When Angelina Jolie unveiled her first Thai sacred tattoo (in Thai: Sak Yant: สักยันต์) – five rows of Buddhist blessings flowing behind her back, she created a trend and elevated Thailand’s international status in spiritual tattoos.
The tradition of the Sak Yant
Sak Yant is not part of the original Buddhist traditions.
As the influence of Buddhism spread throughout Asia and the world, local and pre-existing traditions and religions that were not in direct contradiction with Buddhism were integrated into local Buddhist style and teachings.
Sak Yant is derived from these ancestral traditions of Thai (and Asian) cultures within the framework of existing shamanic traditions.
In Thailand today, not all schools of Thai Buddhism integrate the ancient art of the Sak Yant mystical tradition.
Monks with an interest in magic and Talismans will learn the art from the outside and operate from a Sunnak (Sak Yant Room) at the Temple and to which they belong.
What is a Sak Yant tattoo?
In the past, cultures around the world have developed magical systems based on the four elements that they believe constituted the physical properties of the world.
They are earth, air, fire, and water.
The Indian tradition followed this belief and then influenced the Khmer empire.
As Buddhism made its way through Asia, a fifth element was added, the Buddha’s mind.
For hundreds of years, Thai and Khmer warriors were known and feared for the magical marks tattooed on their skin.
These marks were a mixture of psalms, Buddhist prayers, shamanism and witchcraft spells that had survived the religious transition from the pre-Buddhist and Hindu era and had been incorporated into the belief system of the new Buddhist countries.
Fifteen years ago, Ajarn Noo Kanpai quickly became a world celebrity after tattooing actress Angelina Jolie, contributing to the growth of tattoo tourism in Thailand.
In modern times, the Sak yants have evolved into a brand appreciated by mafias and gangsters, who use the protective blessings of tattoos to commit criminal acts.
“That’s why I designed the ha taew or five rows,” explains Ajarn Noo Kanpai, master of sak yant, referring to five rows of Buddhist scriptures (found in Angelina Jolie’s tattoo), beginning on the day Buddha was born and ending with his enlightenment.
“Ha taew is supposed to bring positive and balanced blessings into people’s lives.”
Meaning of the five rows tattoo, ha taew
Its meaning varies according to the master tattooist but generally includes:
- Row 1: Protection and purification of the home, keeps enemies away
- Row 2: Keeps away bad luck and bad karma
- Row 3: Protection against curse and black magic
- Row 4: Gives success, fortune, and opportunity
- Row 5: Attractiveness: Makes lines 3 and 4 attractive and solidifies them.
Ajarn Noo Kanpai’s career path
Noo entered art in his fourth year, browsing the pages of his grandfather’s white magic books.
As a teenager, Noo practiced ancient Khmer spells and used these Buddhist spells and songs in conjunction with weapons to lead a gang.
After being stabbed several times in a clash with a rival gang, Noo traded his life in a gang for a life as a Buddhist monk, climbing the ladder in a temple in Nonthaburi province.
When asked to become the temple’s superior, or “master,” Noo refused because he wanted to continue practicing Sak yant.
After spending years training himself under the guidance of monks in temples throughout Thailand, Noo created his tattoo institute “Samnak,” a two-storey sanctuary located 20 kilometers from Bangkok (link to the address of the center given at the end of the article).
“What you see today of my Sakyant art comes from my ideas and conceptions that I have adapted and created,” he says.
“They are my way of sharing my thoughts, beliefs, and values with the world through my art.”
A few “disciples” won Noo’s trust and trained for ten years with the master to perfect the Sakyant according to the traditional bamboo method, piercing the skin with a sharp stick soaked in ink.
But the only students to whom he taught sacred mantras, or incantations, for a “real” Sak yant are his sons, Ajarn Joe and Ajarn Jay.
“In the past, I used to teach anyone who came to me for help, but I no longer teach anyone how to make sak yants,” says Noo.
“There are many people who can do the tattoo, but they don’t know the mantras required for blessings.”
Angelina Jolie, who now boasts three of Noo’s creations (including the “King of Tigers”), and models like Cara Delevingne have helped to expose sak yant worldwide, but it was the tattoo master who popularized a particular type of sak yant, the ha taew, which is the most widespread form in ink.
Sak yant of Angelina Jolie
“Nowadays, when people think of sak yant, they see it for its positive meaning and spiritual blessings,” he says.
“I think that’s the most important impact I’ve had on Sakyant: changing his negative perception, opening him up to everyone and spreading positivity around the world.”
Report on Ajarn Noo Kanpai’s sacred tattoos
In Thai with English subtitles.