Friday, November 29, 2013
Sacred Ink: The Sak Yant Tatoos
Over at Ink Butter, they have an artistic look at the tradition of the Sak Yant tattoos you can find in Southeast Asia. Cedric Arnold put together a collection of over 45 large-format images that examine the different elements that go in to the culture, asking who gets these tattoos, and why. In my forthcoming book DEMONSTRA, these tattoos come up from time to time, although I can see I may have to commit another book of poetry to the subject in the future. There's a lot of material to explore.
Vanishing Tattoo's article "Tattoos of Indochina: Supernatual Mysteries of the Flesh" has one of the best articles to date for the layperson to get an introduction and overview on the subject, from a Lao perspective. By most accounts, northern Thailand tattoos employ Shan, Northern Thai or Tai Lu scripts, while the Lao tattoos often use the Lao Tham script.
You don't just go to a tattoo artist on the corner for a tattoo like this. Normally, a sak yant tattoo is applied by a wicha practitioner or Buddhist monks, who use a mai sak, a long, sharp bamboo stick or a khem sak, which is a long metal spike. Often, the script is inspired from Pali incantations, but many designs come from visions that different masters received while meditating. I would recommend you get a consultation when the master is in a good mood, yet not feeling particularly whimsical.
It's possible to find yantra designs incorporating figures from pre-Buddhist animist beliefs, particularly animal spirits and other legendary beings. Lao don't often engage in this anymore. These tattoos are presently falling out of practice in Cambodia, although the tradition has its most legendary roots there. This is partially a consequence of Year Zero which erased many of the artistic and spiritual minds from Cambodia in an effort to reboot their culture.
However, it's possible we'll see a resurgence in the tradition in the next few decades, but also a number of charlatans who will not be qualified in the traditional sense to apply these tattoos.
Traditionally, one doesn't go to get one until one has a consultation and the monk decides you need one, over other karmic remedies available. To make a mark upon a human's skin is a very serious statement, from the traditional point of view of the region. As author Frank Chin once explained to me, "Your skin is your first gift from your parents, why would you make a blemish on it?"
But if it comes down to needing a tattoo, sometimes you need a small one, sometimes you need a very elaborate design. It's typically a very unique tattoo customized for your karmic need, rather than just walking in and shouting "I need a bad-ass tiger for protection!"
A sak yant tattoo is definitely not something where you want an amateur doing it, someone who gets the letter wrong in the wrong place, undermining its protective value.