A look at “Thai Magic Tattoos” / Photos and review

Among the several books reviewed by the Sun‘s Andrea Miller in our September magazine is Thai Magic Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant. Here’s Andrea’s review, interspersed with a selection of the photos found inside the book.

A form of tattooing practiced in Southeast Asia, Sak Yant is rooted in a combination of Theravada Buddhism, Brahmanism, and animism.


While the master engraves the skin, the devotee goes into a trance or in a state of deep meditation.

The Sak Yant masters—frequently Buddhist monks—are seen as spiritual mediums who imbue the tattoos they create with magical spells for prosperity, protection, and happiness.


Arms and legs fully tattooed by Ajran Noo Kanphai.

Popular images include real and mythical animals from the Hindu pantheon or their symbols, such as Shiva’s trident. The principle inspiration for Sak Yant, however, is Buddhist iconography and the most prized image is that of the Buddha.


Depending on the tattoo's size and location, the monk uses a short or a long spike.

Thai Magic Tattoos gives a brief history of tattoos in general and Sak Yant in particular. It profiles various Sak Yant masters, outlines the ritualized process of Sak Yant tattooing sessions, and attempts to explain why these sacred tattoos inspire such passion. The text is lavishly illustrated with photography by Rene Drouyer.



All photos from:
Thai Magic Tattoos: The Art and Influence of Sak Yant
by Isabel Azevedo Drouyer.
144 pages, 280 x 215 mm, Hardback; $29.95
Via River Books
and ACC Distribution.

See more of Andrea Miller’s latest book briefs inside the September 2013 Shambhala Sun.


  1. Joshua Jayintoh
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    Greetings to all,

    This topic is of closeness to me, as I have a back full of sak yant given to me by monk-teachers from the Wat Bang Phra tradition. My comment here is not to cause discord, but to comment on the subject for greater awareness. I feel that it is a subject that very few take the time and diligence to really dive into and understand it enough that they can coherently discuss the 'ins-and-outs' of it.

    Sak yant at this level is not my forte. I take time to write due to my experience while living in Thailand, not just as a fully ordained Buddhist monk but from my degree of proficiency in the Thai language. Should this sound preachy, it is not my intention and at the same time I invite an understanding that this comment comes from many years of dealing with and being influenced in and with this subject. These are only my reflections, and limited as such.

  2. Joshua Jayintoh
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    First, I am respectfully wondering where Isabel Azevedo Drouyer and Andrea Miller receive their information? This subject, art-form, and the understanding of it can only really come from someone who has taken the time to learn the Thai language and dialects, study Theravadan scripture very seriously under proficient teachers, understand the Khmer script and Pali language, as well as have a proficient meditation practice (particularly with mantra incantation recitation, and kasinas), and have received permission and transmission from qualified teachers to discuss the subject with clarity and proficiency so as to not leading people astray.

    Secondly, this is 'magick'. That is a loose word that I don't believe fully expresses the point, as that word has western connotations and culture. To say that it is 'Buddhist Magick' is not a whole truth. For one, we know that Lord Buddha did not teach people how to be magicians nor supported tattooing. No tattooing also because at that time, the only people with tattoos were the outlaws and bandits. Although many miraculous events took place around the Gautama Buddha and with enlightened arahants, I do not think it is correct to term them ‘magical’. Many miracles can take place even when someone enters the first jhana. Point being, from a scriptural and practical standpoint, Lord Buddha did not teach magick. He taught Dharma, how to understand reality, purify the mind, and be-rid oneself of kilesa (klesha). 'Buddhist Magick' as it were, runs the practitioner the danger of falling off the path of Dharma because it can instill a belief that they have been graced, bestowed, or developed some magic power. Some think they unlock a secret essence. If the mind is impure and still controlled by kilesa (kleshas) then the practitioner runs the risk of misusing their so-called ‘powers’. On the other hand, they can get so caught up in the aesthetics of it all that they forget about the impermanence of the body and its beauty. Thus, sak yant can be considered dangerous. Not just physically dangerous (there is an increasing rate of HIV due to poor sanitation methods with the tattooing needles), but spiritually dangerous. It can even lead someone away from Dharma.

  3. Joshua Jayintoh
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Let me give you an example. Ajarn Noo, who is mentioned in this article and famed for tattooing Angelina Jolie and other famous stars, has become a huge star in the sak yant world. I have seen him perform a specific sword cutting ceremony supposed to help rid his disciple of previous negative karma (a whole ‘nother subject in and of itself) and the disciple did not bleed. Logically, that is not possible. It is part of the ‘magick’. The skin is said to become ‘neow” เหนียว. It becomes impenetrable by knife or bullet. So Ajarn Noo has skill in this. But at what price? I remember going to Ajarn Noo’s samnak (office) and a gao-yord tattoo, the primary and first tattoo that most disciples receive, was 40,000 baht! At Wat Bang Phra, it was customary to give a 20 baht donation!!! I said, no thanks. And then they tried to bargain with me at the samnak. The reason why I went to Wat Bang Phra and not Ajarn Noo was because when I was first doing research and talking to people about where to go to receive a sak yant tattoo, I was told over and over again that Ajarn Noo was black magic, where Wat Bang Phra was not. Now, today, if one really does their research and is a practitioner of meditation to purify their mind and karmic activity, they can see how in the end, both are black magic. 

    Thirdly, the power of these sak yant have a root in one’s sila, moral disciplines and self-control. Without them, the ‘magick’ will not work. recently Ajarn Noo went to Singapore for tattoo business work, and ends up in the hospital. It turns out he was having sexual relations with the wife of one of his disciples and the disciple stabs him with a knife! The fact that Ajarn Noo would do that and that his skin became penetrable means that is completely out of integrity, especially to be given the title Ajarn (Thai for “Acharya”). Power corrupts. 

  4. Joshua Jayintoh
    Posted September 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    There are only two people I know truly qualified to discuss this subject. One is Yogi Somananda and it is doubtful that you will neither find him nor get him to discuss the subject openly and publicly. The other is Ajarn Spencer LIttlewood ( https://www.facebook.com/AjarnSpencer ) who is the head of http://www.sakyant.org. Both men I know personally. 

    So, by all this, what I mean to say is that I think it is important to know the ‘ins-and-outs' of a subject such as sak yant. Especially before it goes into a magazine or affiliated website that is uber-famous in the American Buddhist world, not to mention world at large, and influences others on how to behave with and develop habits of enlightenment. 

    In service and Dharma, 

Joshua Jayintoh

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