When Angelina Jolie showed off her first Thai tattoo 15 years ago—five lines of Buddhist blessings running down her back—she raised the country's international status for spiritual tattoos. The artist, Ajarn Noo Kanpai, quickly rose to celebrity status, driving the growth of tattoo tourism to Thailand.
For thousands of years, Thai culture has cherished the spiritual powers of sak yants, mystical tattoos inked by Buddhist monks and masters of magic. Thailand’s warrior king, Naresuan the Great, ruled Siam until 1605 and was rumored to wage wars and declare freedom to the kingdom of Ayutthaya thanks to one source of protection: sak yants.
Originating in Southeast Asia, sak yants (derived from the word yantra, meaning Buddhist psalms and sacred scriptures weaved into geometric designs) were once a way to shield warriors marching into battle, making them invincible against arrows. In modern times, sak yants have morphed into markers of mafia and gangsters, who use the tattoos’ protective blessings to perform acts of crime. “This is why I designed the ha taew, or five rows,” explains sak yant master, Ajarn Noo Kanpai, referring to five rows of Buddhist scripture (found in Jolie’s tattoo), starting the day Buddha was born and ending with his enlightenment. “Ha taew is meant to bring positive and balanced blessings into people's lives.”
Noo got into the artform when he was in fourth grade, pouring over the pages of his grandfather’s white magic books. By the time he was a teenager, Noo was practicing ancient Khmer spells, and he used these scripts and Buddhist chants in conjunction with weapons as a leader in a gang. After multiple stabbings during a run-in with a rival gang (in which he’s said to leave sans scars), Noo traded in gang life for monkhood, rising the ranks at a temple in the Nonthaburi Province. When asked to become head of the temple, or “master,” Noo declined because he wanted to continue pursuing sak yant. “Even though I was really young at the time, I already knew sak yant was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.
Spending years training under monks in temples across Thailand on a self-prescribed pilgrimage, Noo later started his own tattoo samnak, or institute, a two-story shrine sitting 20 miles outside Bangkok. “What you see nowadays from my sak yant art comes from my own ideas and designs that I adapted and created,” he says. “They are my way of sharing my thoughts, beliefs, and values to the world through my art.”
A few “disciples” earned Noo’s trust, and they trained for 10 years under the master to perfect sak yant in traditional bamboo method, piercing skin with a sharpened stick dipped in ink. But the only students he taught the sacred mantras, or incantations, for a “real” sak yant are his sons, Ajarn Joe and Ajarn Jay. “In the past, I would teach anyone who came to me asking for help, but I don't teach anyone how to do sak yants anymore,” Noo says. “There are a lot of people who can do the tattooing, but they don't know the mantras required for the blessings.”
Devotee Angelina Jolie, who now sports three of Noo’s designs (including the foot-long “King of Tigers”), and supermodels like Cara Delevingne helped expose sak yant on a global scale, but it was the tattoo master who popularized a particular type of sak yant—ha taew—that is now the most common form on ink. “Nowadays, when people think about sak yant, they see it for its positive meaning and spiritual blessings,” he says. “I believe that is my biggest impact to sak yant—changing its negative perception, opening up sak yant to all people, and spreading positivity to the world.”