Getting a Sak Yant Tattoo in Chang Mai

Last Updated on November 29, 2018

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.

My first tattoo.  I still like it even though the lines are a bit blurry with age.

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.

My second tattoo.  The tattoo became more and more painful as each color was applied over my already sensitized skin.

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.

My third tattoo.

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.

Our lunch venue prior to getting our tattoos.
The amulet market.

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.

Discussing our tattoos with the monk.
The monk’s tattoo studio.

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.

Daniel receives his Sak Yant tattoo.
The monk tattoos Daniel’s Sak Yant tattoo.
Close-up of Daniel’s Sak Yant tattoo.

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

Daniel’s finished Sak 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.

My Sak Yant tattoo.

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).

So many tattoos! Neat!

What an amazing experience.

20 thoughts

  1. I’ve always loved the idea of tattoos representing significant milestones in life. My tattoo journey has been similar to yours in that way. Sak Yant tattoos seem like such a wonderful idea – I love the fact that they are so personalized to an individual’s life & desires.

  2. I’m so fascinated by this. I love that the tattoos have so much meaning and are more than just decoration. Honestly, though, I would be so concerned about hygiene and disease while getting a tattoo in another country!

    1. Thanks Catherine! I was worried about the hygiene aspect too but the monk used a sterilized needle and wore gloves – and it healed beautifully. So it worked out fine in the end 😊

    1. Thanks N! Yes it was pretty terrifying at first. But honestly it felt like any of my other tattoos 😊

  3. Truly a unique experience, that a monk can tattoo travelers, even women whom they aren’t allowed to touch. Guess that’s a story you’ll tell for a long time to come.

  4. Wow, this is an amazing experience. It does make me a little uncomfortable that there are no female monks allowed to work in this space since I would imagine that there are increasing numbers of women looking for these tattoos. But at least it wasn’t impossible to get. Looks beautiful.

    1. Thailand actually forbids women from legally becoming ordained monks, although I have read that some women are trying to become monks unofficially. The different cultural view on gender took a bit for me to get used to. Thanks for the comment!

  5. I enjoyed reading the story behind all your tattoos all the way to the one you just got in Chiangmai. It looks scary for me seeing the picture of the needle on Daniel’s body. I’m sure you get or will get lots questions about your last tattoo because the design is so different.

  6. I had no idea of Sak Yant tattoo, and I admire your spirits to get one done inspired by your thoughts. I once wanted a tattoo purely for fashion but not anymore. Although, it seems like quite an experience even without traditional bamboo needles. The steel needle is scary & your pictures while getting the tattoos done are scaring me badly 🤐 Lovely reading about your experience though 🙂

  7. Sak Yant tattoos are so gorgeous. I’d never thought about how difficult it could be to get one as a woman, but that totally makes sense. Cheers to you guys for seeking out such memorable and meaningful tattoos!

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