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The Reviving Art of Traditional Khmer Sak Yant Tattooing

The art of Sak Yant tattooing was almost decimated during the Khmer Rouge period. For Federation Khmer Sakyant, it was fortunately recovered by Master Teven Say. At just 30 years of age, he has already been studying the art for 12 years, finding everything he can on the art, to bring it to life again today, his journey is one of continuous learning and then passing that knowledge on to his apprentices.

What is a Sak Yant Tattoo?

So why is it so special? Sak Yant is not your average tattoo, in fact it is not even a tattoo… In its entirety it is a spiritual journey that may go on for years. Each Yantra (a form of mystical diagram) tells a story, offers protection to the person, or fills something that is missing in the person’s heart. Then it is tattooed on, after consultation with the “Master” to help make the right decision. This process demands mindfulness from the selection of the yantra, the offerings to the master and the blessings that follow – the tattoo process itself is one to be felt for every moment of the event. The pain, they say, is more than modern tattoo procedures, but that is the point.

Once the yantra is chosen and offerings have been proffered, the tattoo is applied using either a traditional bamboo stick (it’s been slightly modified to allow for a new hygienic needle to be used each time) or a modern tattoo gun, it’s up to the preference of the recipient. They also use modern ink because it lasts longer, however traditional ink is occasionally still used; made naturally from the native plants and minerals of Cambodia that are spiritually blessed and deemed to be more powerful in its affect.

The Sak Yant Master & Apprentices

The Master, after discovering information of this ancient tradition, is continually learning. At the same time, he will take on select apprentices. It’s not for everyone and the applicants have to seek this vocation and apply themselves, they have to fight (not literally) for their position and show their dedication. They begin by learning the alphabet and vowels of the Sak Yant language, which originates from Bali Sanskrit and is the same language Buddhist monks use in the pagodas of Cambodia. After the first stage, they learn close to 50 foundation symbols, followed by mantras (spiritual words in Sanskrit) and the meaning behind each symbol.

a traditional Khmer Sak Yant tattoo process requires a blessing with 7 types of fruit, flowers and incense.
A traditional Khmer Sak Yant tattoo process requires a blessing with 7 types of fruit, flowers and incense.

They obey the tradition strictly. For the blessing, the one to be blessed must bring 7 types of fruit, and specified flowers and incense.

Federation Khmer Sak Yant

Siem Reap based “Federation Khmer Sak Yant” are starting to make a name for themselves. They consist at present of Master Teven Say and his 3 apprentices, all brothers from Kampong Cham. They began as martial arts students and gradually have all joined with the Sak Yant Federation. We spoke with Sambath and he provided a lot of information about their work. He also explained that the reason Sak Yant and Bokator are closely linked is because fighters believe that the Sak Yant will give them strength for their fights.

We also spoke to two people who recently underwent this ritual, David and Adam from The Little Red Fox in Siem Reap’s Kandal Village. Adam described his experience as “amazing…. Painful!” and that the chants that the Master and apprentices use during the tattooing are designed to “open the skin”. Adam was very happy with the professional attitude and cleanliness of the equipment, he explained how the setting, close to rice fields, is very peaceful, perfect for this experience.

David showed his tattoo and explained that his yantra is actually one part of a series of 7 and that he’ll definitely be going back for “the next chapter” of his story.

They also talked about how the tattoo healed really quickly, unlike modern tattoos, it doesn’t get scabby and painful, you don’t need to wrap it up and apply antiseptic, in the same way you do with modern tattoos.

David explained how spiritual the whole event is from start to finish, how it was so rewarding because they really took their time and invested their full energy into it and because of that, they got so much out of it too.

The blessings take place on a Sunday, so their advice to anyone interested would be to book for a Sunday in order to have the whole ceremony in one sitting, otherwise, if you have the tattoo on anther day, you return on the Sunday to have your tattoo blessed.

How to Contact Federation Khmer Sak Yant

Sambath manages the Facebook page and he’s very responsive – Federation Khmer Sakyant and his brother manages the website and emails:



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