In Thailand, tattoos are considered to be more than just skin ink, they are an emblem for spirituality, luck, strength, and protection. Living proof of this can be found at the annual Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra held in March. Every year thousands of believers commune at the Wat Bang Phra temple to get inked with fresh sacred Sak Yant tattoos or recharge the magic of the ones they have. The tattoos are etched into the skin using traditional metal or bamboo rods with needles at the end.
History of the festival
In today’s age, the sacred Sak Yant tattoos were made famous by a Buddhist monk, Luang Pho Poen. He was a famous meditation monk well known for his powerful incantations and his great knowledge of the bodies of Buddhist canons, but mostly, he was known for his mastery of protective Thai tattoos, the sacred Sak Yant tattoos. Ordained as a monk at Wat Bang Phra monastery at only 25 years of age, Luang Pho Poen studied and learned the protective Sak Yant tattoos from the great master Luang Pu Him Inthasoto. When Luang Pu Him Inthasato died, Luang Pho Poen took up the sacred art of Sak Yant tattoos, although, in his lifetime, he never got any tattoos himself.
In 1953, while on a quest for renunciation, solitude, and meditation in the forests of a remote area of Kanchanaburi Province along Myanmar-Thailand border. It came to light that villagers in the area were being attacked and killed by wild tigers. When Luang Pho Poen learned of this, he offered the villagers protective incantations and Sak Yant tattoos. From then onwards, no one who received the protective Sak Yant tattoos was ever attacked by tigers or any other wild animals. This earned Luang Pho Poen a powerful reputation as the master of protective Sak Yant tattoos and incantations.
When Luang Pho Poen returned to Wat Bang Phra monastery, he was made abbot and many believers traveled from everywhere so that they could be blessed with his powerful Sak Yant tattoos. Luang Pho Poen died in 2002 at 79 years. Today Wat Bang Phra monastery is still famous for Sak Yant tattoos. Lots of people still travel there to get the protective tattoos from the resident monks, many of whom were trained by Luang Pho Poen himself. The monks carry out daily tattooing but once a year every first weekend of March a festival is held to; recharge the magic of the Sak Yant tattoos, to give fresh tattoos, and also celebrate and pay respect to the spirit of Luang Pho Poen.
Location of the festival
The festival takes place at Wat Bang Phra temple grounds in Nakhon Chaisi district of Nakhon Pathom province about 50 km west of Bangkok, Thailand.
The tattoos offered at the Wat Bang Phra temple consist of a variety of designs in different sizes including wild animals, incantations, and Buddhist prayers in the Thai language. A very large banner of tattoo options can be seen on the wall upon entering the Wat Bang Phra temple. Many of the tattoos etched on believers are got from the options on the banner but special requests can be made.
The tattoos are applied using a special ink made from palm oil, Chinese charcoal ink, and snake venom. However, with tattoos applied to women, transparent ink is often used and the monks wear gloves as it is not allowed for them to touch the female body bare-handed.
Thai people believe that tattoos protect them from evil spirits and offer them luck in their daily lives. There is also a belief that the tattoos can protect one from bullets – this is one of the major reasons why members of the Thai army, police and underground criminals get them.
Tattoos are applied by a group Ajarns (tattoo masters) and monks on the eve of the festival. They usually work through the night such that everyone in need of a fresh tattoo gets one. The power of the tattoos decreases overtime hence the need to recharge their magic annually at the festival through the prayers made by the monks.
Proceedings before being tattooed
If you wish to be tattooed, you have to buy flowers and incense as an offering to Buddha. You are also required to bring along a separate offering for the monks, it could be a pack of cigarettes, among other things.
On entering one of the parlors where tattoos are being applied, you have to remove your shoes and sit down in a line and wait your turn to be blessed by the master monk.
Once your offering is accepted, you can then join a group of believers waiting to be tattooed. The tattoos are done in groups of about 18 to 20 people.
While in line waiting for your turn, you can help the Ajarn to hold the person being tattooed in a steady position.
Details of the Tattoo application procedure
The Ajarn uses a single long thin needle about 18 inches long and four millimeters wide to etch the skin of a believer with a Sak Yant tattoo. The tip of the needle is split into two points so that each stab of the needle produces two dots of ink in the skin of the believer.
The Ajarn makes a selection from the various rubber templates that have the believer’s design of choice. He applies ink to the template and then presses it on the believer’s body, either the hands, back, neck, or chest. He then dips the needle into a mixture of palm oil, Chinese charcoal ink, and in some cases snake venom – for women transparent ink.
After that, he starts to trace the tattoo pattern on the skin. He dips the needle into the ink every 30 seconds. It takes him about 3000 strikes to finish a single piece of the tattoo. After finishing the tattoo, the Ajarn blesses the tattoo then blows a special prayer on it to empower it.
Proceedings of the Festival day
People start arriving at Wat Bang Phra temple at around 7 am in the morning. The festival attracts people from all walks of life from Thailand and around the world. From lawyers, teachers, doctors to criminals, vendors, students, travel enthusiasts, among others.
The festival begins with the monks standing in front of the temple before a crowd of over 10, 000 people sitting cross-legged in the temple grounds. The monks sing incantations and prayers to activate the power of the tattoos and also to recharge them.
During the prayers, some people get possessed by the spirit of the animal tattooed on their bodies. They get into a trance and start mimicking the animal motif tattooed on them while wailing. Those with crocodiles and snakes crawl on the ground. Those with tigers make claw-like gestures. And those with the monkey jump up and down while making funny noises.
Eventually, they make a mad dash for the shrine, jumping over other people crazily, but the front of the shrine is usually surrounded by security who grab them and calm them down by rubbing their ears to bring them out of the trance.
End of the festival
The festival ends with the monks spraying holy water on the believers. Now, this part is very chaotic since everyone tries to move to the front for the holy water to touch them. Some people hold bottles in the air to scoop some of the water.
After this, participants and believers disperse – heading back to their homes or respective hotels.
In conclusion, the Tattoo Festival at Wat Bang Phra is unique, an experience out of this world that should be on any traveler’s bucket list. If you are looking to embark on a spiritual journey, find your way to Thailand on the first weekend of March.