Why Sak Yant Tattoos are not Free
Clearing up Travel Bloggers and Expats misinformation online
One of the most unfortunate myths around blog-posts from western tourists and even some Expats is that Sak Yant Tattoos are free or a few dollars. This has never been the case, but has become so commonly stated online by western Tourists. Sadly now Monks, make themselves unavailable when a western tourist turns up for a Sak Yant. Find out why you should not expect a Free Sak Yant Tattoo by understanding Thai tattoos the way Thai people do!
Why are people getting the wrong information about Sak Yant Tattoo's?
We have covered in the article Sak Yant Myths and Information many incorrect ideas that have been put online about Sak Yant Tattoos. In this article we would like to address perhaps one of the most unfortunate false facts put out by budget conscious travelers that a Real Sak Yant is Free or just a few dollars. This is not only never been the case, and today many Monks and Temples are no longer willing to receive western tourists seeking a Sak Yant, as they often come with the belief that they should ‘donate what they feel like’. Often the amount a person thinks ‘reasonable’ does not even cover the cost of the needles and ink, let alone value the skill learned over many years.
This trend is happening among many tourists new to the Sak Yant Traditions and even a popular belief of some types of Expats. Both of whom proudly boast that they paid next to nothing for their Sak Yant, and anyone who does is foolish and being ‘ripped off’. This is something that only westerners seem to do, as they get their information online from other travelers and not from local people who know and value the customs
Why Thai People Pay for a Sak Yant Tattoo
Thai people know that a Sak Yant Tattoo like other services (home or office Blessings, funerals, marriage etc) provided by Monks and Temples will require an exchange of money, usually at flexible pricing based on ability to pay and local connections. It is generally accepted that any exchange of goods or services is either a barter or financial exchange. Thai people do not make the distinction that many westerners seem to, that ‘Spiritual’ services are exempt from this system of exchange.
The Term ‘Donation’ – not the same meaning as in the West
It is the custom to call this payment a donation which is reflective of a high value placed in not losing face in Thai Culture. Thai people will not want to seem rude or disrespectful of the monastery or those who have dedicated their life to it …. so they use the colloquialism of ‘donation’ – but know full well, it really means a payment or exchange. The term donation is used to soften the social interaction and attempt to not be so forthright and blunt about the reality of the situation. The same type of type of thing has occurred in the west in relation to race, sexual orientation and others.
The Role of the Temples in Local Communities
Temples are of course one of the main religious centers of any Thai community. They also have many additional roles in the social and charity areas of that community as well. Temples exist and operate in a balance of getting and giving support, receiving donations of cash, food and gifts and using this to give back and support the community they are located. Temples will often provide free food and accommodation to members of the local community and extend this offer to those in need who are passing through. Thai’s understand that this is a balance of giving and receiving, giving more when they can, receiving more when in need.
When a Temple is not receiving enough to maintain this balance, they will often request assistance from Monks with special skills. A Monk who preforms Sak Yant is one of those skills, and they are usually at a Temple to help raise funds for new buildings or projects. Once the Temple has completed this objective – the Sak Yant Monk moves onto another location to help there. Monks who are skilled in Sak Yant are very rare, which creates increased visitors to the Temple. Thai’s of course understand that this specialist Monk is there to raise funds, so there is no confusion at all, that their skills in Sak Yant cost something.
Role of the Monks within the Temple
Monks all preform Temple duties, each day is planned out and follows a regular and predictable pattern. A Sak Yant Monk is no different; they do not sit around doing nothing, just waiting for someone who wants a Sak Yant. In order to provide the Sak Yant, they must make arrangements for other Monks at the Temple to do their daily chores or assist in the magical rituals. Thai people know this, and will phone the Temple to make sure the Abbot and Monks have sufficient time to see them.
When Thai people DO get a Sak Yant for free
Getting a free Sak Yant does actually occur in Thailand. This happens when a local person from the community has been making donations on a regular basis for years. They have in the culture and traditions of the Temple have a karmic positive balance – they have given more to the Temple than they have received and the Monk will provide this service for free. However no Thai person from another community expects this and will ask the Monk what is the price of the Sak Yant the Monk feels is appropriate for them.
Common Misunderstandings of Westerners wanting a Sak Yant
When a person wants a Sak Yant Tattoo, usually the first and most obvious place they turn to is the internet. There are countless YouTube Videos and blog posts from travelers sharing their Sak Yant Experience. The problem is that the vast majority of these videos (in the language of those interested) are made by travel bloggers. And the whole point of making a travel blog is to create an income to support the life of travel. We have detailed some of the issues and related myths in the article Sak Yant Myths and Information.
In a nutshell, travel bloggers make their income from creating as much content as they can, as quickly as they can. All to often, rather than research from a local source who can give them accurate information, many bloggers, ‘borrow’ content from other peoples blogs. This along with the excellent skills at ranking their articles high in search engines – means that incorrect information is copied and pasted from blog post to blog post. The end result is that many people who want to know about the traditional Thai tattoo, come away with incorrect information – including thinking that Sak Yant Tattoos are free.
Below we have listed a few of the common (incorrect) reasoning that people have come up with and shared online to help you understand why Sak Yant tattoos are not free. We do hope that if you read the section above “Why Thai People Pay for a Sak Yant Tattoo” you already have enough knowledge to know instantly why many of the points below are incorrect. Although some of the points below are expanded on.
Monks can't accept Money - So if they accept it they are not geniune
It is true that a Monk is not able to accept money for their personal use for any work or service that they preform. However Monks are able and do, earn, carry and spend money on behalf of the Temple. Monks generally do not like to handle money to avoid the temptation of personal spending, but let’s be real here, if the Temple receives donations, pays the electricity, purchases or makes and sells goods or provides a service. Who else is going to handle the money?
As pointed out above, the Temple is in a balance of receiving and giving. While individual Monks are not allowed to earn a private income, they are allowed to accept money in exchange for skills and tasks, and handle that money with the permission of the Abbot.
I went with my Wife/Thai Friends and I got a Sak Yant for Free or next to nothing
This can seem like a true experience by many Expats who live here – until they look past their assumptions and actually asked their Wife or Thai friends what really happened. For some Expats living in Thailand who do not understand the language or culture, can often feel confused and inadequate in their ability to influence their environment as they are able in their home country. This often leads to a need to distinguish themselves from others, by expressing their local importance and knowledge. This is something most experienced travelers have encountered during their trips abroad. There is always someone who has a need to ‘educate’ you on the ways of the place you are in. Sometimes this experience is valid and helpful, sometimes it is an obvious attempt to feel more important than the person feels they are.
Almost always, in this situation, it was the wife or Thai friends who did they talking. Almost always the person was taken to their local Temple, where they had been making donations on a regular basis for years and had earned the free Sak Yant. However as is the tradition, the Thai person will usually always make a financial donation in addition, which in the retelling of the experience becomes “a couple hundred baht – pay anymore and you are being ripped off”.
Having had many discussions with Expats who hold this version of events. None of them have been able to say why they got the design they got, what it means at a magical level or what blessing was made. The usual reply is “I don’t know, they wife took care of it”.
If you find a real Temple they don't charge you - You just pay what you want
This has never been the case. What happens in this situation is that a traveler has found a Temple and without speaking Thai or understanding any of the rituals behind the Sak Yant experience has received a Sak Yant Tattoo. They have not asked how much the Monk would like, and the Monk who is unable to request money for tasks they preform has not asked for it.
Usually in cases like this, the person is usually a budget ‘Spiritual’ seeker, who has brought along their western values that spirituality should be free. Here the goals and values of the person is to do things yourself, to seek your own inner truth. There is nothing wrong with this approach to life, just unfortunate that often times people confuse their spiritual ideals as being universal and do not take the time to question if it is the same in the culture they are visiting.
Sadly with many people who have done this, the realization that they have undervalued the time, experience and skill of a Monk whose purpose is to raise money for the Temple (In addition to providing spiritual services for the community) leads committing deeper to their assumptions. They will insist that they know better, that they found a real Temple and everyone else is fake or commercial. Thai people will never make this assumption, as they are not bringing another cultures expectations and know to ask the simple question “How much for this one”?
You only need to make an offering which you buy outside the Temple.
At Wat Bang Phra outside of Bangkok they provide hundreds of Sak Yants a day for tourists. Many people like to say that this is the best place to get a Thai tattoo because you purchase your donation at a table in front for 200-300 baht. A few years ago the Expert Vagabond website wrote an article Blessed By A Monk: How I Got My Magic Sak Yant Tattoo which was full of misunderstandings – one of them not understanding about the difference between the offering and the donation. This particular blog ranks high in Google search and has become the basis of many of the incorrect understandings about why Sak Yants are not free.
Interestingly the author went back a few years later and was disgusted that the Temple went commercial and asked him for money for his Sak Yant rather than let him pay what he thought was fair. Rather than attempt to learn and understand, he decided to join with a place that charges 20-30 times more for giving Sak Yants that pay him a commission. He claims that this is now the only legitimate place to obtain a real Sak Yant rather than the Temple that went all commercial.
There are two components to paying for a Sak Yant Tattoo. Both are essential although many bloggers confuse the two and call the ‘Offering’ the ‘Donation’ and write about how cheap it was to get their Sak Yant.
The Offering is made to the Sak Yant Master or Temple Monk to show respect for the Temple and Master. This usually consists of some flowers, cigarettes and costs around 20-100 Baht.
This is what you offer to the Sak Yant Master for their skill and time for the particular Sak Yant design you are requesting.
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Sak Yant Tattoos are not Free: Final Thoughts
At the end of the day when it comes to understanding that Sak Yant Tattoos are not free, it comes down to understanding that the Thai Tattoo traditions are based in Thai culture and customs. It is a Thai Cultural event as much as it is a Buddhist one, and when you decide that you wish to engage in the traditions of another culture – it is best to do so, without trying to impose your own personal or spiritual ethics into the experience. This includes bring a personal expectation of what ‘Buddhism’ means and making judgements based on non Thai Buddhist culture.
Monks and Temples are very highly regarded in Thailand, and as such the Thai people consider it disrespectful to not support them to their best ability. Westerners on the other hand, generally place a higher value on independence and self over community and sharing. This can often lead to a self serving bias to put ones self (and ones money) as the central focus. Leading to opinions, actions and justifications that support the right to put their individual ethics over the ones the traditional Thai tattoos are based around.
At the end of the day, Thai people have been receiving Sak Yant’s for hundreds of years, western bloggers for a decade or so. Thai’s understand the Karmic balance of supporting their local Temples and the Thai definition of ‘donation’ when it comes to spiritual activities. Part of receiving the traditional Thai Tattoo and it’s blessings means following the established protocols and procedures. Attempting to find then justify where you can best cheat the Sak Yant Monks and system by deciding what you feel and believe is more important than respecting the traditions is not the best way to go about things.