Yantra Tattoos
October 20, 2010 12:13 AM   Subscribe

Yantra tattooing is a traditional Thai, Khmer, Lao and Burmese practice using beautiful and intricately designed yantras for good luck, fortune, strength and protection.

Traditionally, yantra tattoos were borne by those in dangerous professions such as soldiers and elephant mahouts. They were applied by Buddhist monks, some of whom achieved great fame for their work. More recently, commercial tattoo masters (site in Thai) have become popular, and the tatooed have included gang members, westerners, and movie stars.

The methods and implements used are often still very simple. Assistants hold the person being tattooed steady, a design is transferred to bare skin, a bamboo or iron skewer is sharpened with sandpaper, dipped in ink and then repeatedly and quickly jabbed into flesh. Fine control is achieved through the guidance of the artists other hand, and sometimes foot.

Designs, however, might be simple but are often not. Many designs have very specific meanings and effects, and require the intonation of particular mantras to acquire their power. Famous designs include: the five lines yantra (as seen on Angelina Jolie); the nine spires yantra and the eight directions yantra. Yantras that include figurative imagery include: Phra Narai Song Khrut (Lord Vishnu on Garuda above Rahu); Hanuman; and Ganesh.

For anyone seeking a yantra tattoo, Thailand is probably your destination of choice. In particular, Wat Bang Phra is renowned for the number of masters working there.

Wat Bang Phra is also the home of a rather spectacular annual tattoo festival, which has been mentioned on the blue previously.

For more photos see NPR's excellent sak yant gallery, and this set of the festival on funzu.

For further reading, try this.
posted by Ahab (10 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Oh. Much flash in there, and if your work objects to pictures of naked backs, then possibly NSFW.
posted by Ahab at 12:14 AM on October 20, 2010

Warning to all the hipsters. This is not the kind of thing to mess around with as a "cute" exotic trend.
posted by wuwei at 12:19 AM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Warning to all the hipsters. This is not the kind of thing to mess around with as a "cute" exotic trend.

Care to expand on that? If Angelina Jolie has it I think it might be a little bit late.
posted by ejfox at 12:26 AM on October 20, 2010

The guy pictured in the link to Phra Narai Song Khrut is my friend Greg. I'll try to track him down and see if he wants to talk about it. I think I remember him saying he enjoyed the experience and that he didn't get hepatitis from the needles used. Still, not something to enter in to lightly.
posted by JackarypQQ at 3:14 AM on October 20, 2010

The lack of gloves in most of the photos stood out to me; I'd be curious about what is standard practice in terms of the bowls of ink and the needles. Blood-borne illnesses are no joke, even if the tattoos can sometimes be beautiful.
posted by Forktine at 3:40 AM on October 20, 2010

Any person used to utilizing a bit of common sense and thinking for themselves when making any decision needs but only to have a mere glance at the innards of any tattoo studio to determine if it's worth any associated risk.

And that type of person doesn't usually care whether or not their tattoo is beautiful to anybody else - especially a person who doesn't want a tattoo.
posted by tbonicus at 4:41 AM on October 20, 2010

Tattoos of Indochina: Magic, Devotion, Protection is a pretty good book on the topic.
posted by box at 7:25 AM on October 20, 2010

Wow. This is amazing stuff. I've got a friend who is interested in the study of magic, and this looks like the sort of phenomenon that would be right up his alley. It is for me too - I'm really interested in how this practice evolved, and there is a lot of really good reading here. Thanks!
posted by strixus at 9:51 AM on October 20, 2010

Thank you for this post. I've been wanting to make a similar FPP, but you've beaten me to it in marvelous fashion. I look forward to exploring these links. I have received Sak Yant on three occasions. I attended the Wai Kru festival in 2008 (self-link) where I was given an elegant explanation for the purpose of the festival and the power of the tattoos. To paraphrase: "The tattoo is an amulet; for protection, for luck, for compassion. It is like a radio receiving a signal. The power of the signal is diminished through wrongful action on the part of the bearer of the tattoo. With bad deeds, you still have the radio, but no signal. The festival serves to recharge the power of the tattoos to receive the blessing they contain and to honor the teachers of this tradition."
The process of receiving a tattoo at Wat Bang Pra is fairly straightforward. A small cash offering is made at a little stall next to the area where the tattoos are happening, and in return, a candle, some incense, flowers, and a pack of cigarettes are given. These offerings (generally along with more cash) are placed in a large dish when the time comes, and those waiting to receive their tattoos form a kneeling chain, heads bowed, as the monk blesses the offerings. He then removes the cash from the bowl and directs someone to return the rest of the materials to the stall to be given again.
The ink caps used are the tops of water bottles. The ink is hand-made, sometimes with snake venom. The tattooing instrument is a long metal pole with two sharp points, between them a tiny reservoir of ink. Generally, the Gao Yord, or 9 Spires yant is the first design a devotee receives. For the most part, the designs given are chosen by the monk in the moment. There are two to three people that assist in the stretching of the skin during the tattoo, who in turn receive their own tattoos. The monks have no physical contact with women, so there is a cloth between their hand and her flesh during the tattoo. Though it is primarily men who receive Sak Yant, many women will choose to receive their tattoos with oil instead of ink, to receive the blessing with no lasting visible trace. Once the tattoo is finished, the monk imbues it with blessing by chanting silently. The instrument is then wiped and stood upright in a jar of alcohol (I think) until it is used again on another devotee. I seem to remember 5 or 6 instruments being rotated in this fashion.
The experience itself is like nothing I can simply describe. There are many who believe that the magic of the tattoos will protect one from knives and bullets, so there is little worry about the power of the tattoo failing to also protect one from blood-borne illness.
I have had no negative health effects from these tattoos. I'll return for more when the opportunity presents, as I personally consider this to be a unique, profound, and beautiful experience.
posted by droomoord at 6:10 PM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

My sincerest thanks droomoord. That says so much that I could never have hoped to have said with mere internet links, and says it well.
posted by Ahab at 11:34 PM on October 20, 2010

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