scroll wrapped around the handle underneath the golden grip. A spell was placed on it by a sak yant master.

Ajarn Daam shows some of the sacred relics used in the preparation of the ink used in his sak yant. Most ajarns make their own ink from herbs, oil, and ash. There are stories of some ink containing snake venom and human ash.

a sak yant master

Ajarn Daam tattoos a student aspiring to become a master.

Is Sak Yant Fashion or Religion?

Sak Yant has gained worldwide fame. The tattoos are considered fashionable and are sought after by many who travel to Thailand. But it is important to understand the spiritual implications of the tattoos.

“Sak yant is darkness—it will destroy you long term. But Jesus will give you life.”

It is common to see Muay Thai fighters with various forms of sak yant covering their bodies. They believe the tattoos give them power over other people in the ring. Police get certain sak yant to give them protection. Even businessmen get the tattoos to give them power over others in business dealings. Prostitutes get another design to protect them from disease.

a Muay Thai fighter

Khun Noi, a Muay Thai fighter, shows off a scar from a motorcycle accident where he also punctured a lung. He holds to the belief that his sak yant protected him from death.

sak yant master

Sak yant masters cast magical spells or incantations into the tattoos to provide protection or power.

Khun Pat, a Christian who once practiced sak yant extensively, cautions, “For people who want to be involved with sak yant, they need to know this—it is not an art form. You open the door for something really dark to come into you.”

Many sak yant also are combined with a “spirit animal.” Some believe that through the tattoo they are possessed by the spirit of that animal.

Spirit animals are often incorporated into sak yant designs.

Spirit animals are often incorporated into sak yant designs.

While some would dismiss these claims of magical power as far-fetched fabrications, the existence of dark spiritual power is revealed in the Bible. Paul warns us that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities . . . the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm” (Eph. 6:12).

Khun Pat testifies to the deliverance from sak yant he found in Christ. “What Jesus gave me is not the power to hurt people, not to harm people; but what he gave me was the power to love people. Sak yant is darkness—it will destroy you long term. But Jesus will give you life.”

Ruesi masks

The training to become an ajarn takes years of meditation and study. Those desiring to be ajarns submit themselves under other masters. When they are deemed worthy to be considered masters, they are given a Ruesi mask, signifying graduation.

Pray

  • Pray for practitioners and recipients of San Yant to seek deliverance from bondage to magic.
  • Pray they would discover freedom from sin and eternal life found only in Christ.

Miles Parry lives in Northern Thailand with his family. When not filming or editing, he can be found wandering through the mountains around his home, meeting locals and travelers alike, hearing their stories and telling the best story of all.