Wearing their luck on their ink sleeves with Thai traditional tattoos

Ajarn Neng, a spiritual sak yant tattoo master in Bangkok, tattoos five lines of Khmer script on one of his clients, meant to grant her protection from bad luck.
(Jonathan Kaiman / Los Angeles Times)

Atjima Khunnok has so many tattoos that she has to count them on her fingers: deities, sacred peaks, parallel rows of ancient Khmer script unfurling across her arms and back. “Nine or 10,” she says, done counting.

Most are barely visible; she has them done in oil, not ink. But the 29-year-old jewelry saleswoman says she can also feel their presence. They grant her strength, luck and charisma, she says. When she’s about to make a major sale, she feels them tingle.

“It makes a difference,” Atjima says. “When business is bad, I come to Arjan Neng.”


Easing financial woes is one of Neng’s specialties. On a Monday morning in late May, the balding, quiet tattoo master sat cross-legged on a raised platform in his musty Bangkok studio, framed by inkwells, cigarette packs and bottles of rubbing alcohol.

After lighting incense and praying toward a cluster of golden Buddhist and Hindu statues, Atjima sat quietly in front of Neng, her knees up to her chin. For the next 10 minutes, Neng prodded her right arm with a blade-tipped bamboo rod, dashing out swirling lines of script, pixel by searing pixel.

Spiritual, or sak yant tattoos, originated in India more than two millenniums ago. During the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351 to 1767) of Siam, in what is now Thailand, they were emblazoned on battle-bound warriors to protect them from swords and arrows.

But for Neng, 39, who is covered with blue sak yant tattoos from neck to waist, tattooing is more than a traditional art; it’s a window onto current affairs. Business has been booming since the Thai military took power in a coup in May 2014, ending months of street protests but creating an air of uncertainty accompanied by a long stretch of economic stagnation.

“The political instability has made sacred tattoos a lot more popular,” Neng said, his voice calm and mellifluous. “It’s because political instability results in economic hardship. And when the economy goes down, people seek help. And they turn to the sacred world.”

Neng sometimes sees dozens of customers a day. (Most find him on Facebook). Although the junta has clamped down on criticism in the Thai press, bad news is expressed on his clients’ faces and he hears it in their stories.

“It’s not like I’m making this connection up; it comes from my devotees. They turn up, and tell me about their problems. They can’t make money, not as much as they used to make. Their businesses are turning sour. I hear this every day.”

Neng typically recommends tattoos based on ancient Buddhist, Hindu and animist codes. Hanuman, the fierce-looking Hindu monkey god, is believed to bestow courage; Sarika, a talking bird, eloquence. He charges $50 to $150, depending on their size.

Phra Thepwisutthikawi, deputy president of Mahamakut Buddhist University, said that sak yant tattoos were for centuries a sign of dangerous professions: soldiers, gangsters, Muay Thai fighters, soldiers, police. (Some devotees, as legend has it, genuinely thought tattoos would make them bulletproof.) Women almost never wore them, he said.

In 2003, Angelina Jolie returned to the United States from a trip to Thailand bearing a five-row sak yant tattoo on her left shoulder blade. Almost immediately, the tattoo style exploded in popularity among both foreign tourists and affluent young Thais of both genders.

“There’s a degree of emancipation involved,” Phra said. “It’s a trend: Thai women have become emancipated, more like Western women.”

Neng says sak yant tattoos are effective only if the bearer obeys a strict behavioral code. Rules include basic moral precepts (don’t disrespect your parents, don’t commit infidelity) and superstitions (don’t eat reptile meat, don’t walk under clotheslines).

His clients are diverse: Chatchawan Wettana, 34, a chef at a local Italian restaurant called Fat ‘R Gut’z, wanted a tattoo that he thought would make him more attractive. Mitch Senkowicz, 22, a tall, rakish graduate of the University of Florida, wanted a souvenir from Thailand before returning to the U.S. for business school.

“Since I’ve been traveling around, I’ve learned a great appreciation for the Buddhist religion — or, it’s more of a lifestyle right?” Senkowicz said. “When I get home, I’m gonna read all about it.”

Neng grew up in a devout Buddhist household on the outskirts of Bangkok, but didn’t begin thinking seriously about spirituality until he’d had three close brushes with death. The first two were early childhood medical emergencies. The third was a suicide attempt.

Neng was 25 and making good money as an interior designer. But he often found himself thinking dark thoughts. “At the end of this life, death is inevitable,” he said. “People are born, they grow up, they suffer, get old, and die. At 25, I didn’t want to be old. So I decided to die.”

He swallowed 62 sleeping pills and four tablets of roach poison; his father found him unconscious the next morning and took him to the hospital, where he had his stomach pumped.

When he opened his eyes in the hospital, the first thing he saw was his mother’s face. She had been reciting mantras to save him, he said.

Neng said he decided to imbue his life with meaning. He secured an apprenticeship under an established sak yant master and spent long days memorizing ancient Khmer script and repeating mantras himself.

“I was like a madman, full of mantra all the time,” he said. He closed his design business and eventually opened a tattoo studio of his own.

As Neng spoke, Girayuth Nokdam, a blind 19-year-old, waited patiently in the corner for his turn. He already had two tattoos, one of Hanuman representing courage, the other of a Satkona yantra, a hexagram representing an ideal meditative state.

He said he sought spiritual protection two years ago, after four glue-sniffing thugs beat him up in an alley.

“I had two options,” Girayuth said. “One was getting a sacred tattoo. The other was learning martial arts. But my school discouraged me from martial arts. So I chose the tattoo.”

One day recently, he felt heat emanating from a tattoo on his back and decided to be extra cautious. Later, as he prepared to cross the street, a car hurtled toward him; but he stopped just in time, and it hit only his cane.

The cane clattered to the ground as he stood there, Girayuth said, startled but unhurt, and grateful.