Every so often a thing resonates. Clarifies out of the fog of everyday life. A focus that is hard to ignore. It just feels right. The perfect drive off the tee. Cooking the best pot roast or batch of fried rice. A desire to take a major pay cut and disrupt one’s life every few years. A vibration humming at just the right pitch.
And so it was with Sak Yant, a Thai spiritual tattoo. Popular now, as are all tattoos; made more so when pushed by movie stars and celebs. Definitely, at risk of being trendy. Most definitely. Yet, still there was that hum.
And I don’t know quite why, there wasn’t the hum in New Zealand or Samoa. Moku or Pa’e tattoos are still tribal, still sacred, but less of a drive for me
So, Mrs. S.A.M. and I embarked to Ayutthaya for a weekend of exploring, stopping by the Thai Tattoo Art Center to meet with Ajarn Wao.
Tattoos are applied by monks or Ajarns. Men who’ve left monk-hood and continue to practice. They are still spiritual guides and are considered to have psychic powers.
Ajarn Wao has been doing this for some 39 years. To assist in translation, we hired a guide, Khun Jojo. She talked us through the procedure. I get the feeling we were to bring an offering. We scouted around for flowers beforehand but couldn’t find any.
The tattoo hall, was largely shrine and mystic portal. Statues of buddhas and gods and offerings along one wall. White string ran from the thumb of one buddha and criss crossed the ceiling. The intersections marked with tiny red flags. Ajarn Wao sat on a low cushioned stool at the front. Two apprentices worked to one side. He was was chain smoker. They were vapers. Ah, youth.
An offering stand was off to one side, a candle and a large pot of ash. We crouched across the room and took up some joss sticks. Interesting fact, when making an offering of incense, it’s best to do so in groups of 3, with 9 being the usual. At least here, it’s the most auspcious. We lit up, said our prayers, made our wishes and returned to a place along the wall.
Some books were brought out to give us some ideas. Various geometries, monkeys, tigers and pigs, oh my. We were asked our birthdays. Cell phone apps were consulted to tell us what day of the week we were born.
“You were both born in the year of the snake. Don’t you fight a lot? Ha ha ha!” An interview of sorts was being conducted. He worked. He asked questions. We asked for possibilities.
While we waited, the Ajarn offered us donuts taken right off the shrine. “Buddhist Dunkin’ Donuts!” he said. Our guide explained that was part of the communal setting. We offer, we receive. I took a chocolate peanut donut hole. It tasted lighter. Blessing? Dehydration?
We watched as a young thai woman had her work completed.
Our turn, then. I knelt down shirtless. The master lit up a marlboro and tapped around on my back. He made a pronouncement to the room. I didn’t realize it til later that this was the blessing. It was loosely translated in the form of an afformation and then work began.
Smoking and mumbling prayers and conversing all the while, the needle is sterilized with fire and then rubbing alcohol and maybe a bleach compound. Ink made of charcoaled herbs, oil and lampblack is poured into a dish and then a two foot long forked needle is dipped in the ink and then expertly and multitudinously pricked into the skin.
A basic structure and design are put in place. And then a more individualized blessing inscribed, during which a prayer or incantation is uttered. The actual process is 30 to 45 minutes.
They are nearly always monochrome in black and flesh. Occasionally, a red will be added, but usually only black. If you’d like you can even get an oil tattoo. Same pain but nearly no image, just a faint scarring and all the blessings and protections inherent therein.
At the end, all those who’ve made offerings and received tattoos kneel in front of the shrine and the Ajarn and receive a final blessing. Chants are said, water is splashed. Then selfies are taken. The Ajarn snaps a pic of my back and then holds up a camera in front of the two of us.
He says, “For Instagram, baby!”