Travel

Photos from Inside Thailand's 'Magic' Tattoo Festival

At a Buddhist ceremony called Wai Kru, thousands of people line up for tattoos that give them superpowers.
March 14, 2018, 7:30am
All photos by the author

In Thailand, thousands of people wait for the one day in the year to get the most powerful tattoo. The most famous place in Thailand to get traditional sak yant, or hand-etched tattoos of ancient geometric shapes and Buddhist prayers, is at Wang Bang Phra in Nakhon Pathom, which is about 80 kilometers west of Bangkok. There, people wait for hours to get their tattoos or to recharge the power of the ones they already have—it’s believed that they lose their potency over time—in a ceremony called Wai Kru. This year, Wai Kru fell on March 3.

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Wai Kru involves blessings from monks and rituals to pay respects to the spirit of Luang Pho Poen, a 20th century Thai Buddhist monk known for his mastery of sak yant. During the ceremony, devotees who bear sak yant often go into violent trances in which they take on the characteristics of the tattoo they have, causing them to curl their fingers like tigers or mimic the movements of the Hindu god Hanuman.

Sak yant tattoos are thought to protect the bearer from any threat, both physical and metaphysical, and provide luck and good fortune. It’s a link to the spiritual world and a pragmatic safeguard. Some people believe that the tattoos make them immune to stabbing, gunshots, animal attacks, and other kinds of danger.

Getting the tattoo from an ajarn, or master, in a temple involves more than just bearing the pain having a one-meter metal rod piercing through your skin. There are rules such as refraining from drinking and other vices that you must follow to ensure that the sacred marking works as intended. Different sak yant tattoos, that include ancient Khmer script and mythological creatures, are positioned on specific parts of the body depending on the design. After the ajarn is finished, he blows a mantra upon the fresh tattoo to give it its power.

After this year’s Wai Kru ended, devotees continued to line up to have sak yant made, with offerings of flowers, incense, and cigarettes for the ajarn. The temple was quiet and filled with a subdued anticipation as people waited to have their turn with the ajarn that day. Despite numerous “no smoking” signs, many people had a cigarette in hand to kill time.

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It was the fourth Wai Kru in a row for Dta, a 28-year-old man from Bangkok. “I have two sak yant tattoos, making them today is important because every year there is one day to make sak yant that are very powerful."