Sacred Skin: the art of spirit tattoos in Thailand

Before you decide to get a tattoo from one of the many long haired, rasta-looking Thai men in the foreigner-inking business during a holiday in Thailand, think twice. There are enormous differences between the design you are going to get, and the rigid ink lines we can sometime spot etching a Thai person’s skin, spurting timidly from under their clothing.

Sak yant, as these traditional Thai tattoos are called, represents a form of magical protection for the bearers: may it be against accidents, evil, crime, or to give women better chances to attract the perfect soul mate, sak yant are not an indelible way to remember a backpacking trip.

They are applied by a master who gives his tattooed disciples a series of rules to follow in order to keep the protective spell alive, usually starting with Buddhism’s five principles. As much as sak yant is despised by upper class Thai society, it is still alive and well, and represents one of the few aspects of Thai culture which have not received massive coverage in the mainstream media.

The gap has been graciously filled last year, when travel writer Tom Vater and his photographer wife Aroon Thaewchatturat have published the first English written book on the subject, Sacred Skin:  a definitive collection documenting their travels across Thailand in search of the mysteries behind one of the last forms of religious tattooing existing in Southeast Asia.

I have reached Tom in Bangkok to get deeper behind the scenes of his trip into the underbelly of contemporary Thai society…

Why did you decide to document this aspect of Thai culture? How long did it take to finish the book?

It’s difficult to document an aspect of Thai culture that has not been covered many times before or is not part of the country’s official narrative – temples, monks, elephants and beaches. For many years I have been looking for a subject that lies right at the heart of Thai culture….until I came across Sak Yant. Popular amongst working class people and despised by the middle class, Sak Yant are right on the fault lines that divide Thai society. They are the sacred and secret codes of the have-nots which is why the Thai establishment and the ministry of culture take such a dim view of the tattoos, even though they are part of Thailand’s everyday life. I am guessing that perhaps 10% of Thai people, maybe more, wear Sak Yant.

picture by Aroon Thaewchatturat

I had been following the Wai Kru (respect your teacher) festivals at Wat Bang Phra for almost a decade. This temple, an hour west of Bangkok, is the most famous tattoo temple in Thailand. Aroon Thaewchatturat and I decided to create a book to collect our observations of the subject… It took about one year to complete.

How was the reaction of the people asked to pose for the shots? I mean, is something that they get as “sacred” suitable to be offered as visuals to a predominantly English reading public?

Once we received an endorsement from the temple and several tattoo masters, the devotees were more than happy to pose. They are keenly aware that they are being discriminated against and that in the eyes of educated Thais, Sak Yant imply criminality and shadiness. Many of our models wanted to set the record straight and the book gives them a perfect platform.

Can you tell me one or two remarkable episodes happened during the book’s research?

For me, the most remarkable was the relationship which got to form between the devotees and Aroon. They do not usually take their clothes off, especially as Thailand is a fairly macho-oriented society. The fact that Aroon, a woman, gained their trust and got them to show their tattooed bodies in front of the camera, relaxed and proud, is a real achievement I think.

How do you think sak yant fits into the fast developing contemporary Thai society?

Contemporary Thai society is in total flux, forging an uncertain path between tradition and development. While many educated Thais would like Sak Yant to go away, the sacred tattoos are an essential form of religious and cultural expression for the country’s poor – the farmers, fishermen, construction workers, sex workers, boxers, taxi drivers and many more. It is unlikely that Sak Yant will disappear, even if the government were to ban the tattoos and tattoo masters as happened in Laos following the communist revolution. I think that this phenomenon is likely to grow. Many tattoo masters now have websites. Some even go abroad to tattoo Sak Yant, especially to Singapore and Europe. While the official Thai narrative is tightly controlled by politicians and the Thai elite, the Sak Yant, while certainly not a signifier of rebellion, nevertheless offer an alternative story of the country, far away from luxury spas, flash cars and whatever is shown in the media. For the country’s poor, the tattoos are a way of writing their own story – on their skin.

Curious? You may purchase a copy of SACRED SKIN here

(all pictures in this article by Aroon Thaewchatturat, reproduced with permission)

Posted by | Comments (5)  | February 9, 2012
Category: Asia, Images from the road, Travel Writing

5 Responses to “Sacred Skin: the art of spirit tattoos in Thailand”

  1. Rolf Potts Says:

    I’ve seen those tattoos all over in Thailand, but I never fully knew what they were about. Thanks Marco (and Tom Vater) for the insight!

  2. Ted Beatie Says:

    Create interview, Marco!

  3. Marco Ferrarese Says:

    Everyone is most welcome… Sak Yant is a very meaningful aspect of Thai society and has to be known by anybody trying to get deeper into the country’s culture… I highly recommend this book, as the visuals are great, and the text both informative and captivating!!

  4. GypsyGirl Says:

    Very interesting! From what I understand many cultures applied (and still do) tattoos for a higher reason. I’ve watched tribal ink applied, but with modern equipment.

  5. Jay Says:

    i love Sak Yant, it’s really beautiful.