I already have two Thai-style tattoos and have been wanting a third for several years. I’ve held off because I wanted one from a monk, but I was hesitant to just go to anyone. In Thailand tattoos, or sak yan, received from monks have mystical powers, magic of sorts, and protect the bearer of the ink.
I told myself that this time in Thailand I would find an ajaan (a teacher) to do the tattoo, rather than at a tattoo shop, like I did the last two. At the end of the tattoo process, the ajaan blesses the tattoo, and the receiver becomes invulnerable to weapons and is protected in times of danger.
Golf, who is one of my friends here in Thailand, was heading home back to Burma for a month, so he asked what I wanted to do on his last day. I casually mentioned that I had been thinking of getting a tattoo. Last year, we had talked about tattoos so he took me to his ajaan so I could see his work. I almost got one with his ajaan, but at the last minute I decided I wasn’t ready. So this time, Golf was very enthusiastic about the prospect of me finding an ajaan and suggested we make a day of it.
Though Golf has lived in Bangkok for 3 years, he has never been on the river. We took the Chao Praya express up to Nonthaburi and he was definitely the happiest kid on the boat. Once there, it took us a while to figure out where the watt was, but we eventually made it there around noon. I was nervous that we had arrived too late and that there would be a line of devotees waiting to be tattooed. Ajaan Somchat looked up when I walked in, and though he was tattooing someone else, he directed me towards the collection of sak yan.
I flipped through the pages, assuming I had several hours to wait until it was my turn, when 5 minutes later, ajaan beckoned that it was my turn! I showed him 5 different designs that I really liked, though my heart really wanted a tiger. I didn’t want to choose though because the ajaan is supposed to pick a tattoo that suites you. And I had read that many ajaans don’t like to tattoo the tiger because it is such a powerful symbol. Some ajaans limit the amount of tigers they do to one per year.
Ajaan Somchat looked at the five designs, and without hesitation, pointed to the tiger and said that it suited me best. I smiled perhaps the biggest smile ever. His assistant went away to make a copy of the tiger and came back with a much, much larger version of it. Ajaan transferred the image to my back. I was nervous at the size, but then, I had come for his art and not my opinion. He asked if I liked it, and then I asked him if he thought it was right for me. He shook his head yes and then said “This is going to hurt. A lot. Are you sure you want it?” I said yes, and the tapping began.
I have four other tattoos, ranging from tiny to not so tiny, so I thought I knew what to expect pain-wise. I was incorrect. The hand-tapped tattoo is much more painful!! Also, perhaps since I’ve never been tattooed over my spine, I didn’t realize how uncomfortable that could be! My muscles twitched uncontrollably for the first few minutes until I could finally relax into the rhythm. It never became comfortable, but I was thankful Golf was there to at least distract.
Ajaan was fast and Golf told me the tattoo only took an hour and a half, though I swear it was closer to 3 hours!!! Towards the end, I could hardly wait for it to be over. Then Ajaan said he would like to give me another tattoo! Could he? As much as I wanted to say yes, I said that I would have to come back for that. I was barely able to breathe without audibly exhaling and I figured a second tattoo might just bring about whimpers!
He tattooed the eyes of the tiger last and then rubbed oil all over the tattoo and blew Pali and Sanskrit whisperings over my back. He tapped gold leaf onto the heart of the tiger and then had me turn around for a blessing. He loudly muttered and splashed me repeatedly with water. I probably wore a bucket’s worth of water by the end of it all.
I was a little shaky by the end; I think a combination of not having eaten breakfast, sweating in a very hot un-airconditioned room for 1 1/2 (or 3) hours, enduring a good amount of pain, and then receiving the blessing, culminated in a happy exhaustion.
I paid my respects to Buddha, bowing three times before skooching backwards away from ajaan. Golf and I walked out of the temple and smiled over the little adventure we had. I think I’m going to try to go back before I leave and see what tattoo ajaan had in store for me…