This past weekend the first ever tattoo convention in Asia was held in Singapore, drawing tattoo artists and enthusiasts from around the world to share their love of the ancient practice. Although tattooing has been popular in Asia far longer than in the West, its prevalence amongst Asian youth has until recently been quite low. This lack of interest is primarily due to the fact that many traditional Asian tattoo styles are linked to specific religious traditions or belief systems, thus making them more than just a decorative adornment. They have esoteric significance, and unless an individual is seriously devoted to the meaning behind the image it's not likely that they would even consider obtaining a tattoo. There is also the issue of social acceptance to worry about, as being a tatted visitor to a small village could result in rude or even violent reactions from locals unfamiliar with the benevolent roots of the adornments. However, with the exponential increase in the popularity of tattooing amongst mainstream Westerners in the past ten to twenty years, some Asian youth have caught the bug and are taking the plunge into the world of ink.
For some, like one kid interviewed by the Associated Press at the Singapore convention, Western style tats are the way to go. He notes that his family doesn't approve of tattoos, but says he wanted to get his "Live Free, Die Hard" tattoo in an effort to express his individuality. Others, however, are looking to their cultural roots for fulfillment of their modding desires. Despite the fact that individuals from Southeast Asia collectively subscribe to wide variety of long-held religious and spiritual beliefs, it seems that when it comes to tattooing, they all find common ground in Sak Yant, a Thai tattooing tradition.
Upon learning about Sak Yant tattoos I was intrigued to find out that the style's combination of an image (yantra, in Sanskrit) and a Pali verse (mantra, in Sanskrit) represents a blend of Hindu and Buddhist symbols and teachings. Although it seems that the majority of those who wish to acquire Sak Yant tattoos are Buddhists, Hindu Brahmins also consider the practice a valuable addition to their many other religious rituals and traditions. Even more fascinating, for me at least, is the primary purpose of attaining a Sak Yant tattoo: protection. These inked creations are purported to shield the wearer from physical harm, and not just sickness or accidents. It is said that individuals with a Sak Yant have been known to miraculously escape knife and gun attacks that would otherwise have fatally injured them. Some have even been hit with bullets only to have them bounce off their flesh, leaving nothing but a small welt. As someone who has experienced the feeling of being protected by my mods, I was suddenly drawn deeply into this tradition to discover a new spin on the idea of mods as a method of defense.
Essentially, Sak Yant tattoos cloak their bearer in a suit of prayers. Although some secular artists claim to provide Sak Yants despite their lack of religious qualification, it is said that only monks and masters can apply and activate truly functional Sak Yants. As with any religious ceremony, there are special preparations and guidelines that must be followed if the adornment is to be optimally effective for its prescribed purpose. Specific elements of the ritual vary depending on its location, context (public vs. private), and the religious background of the practitioner, but it almost always involves recitation of the mantra being inscribed by the artist during the procedure. The tattooee must also mentally repeat the mantra over and over, which is said to help enhance the effectiveness of the charm and to distract the individual from the intense pain caused by the procedure. And distraction is definitely a necessity, considering that most Sak Yants are created by hand with a long steel skewer that is rapidly and repeatedly jabbed into the flesh, depositing a bluish-black ink that is said to actually darken over time. There are infinite combinations of yantra and mantra that can be applied, each wielding a unique and quite specific power that is only truly understood by the monk or master applying the tattoo. The magical qualities of these designs are purportedly so powerful that some individuals choose to undergo the procedure with oil rather than ink, leaving their skin perforated but not permanently marked and their soul just as fortified as if they had gotten inked. On the opposite extreme are individuals who choose to spike the ink to be used in their Sak Yant with the bile, saliva, or blood of particularly powerful or courageous animals. Now that's hardcore. The only thing perhaps more hardcore than imbuing your skin with bear bile is allowing yourself to be tattooed with instruments that have not been sterilized and trusting that the power of the tattoo's charms will protect you from contracting any blood borne diseases. Wait...is that hardcore, or just plain idiotic? Well, apparently it works, because there have been no reported cases of infection after obtaining a Sak Yant, hygienic (which they often are) or not. Now, if these features don't impress you, there's one more aspect of Sak Yant application that's pretty friggin intense, and puts to shame my recent 4-hour calf tat session. Although some Sak Yant are completed in mere minutes, others are applied over a period of 24 hours, only breaking to allow time for the skin and muscles to relax after being mercilessly pulverized like the chicken fried steak at your local chain steakhouse. Phew, screw marathons, that takes serious endurance!
So, who are these maniacs gettin all Yanted up? Well, there are a few different camps of Sak Yantees: the devotees and disciples who have studied with the monk or master who applies their tat, and observe a number of abstentions prior to and following application; the gangsters and mercenaries who sometimes, but not always, abide by prescribed pre- and post-procedure abstentions and are primarily in it for the magic powers of protection and courage said to be obtained via the tats; and the lay people like Angelina Jolie and a slew of Muay Thai fighters who have heard legends about these mystical adornments and wish to personally test the verity of their power or simply obtain a genuine Thai tattoo. So, are the latter two groups still able to reap the benefits of their Sak Yants, despite their inability to fully understand the traditions behind the practice? There is much disagreement on this point, with some claiming that those who do not abide by the guidelines dictated by their practitioner will go insane as a consequence of taking lightly the ancient and esoteric practice. Others see Sak Yants as an amulet of sorts that can be worn by anyone who puts their faith in its power. In any case, most agree that a Sak Yant's effectiveness is positively guaranteed to sputter out if it is used for any evil deeds. This got me thinking: many gang tattoos are acquired as a result of having participated in criminal activities, thus serving as a message to society that the person is not to be messed with, while Sak Yant tattoos signify an individual who should not be messed with either, but because of their piety rather than criminality. These individuals are publicly recognized as being protected by spiritual forces, and thus don't need a history of violence to prevent themselves from being hassled.
Now, although Sak Yant tattoos are said to darken in appearance over time, their power is said to fade quite rapidly. Thus, many devotees return to their master for a new tattoo every year in order to renew the charms found therein. Others may return for additional rounds of inking in anticipation of a particularly perilous journey or undertaking to strengthen their already active spiritual defense system. Let's see, pocket knife, check, water jug, check, Sak Yant, checkkkkk.
So, if you happened to clickity-click on the above link to my original blog post, you'll know that my interpretation of mods as protection is quite different from that of Sak Yant bearers. I feel protected by my mods because they lend my appearance a roughness and thus earn me...as embarrassing as it is to say this...street cred of a sort. Obviously my mods can't protect me from every potential encounter with danger, but it's my belief that they definitely help. And maybe the real power of tats as protection lies in the belief -you know, in a placebo kinda way?
In any case, despite the difference in Western tats from Thai tats, I think Westerners can learn a thing or two from the Sak Yant tradition that may make our modding experiences, if not more powerful, perhaps more fulfilling. For example, the custom of reciting the mantra associated with one's Sak Yant can be applied to Western tattooing in that we might try focusing on the intent or subject of the tattoo being applied during its application. This may prolong the recipient's appreciation of the image itself because the meaning behind it has been reinforced, and also perhaps help with attainment of any goals associated with the tat such as devotion to an idea or cause or attaining closure after the death of a loved one. We tend to see tats as passive adornments, just chillin on our flesh waiting to be observed and admired, but perhaps we are failing to take advantage of the active ability of tattoos to enhance our daily lives. We are at such a loss for tradition and community-based activity here in the West that everything has become a floating signifier. This can be depressing to think about, but at the same time it's inspiring in a way. Tats and mods in general can be whatever we want them to be. We're unlimited in our options for designs as well as the significance we attach to them. So what's it gonna be? Protection? Confidence? Inspiration? It seems that modding in the West is a choose your own adventure of sorts. Makes the Sak Yant seem like a bit of a one trick pony - but hey, I'm sure no one in Thailand is complaining. Being able to deflect bullets is a really good party trick.