Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees For centuries, Thai soldiers have covered their bodies in protective tattoos called Sak Yant. Today, people from around the globe are flocking to master artists to be inked with designs that some believe can protect them from bullets and rid them of vices.
NPR logo

Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16235581/16258041" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees

Thai Tattoo Tradition Draws Worldwide Devotees

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/16235581/16258041" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Okay, one more Web-related thing here. And this is about the next story that we're about to do. Go to npr.org to see these tattoo pictures that. We've just been looking at them here in the studio. They're from Thailand. So enter this in the search line: Thai tattoos. That's at npr.org. Some Thais believe the inked images have magical powers. For centuries, Thai soldiers have covered their bodies in protective tattoos called Sak Yant. And the tradition now is booming.

Scott Carney reports from Bangkok, Thailand.

(Soundbite of gong)

SCOTT CARNEY: The Wat Bang Phra temple has seen better days. Its sprawling campus has about a dozen buildings and a hundred monks. The grounds are in disrepair, dirty and covered in litter. Gongs outside the main temple are lonely and rarely used.

Despite its shabby appearance, the temple is a major attraction for pilgrims who come here for sacred protection tattoos. Men mill around in the courtyard talking about how best to use the canvas of their skin. They're covered head to toe with intricate tattoos. The elaborate geometric patterns and Buddhist prayers cover the back of one soldier. He's on his way to join an anti-terrorist squad in the south of Thailand.

Mr. CHAKKRAPAD ROMKAEW: (Through Translator) There are so many dangers waiting down there. Before I got a tattoo, I never wanted to be a soldier. But when they got into my skin, my desire to be a soldier got stronger.

CARNEY: Tattoo master Ajarn Sua sharpens his needle. Most Sak Yant tattoos are hand-drawn by monks and artists. The tools of the trade are a two-foot-long iron needle and a dollop of ink. Often, the tattoo is not much more than a series of dots from where each strike of the needle passes through the skin. After it's done, the monk rubs ink into the wound and says a prayer to empower the charm that's hidden inside the tattoo.

(Soundbite of chanting)

CARNEY: There are hundreds of traditional designs that can take any or between 15 minutes and three hours to apply. Most revolve around animal figures. One of the most powerful is a tiger that spans the whole of a person's lower back.

Mr. SUNTOTN PRAPAGAROE (Monk): (Through translator) If a person has a tiger spirit, he will act like a tiger. He cannot control himself. The spirit controls him. He will spread his hands like this and roar.

CARNEY: Sak Yant tattoos aren't only popular among local Thais. The designs are increasingly finding their way onto the backs of Westerners who travel through Thailand.

Mr. PAUL DAVIES (Internet Entrepreneur): (Unintelligible) a thousand times.

CARNEY: That's Paul Davies, an Internet entrepreneur from Britain who was in queue for tattoo at the Wat Bang Phra temple when I arrived.

Mr. DAVIES: If you get one here, I think it's got a bit more meaning behind it, more history. It's got that little bit more special. I mean, I think the designs are really nice, which is, as I say, primarily why I'm going to get one done.

CARNEY: Not all Sak Yant masters rely on traditional methods.

(Soundbite of electric tattoo needle)

CARNEY: The master Sua says that the number of people coming to him for tattoos has pushed him into adopting the modern electric tattoo needle in order to keep up with demand.

The popularity of Sak Yant tattoos took off in 2004, when Angelina Jolie flew to Bangkok to meet with the venerated tattoo master Ajarn Noo Kanphai, who placed a large tiger on her lower back and a string of Thai script on her left shoulder.

Master Noo's studio is a sharp contrast with the Wat Bang Phra temple. His is a tattoo parlor to the stars. Photos of high rolling Thai celebrities and American CEOs line the walls. I sit in his studio for an hour for an audience before he finally agrees to meet with me. He says the tattoos are a source of strength.

Mr. AJARN NOO KANPHAI (Tattoo Master): (Through Translator) Many people have come to me with drug problems, but after I give them a tattoo, their problems go away. A tattoo can really change your life.

CARNEY: The tattoos, he says, can give a person courage to face the difficulties of their life. It can multiply wealth and protect them from harm. I must look skeptical because he stops mid-sentence and looks at me deeply in the eyes. He says that he can prove it. He asked me to roll up a leg of my pants and takes out a standard issue box cutter. Before I know what's happening, he shaves off an eight-inch-long patch of hair.

(Soundbite of shaving)

CARNEY: That's just to prove how sharp the blade is. And then he turns to my arm, where I have an old tattoo.

(Soundbite of blowing)

CARNEY: He blows on it. He runs the blade over my arm five times, making small cat scratch-like marks across my skin. I'm stunned. But he sits back with a smile. See, he says, that tattoo protected you from the blade.

(Soundbite of gong)

CARNEY: For NPR News. I'm Scott Carney.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Don't forget, tattoo gallery at our Web site npr.org. When you get there type Thai tattoos into the search bar.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.