There have been a number of posts on this blog devoted to Sak Yant, sacred tattoos, performed by monks in Thailand. The yantras, mystical diagrams, on skin are not only beautiful, but for many, the tattoos bestow upon the wearer super-human powers.
Exploring Sak Yant from its origins to today is "Sacred Skin: Thailand's Spirit Tattoos" by Tom Vater and Aroon Thaewehatturat.
The book begins with an up-close look into the Wai Khru ceremony at the Wat Bang Phra Buddhist temple: "Uaaahh! The man is running straight at me, his face contorted into a thousand agonies. His bare, heavily tattooed chest gleams with sweat. He screams at the sky, he vomits anger, but he's rushing directly ahead." The frenzied text, like the tattooed man, soon calms and the reader is then led into the studio of Achan Thoy (pictured below), "a highly respected Dabot Ruesi, a hermit sage of Hindu origin, known as a Rishi or Yogi in India, a man with the power to apply sacred and magic tattoos to a devotee's skin." The scene painted in that studio is indeed magic, with incantations, katas, and of course blood. It is not a mere tattoo appointment. It is a ritual.
Tracing the roots of the ritual, the first chapter of Sacred Skin goes back thousands of years in describing Sak Yant designs and the beliefs behind them, particularly beliefs that the tattoos protect wearers against physical attack and further their strength -- beliefs that are still commonly held today. According to the book, it's because of this that many Thai people "disapprove of the sacred tattoos, ridiculing them as superstition and branding Sak Yant as part of the perceived backwardness of Thailand's rural population." Moreover, like in so many other parts of the world, the tattoos are heavily associated with Thailand's criminal underground.
Yet, as the authors explain, there are many layers to these spiritual tattoos. Most importantly, the monks who create them see Sak Yant as "silent and powerful reminders of a righteous path that all of us, whether we wear yant or not, should aspire to follow."
Chapter II on these tattoo masters and their devotees is especially compelling. A portrait of each is presented along with a short handwritten note by that person discussing the art.
Chapter III offers close-ups of traditional tattoo designs and their meanings; for example, this elephant below, Yant Chang, symbolizes strength.
Sacred Skin then comes full circle in Chapter IV, with even more intense photography from the Wai Khru celebration. The book itself is almost a seamless journey into Thai tattoo culture. I highly recommend it.
I also suggest checking out the Bangkok Post's review and CNN's interview with the authors. The CNN interview also briefly discusses Thailand's Ministry of Culture cracking down on religious tattoos (which we wrote about in June).
Sacred Skin can be purchased on Amazon for $24 (originally $33). And for a peak inside, click SacredSkinThailand.com.
At the Buddhist temple in Wat Bang Phra, about 30 miles (50km) west of Bangkok, Thailand, devotees (and spectators) gather every year to receive Sak Yant -- tattoos believed to imbue the wearers with magical powers -- at the Wai Khru ceremony.
Wai Khru translates as Honor the Teacher, and that teacher revered has been the abbot of Wat Bang Phra. In her Globe & Mail article, Jennifer Gampell explains:
These "superhuman" tattoos are featured in a CNN video of this year's festival.
Best illustrating the festival are the stunning photos of Gavin Gough, including the one shown above of an enraptured devotee. Gavin's images move from the intimacy of the monk's needle penetrating skin to the writhing crowds outside the temple. A descriptive introduction and captions offer further context.
I encourage you to explore more of Gavin's work online. [You can also find his photography in Vanity Fair, Nat Geo, The NY Times, among so many other publications. His stock photography has also graced postage stamps and billboards.]
For budding and seasoned photographers seeking to capture Thailand on their own with some guidance, check Gavin's Bangkok Photo School and private workshops.
I'll be checking in on Gavin's blog for more beautiful images of body art and beyond.
[Thanks to Brayden for directing me to the Wai Khru photos.]