Before our trip to Thailand, my partner Daniel mentioned that he was interested in getting a Sak Yant tattoo. Traditionally performed by a monk with a bamboo needle, Sak Yant tattoos or “magic tattoos” are sacred symbols believed to confer blessing or protection. I’ve been thinking about getting a new tattoo for a while but I was waiting for the right time. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.
I got my first tattoo when I was 20 years old to commemorate a year of personal growth. After finishing a study abroad semester to the United Kingdom, I backpacked around Europe by myself and then worked in the Alaskan cities of Naknek and Ketchikan for the salmon season. I was energized by the experience and wanted a permanent reminder. So I decided to get a tattoo.
The tattoo was a simple Celtic design encircling my upper right arm. I chose it from out of an artbook in the tattoo parlor because I liked the meaning of the design, which symbolized the interconnectedness of life. I felt like my horizons had been broadened over the previous year and the tattoo represented my deepened sense of connection with the rest of the world.
Since then, I’ve continued the tradition of getting tattoos to commemorate important milestones in my life. I had a large dragon tattooed on my upper back when I separated from my ex-husband. This time, I commissioned the artwork from a local tattoo artist. In vibrant shades of blue, red and orange, the tattoo took over 3 hours to complete and was one of the more painful experiences of my life. I chose a dragon because it is my astrological sign and because the dragon’s symbolism of power and strength appealed to me.
The artwork for my third tattoo was designed by long-time friend Elizabeth Haidle, a Portland-area artist that I know from college. She offered to design a tattoo in exchange for helping to fund her graphic novel Mind Afire: The Visions of Tesla and I jumped at the opportunity. The tattoo depicts a woman encircled by stylized tree branches as she stands under a Phoenix. The figure reaches forward into the distance, emphasizing themes of rebirth and growth. She is also wearing roller skates, a subtle nod to my rather short-lived roller derby career.
Fast forward to Thailand. During our visit to Chang Mai, we booked an excursion with a local tour guide company called Where the Sidewalk ends to get Sak Yant tattoos. The package included a local guide, Prasong, who took us out for lunch and on a tour of the Chang Mai amulet market. He also translated our conversations to the Buddhist Monk who performed the tattoos.
We drove about an hour out of Chiang Mai to the monk’s open air studio at his mother’s house. Dogs, cats and chickens lazily wandered the yard as we waited in line for him to finish another tattoo.
When it was our turn, we each spent some time talking to the monk before he began the tattooing process. The monk wanted to make sure that the tattoo was the right fit for the person receiving it. Daniel had a tattoo in mind that he researched prior to our trip and the monk agreed to the design only after discussing Daniel’s goals with him. His tattoo has many layers of meaning but the themes that stood out to Daniel are of loving kindness, helping others, being present, a renewed focus on spirituality, and protection and while traveling.
While traditional bamboo needles are no longer typically used, the tattooes are still performed by hand with a giant steel needle. The monk hammed it up as he dramatically flourished the needle before beginning Daniel’s tattoo. We couldn’t help but laugh. The needle looks like a medieval torture device, but truthfully I didn’t find the process to be more painful than my other tattoos.
To view a video of the tattoo process click the following link: Daniel Gets a Yant Tattoo
Soon Daniel’s tattoo was finished and it was my turn. Unlike Daniel, I did not have any design in mind when I arrived at the tattoo studio. I talked to the monk for half an hour about why I wanted the tattoo while Prasong translated. Some of our conversation was lost in translation (the monk seemed genuinely puzzled over my decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail) but we eventually managed to communicate. He chose a design which focused on building relationships, a foundation of good health, wisdom, and direction. I loved it immediately.
When it came time to implement the design, the process was a bit different than with Daniel’s tattoo. Traditionally monks aren’t allowed to touch women, so this can present a bit of a challenge. Many monks won’t tattoo women at all. Thankfully this monk was a bit more flexible with the rules. Even so, we weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the process and I took care to respectfully cover my arms and neck with a long-sleeved shirt during our visit (except when he gave me the tattoo, of course).
What an amazing experience.