For centuries, Thai men have covered their bodies with protective tattoos. Old temple murals show epic scenes of swords breaking apart when hitting a tattooed soldier’s skin. The tradition was handed down by generations of both monks and laymen who create the tattoos and empower them with special prayers.
Dating from the Angkorian period (1590th to 1605th centuries), the spiritual tradition of the Yantra or the Sak Yant tattoo (sak means to mark, and yant is a derivative of the word yantra, referring to a geometric design of square shape) was practiced throughout all of South East Asia and in particular Cambodia, Burma, Laos and Thailand. The earliest historical evidence of Sak yant in Thailand dates back to the reign of King Naresuan Maharaj (who reigned 1590 to 1605). This was a period when the kingdom of Ayuthaya was engaged in a long struggle with the Burmese. Warriors who wore Yantra tattoos and also wore sua yant (Shirts covered with talismanic yantra patterns) tended to repel blows.
Since yantras can be drawn on cloth, paper, wood or sheets of metal, most Thais opt for this option to protect themselves from harm and improve their fortunes. The yantras are placed in cars and homes, or even worn as amulets. In Thai society, tattoos are still very much associated with the lower echelons of society and the criminal underworld. Young men wishing to join the police or army are refused if they have tattoos; once accepted though, they can get tattoos done.
Nonetheless, yantra tattoos are engrained in everyday Thai life and spirituality; they are thought of as a physical connection with powerful spirits. In a culture that is still deeply rooted in superstition, a renewed interest in the practice is attracting men and women alike. Yantra tattoos are going more mainstream, along the lines of western tattooing.
Yantra tattoos use scripts based on an ancient Khmer language known as Khom and Pali (the language used in Theravada Buddhist scripture). The tattoos are a testament to the complex spiritual makeup of Thailand, blending elements of Hindu, Buddhist, Brahmin and animist traditions, depicting mythical creatures as well as characters from the Ramakien (Thailand’s version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana).
The designs of the yantras are created to impart protective powers. Thais believe they can protect them from weapons and accidents, ghosts, demons and evil spirits, they can produce love, charm and attraction, help them become more popular, improve their speech, (rumor has it that many politicians use this form of yantras) others think they provide protection against disease and bad luck.
Masters separate yantra tattoos into categories; Kong Grapan (invincibility), Klaew Klaad (Evasion), Choke Laap (good fortune), Maha Sanaeh (attraction and charm), Metta Maha Niyom, (likeability), Maha Amnaj (power over others). The list of yantras and their specific uses is almost endless, from keeping a baby safe in the crib, to making a happily married couple separate as well as helping farmers with their crops, and aiding elephant herders tame the animals.
The list of yantras and their specific uses is endless, from keeping a newborn baby safe in its cradle, making a separated couple a happy married couple, as well as helping farmers with their crops, and assisting elephant keepers with domesticating. animals.
Bangkok, today is a city where the unspoken is all too obvious. Stories remain untold, and dilemmas unsolved. There are a lot of loose ends here, old ideas clash with new ones, mostly behind closed doors. Yet the city invites expression, lends itself as a stage, on rooftops, on abandoned land, in the streets… Thai choreographer Jitti Chompee and French-British artist Cedric Arnold collaborated to capture what ultimately can only, for now, be an urban legend not yet told… Using unfinished white masks, usually heavily decorated for classic Khon dance performances as well as blending classic Khon inspired hand gestures with contemporary dance in Bangkok’s urban theatre, Jitti and Cedric initiated a conversation, and ultimately, a clash of ideas between generations that can not yet be fully recounted.