Tattoos believed to offer protection and other benefits have been recorded everywhere throughout both mainland Southeast Asia and as far south as Indonesia and the Philippines. Chinese chronicles describe yantra tattooing among the Tai cultures of southwestern China and northwestern Vietnam at least 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries the tradition spread to what is now Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and parts of Myanmar. While the tradition itself originates with indigenous tribal animism, it became closely tied to the Hindu-Buddhist concept of yantra or mystical geometric patterns used during meditation. Tattoos of yantra designs were believed to hold magic power, and were used much like the kolam tattoos of India. For these people, religion is closely tied to the notion of magic, health, and good fortune.
The script used for yantra designs varies according to culture and geography. In Cambodia and central Thailand, Cambodian Khmer script is used, while in northern Thailand one sees yantra tattoos bearing Shan, northern Thai, or Tai Lu scripts, and in Laos the Lao Tham script is employed. The script spells out abbreviated syllables from Pali incantations. Different masters have added to these designs over the centuries through visions received in their meditations. Some yantra designs have been adapted from pre-Buddhist shamanism and the belief in animal spirits that was found in Southeast Asia and incorporated into Thai tradition and culture.
Yantra tattoos are believed to be magic and bestow mystical powers, protection, or good luck. There are three main effects of a yantra tattoo. One is that which benefits the wearer, such as making them more eloquent. Another is that of protection and to ward off evil and hardship. This is commonly used by military personnel, police, taxi drivers, gangsters and others in perceived dangerous professions. Another type is that which affects people around the wearer, such as invoking fear. The tattoo only confers its powers so long as the bearer observes certain rules and taboos, such as abstaining from a certain type of food.
It is believed that the power of sacred tattoos decreases with time. So to re-empower them each year, sak yan masters celebrate with their devotees the Wai Khru ritual. Wai khru means “pay homage to one’s guru”. In Thailand, the most impressive Wai Khru is held at the temple of Wat Bang Phra.
Sak yan designs are also applied to many other media, such as cloth or metal, and placed in one’s house, place of worship, or vehicle as a means of protection from danger or illness, to increase wealth, and to attract lovers. In recent years Hollywood celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, whose tattoos were inked by Ajahn Noo Ganpai in Thailand, have made them popular among women.
Production of a sak yant on the back of a faithful. Wat Bang Phra is the monastery where Thais and foreigners scramble for a sacred and magical (sak yant) tattoo made by the monks in bamboo.