Text adapted from the original article (in Chinese) by Vicco Wu.
Who doesn’t like a tattoo? No one, that’s who. Tattoos are awesome.
But in addition to how good they look, would you be even more interested if we injected a little magic?
With the help of Aimee from Jiangning Road’s “Sakyant Studio,” let’s take a look at Thai magic tattoos or Sakyant.
Address: Room 1507, Lane 599, No. 3 Jiangning Road
(Book one day prior to arrival)
First, Some History
Tattoos are an ancient cultural practice. It seems like since our earliest days we’ve been trying to put images directly on our bodies. According to Chinese chronicles, the Thai tattoo practice is known as “Sakyant” (better known as “Yantra” in the West) has been around for at least 2,000 years. In addition to tattoos on the body, face tattoos were fair game, kind of a big deal in Southeast Asia, where the head is the most sacred part of the body. Tattoos on the body could be made denser with magic (more on that later), but patterns on the face were often used as a form of personal or class identification as well, so they weren’t just arbitrary swirls or shapes handed out to anybody.
The tattoo craze eventually spread to the US barrack rooms, especially thanks to US sailors. Some sailors would get unique body tattoos to commemorate battles, and then making sure pictures of them were filed away in the archives. Why save their tattoos in the archives? Apart from looking cool, some sailors thought that on the off-chance they were blown to pieces in battle, their comrades might be able to identify them by a tattoo and therefore be able to inform their families what happened to them. While a bit dark, it does show that tattoos have served more functions than decoration.
So What About These Thai Tattoos?
Aimee explained that “Sakyant Studio” is the first studio in Shanghai to do real Sakyant. Sakyant in Thailand belongs to an ancient metaphysical philosophy/religion/culture, and Thailand’s the only place that can get it right (according to them). Thai Sak Yant originated during the Warring States period (about 475 BCE to 221 BCE) and developed into an art form. Sakyant in the Thai language is written as Sakyant, Sak meaning 刺 or cì (the Chinese meaning is to pierce), and yant representing 符 or fú (meaning symbol or mark).
Angelina Jolie has a magic Sakyant tattoo and is sometimes credited with popularizing it in the West.
What’s the Magic You Keep Talking About?
A long time ago, Thai soldiers, right before the battle, would go to the temple to ask for blessings from a monk, hoping it’d save them from death on the battlefield. The problem was that the little trinkets or totems that monks usually gave worshippers could be lost in the mess and chaos of battle. In order to solve this problem, they started directly putting the symbol on the body.
The first Sakyant tattoos were ancient Sanskrit scriptures with a protective function. Around 100 years ago it became popular in Thailand to tattoo pictures of mythological animals onto the body.
Aimee says Thai Sakyant has many types of schools, but whatever the type, a Sakyant master’s reputation is classified according to his level of magic, the worship of his school and the beauty of the tattoo. Becoming a master requires years of practice and meditation. The better the master, the more powerful the tattoo.
Sakyant Studio is cooperating with two famous Sakyant masters, with an especially good relationship with Master Azanao (阿赞奥). He comes to China every two months, so you can make an appointment at least one month before.
Master Azanao is a blessed Thai senior monk and the only so-called “white mage” who is doing Sakyant. His tattoo-art is extraordinary, recognized as exceptionally powerful by practitioners, and his tattoos are also very beautiful. Even for the more advanced patterns, he doesn’t need to transfer the position of the needle, and he’s extremely fast.
How Do You Get A Sak Yant Tattoo?
We can tell you because we tried it out! That’s right, we got tattoos for you, a first-hand taste of the incredibly skilled needle-work of Master Azanao himself.
Firstly, we chose a pattern and location. There are a lot, depending on what you’re going for, their different kinds, for example, you can get a boost in wealth, love, luck, health, courage, Buddhist purity, you name it.
The tattoos come in many different shapes. Apart from the famous spired text-shapes, there are icons such as tigers, lions, elephants, dragons and phoenix, as well as the god Hanuman (who some belief may have been an inspiration for China’s very own Sun Wukong). Hanuman is one of the favorites among believers, his symbol means an endless source of energy.
Having chosen our shapes, we completed a little ancestor-worship ceremony. Every Sakyant master is also a religious figure, and he brought along a plate of incense sticks, flowers, and candles. He gave us the plate, wherein we put offerings. In this modern-day and age, they could be things like money, mobile phones, earrings, or other electronics. The important thing is that they are things of value.
The Sakyant master takes the plate and, chanting a mantra, puts the gifts on the altar. Offering complete, the process of actual tattooing could begin.
Don’t worry, you get the offerings back at the end.
What Not To Do With Sakyant
Sakyant patterns and Buddhist tattoos cannot be worn on the lower body parts, and girls are not allowed to have tattoos on their breasts. Sorry, ladies. Some of the graphics are in pairs so they cannot be done separately, but they don’t necessarily have to be symmetrical.
Animal graphics can be put on the feet and legs, but gods cannot. The higher up the body a tattoo is, the more respect is shown for the figure represented, so unless you want to offend everyone as you’re walking down the street in Thailand, don’t put a god on your calves. Show some respect, come on.
pictured: dangerously close, but still technically okay!
And if you’re worried about a general society taboo against tattoos in the first place, Sakyant Studio can do invisible tattoos.
Wait, Invisible Tattoos?
Yep! For those of us who still have to work in an office, our bosses might frown on a brand-new tattoo. So we took advantage of a special kind of Thai Sak Yant tattoo. There are actually two types of magic tattoos: the first type is the ink tattoo, while the second one is an oil tattoo. The ink tattoo is obviously clearly visible, while the oil tattoo is totally invisible.
For those of you who can’t afford to have ink tattoos of wild deific tigers peeking out of your shirt sleeves or collar, these oil tattoos provide you the exact same benefits and blessings, without the stigma of an actual tattoo.
So we totally got tattoos for you. Kind of. It hurts the same, okay?
The process itself is quick. Master Azanao only took a few minutes for each tattoo. For larger and more complex tattoos, it obviously takes longer, but a tattoo about a square-inch in the surface area took about 5 minutes to complete. Yes, it did hurt a little bit. But compared to the KPOP/heavy metal music and angry buzzing tattoo guns in a modern tattoo parlor, the steady tick-tick of the bamboo needle, the incense and the faintly religious tint in the air made dealing with the pain a pleasantly cathartic exercise in meditation.
After the tattoo is done, Master Azanao rubbed gold leaf onto the pattern while chanting a mantra, to imbue it with magic. Finally, you’re given some incense sticks, asked to bow before the altar and say a mantra (which was conveniently printed next to the altar). And just like that, you’ve got a Thai magic tattoo, exactly the way it’s been done dating back 2,000 years. Except for the mobile phone offering, of course.
In the end, we’re left with a faint, red outline of the tattoo that disappeared after a few days. We’ll admit, we didn’t feel much difference, but the master gravely reminded us that they don’t just work by themselves; you have to dedicate yourself to Buddhist principles to amplify the power. Otherwise, it’s just like wearing across without being a Christian; it might match your outfit, but it’s basically just decoration.
Check out some examples of (visible!) Sakyant tattoos!