Andre Akito


Sombath Sakk has been a Sak Yant artist for almost 10 years. He is a member of Federation Khmer Sak Yant, an association of practitioners, students, teachers and masters who are dedicated to the practice and preservation of unique Khmer spiritual and martial arts traditions. 

May 15, 2022

Behind the Ink – The Life of a Sak Yant Artist

Sak Yant tattoos have a long history behind. They were introduced to the world centuries ago by the time of the Khmer empire. Since then, the tradition and the art has been passed down in a lineage for many generations, from teacher to students, requiring many years of study and practice. Sak Yant tattoos are very intricate, aesthetic and each element will have a specific meaning for the wearer.

Cambodians get Sak Yant tattoos for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them include: protection, love, success, health, relationships, power, spiritual practice, to strengthen the connection to the Buddha and the Hindu pantheon of gods and also as ritual to mark growth and progress in life. There are thousands of unique designs and there is a specific Sak Yant tattoo that is suitable for almost any purpose we can imagine.  

Since its beginning, Sak Yant has been intrinsically related to different religions and, as a consequence, the art has been profoundly impacted by spiritual concepts and values.  The art itself is a combination of Buddhist and Hindu sacred images, Pali script, Buddhist Sutras, sacred geometry, spiritual symbols and designs and ancestor’s beliefs. 

The Life of a Sak Yant artist

Learning the traditional art is extremely challenging and becoming a professional Sak Yant artist requires a lot of time and effort.  For example, at Federation Khmer Sak Yant, it takes 2 years to learn the basics of the traditional art, 3 additional years to become part of the federation’s crew and 5 more years to finally become a master. In total, it might take more than 10 years of studying and practicing. 

Sombath Sakk was born in Kampong Chan province and moved to Siem Reap in 2004. Initially, he lived at an NGO for 5 years and it was only in 2009 that he got in contact with Federation Khmer Sak Yant and started to learn and train Khmer traditional martial arts. Later on, in 2014, he started to learn and study Sak Yant art. In 2015, he moved to live with his master in Angkor in order to fully dedicated himself to the art,  a place where he lives until today. 

Every day, Sombath wakes up at 6AM to prepare himself and the place the for the long day ahead. After the preparation, he meditates for 1-1:30 hour and then, he has classes with his master. The topics he learns include: learning the different mantras and chants; studying and researching about the different designs; reviewing the history of the designs and old foundations of the art; practicing Pali language (an ancient language of India derived from Sanskrit which is the language of the Buddhist scriptures) and also, practicing to do the art itself. 

Sak Yant art is extremely broad and deep and a professional artist needs to learn as much as possible.

The full Sak Yant ritual

One of the most important parts of getting a Sak Yant tattoo are the rituals involved with it. There are many rituals that need to be performed before and after getting the tattoo. So, whenever Sombath is not studying, he is usually doing the Sak Yant tattoos or performing the rituals that are part of the process. The full process of getting a Sak Yant tattoo is the following: 

First, people will meet a Sak Yant artist in order to discuss about the design. People should tell the artist what kind of meaning they are looking for. As mentioned, people can ask for protections, peace, balance, health. Basically, anything.  Some people can even talk to the artist, tell them about their life and figure out a meaning together with the artist. Therefore, finding the right meaning for the wearer is the first step of the process and it will determine the design and other part of the rituals (for example the mantras that will be chanted). 

After having a clear idea of the meaning, the artist will then present some designs that he thinks might be suitable for the wearer. Then, once the wearer is comfortable with design, Sombath will prepare the design for them, with the correct measures. This is one of the most important parts of the process, to understand the meaning and the design first. 

Then, the wearer will have to perform a worship together with the artist. Therefore, the person will have to bring the following items, which will be given to the worship place (except the lotus flower which will be given to the master after the process): 

  • 7 types of fruits
  • 10 lotus flower
  • 5 candles
  • 1 pack of incense
  • 2,50$ to put on the fruit

After the worship, the artist will start doing the Sak Yant tattoo. The tattoo can be done by a machine or using the traditional hand-poked style. Once the tattoo is finished, the person will peel the lotus in order to get the final blessings from the master. The blessing is a way to “open” the power inside the yantra and to make it protect the wearer. After the master’s blessing the Sak Yant ritual is finished. 

Keeping the tradition alive

Sak Yant is a very ancient tradition and many generations have been responsible for keeping it alive. There is a lot of knowledge and many rituals involved in the process and the art has been kept alive mainly by keeping and respecting the same traditions over a long period of time. 

However, in some ways, the traditional art might slowly be fading away. Many tattoo artists nowadays want to make Sak Yant art without performing the full ritual and without the proper understand the designs. Sak Yant art should not be seen as other tattoos, in which you can visit a studio, choose a design, do the tattoo and go back back home. Professional Sak Yant artists need to be responsible not only with the customers, who will have a design on their skin forever, but especially with the traditional art, in order to keep it alive. They need to know the about the designs, the mantras and also perform the full ritual and the blessings. 

If artists are willing to learn and do Sak Yant tattoos, they should obey, follow and share the same principles and rituals that have kept this art alive for such a long time. It takes time to learn, but it’s the correct way and that’s is what the professional art of Sak Yant really means. 

Sombath wishes to keep traditional Sak Yant art alive, to take care of it and spread it out to the world so more people can know about it, in order to keep the traditional art alive for many more centuries to come.

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