Wai Kru, which translates as "paying respect to the teacher," is a ceremony that occurs once a year at Wat Bang Phra — a Buddhist temple near Bangkok — and is hands down one of the most intriguing tattoo-related events in the world. Not only do thousands of individuals gather there to get spiritually-charged body art known as sak yant, many of them also participate in a rite of passage called Khong Khuen ("magical force rising") in which they channel the spirits of Hindu gods and mythological creatures featured in their tattoos, to become entranced and thereby recharge the mystical energy of their sacred markings.
In this possessed state, people run around wildly, screaming and flailing violently, resulting in what almost resembles a mosh pit as these enraptured individuals rush the main stage at the temple to be blessed by monks' prayers and blasted with holy water from a firehose.
While the origin of the tattoo style is highly debated, most experts agree that the tradition dates back at least one to two millennia ago, growing out of decorated garments of protection called suea yant that warriors would wear into battle during the golden age of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767 CE). Somewhere along the timeline, the designs on these shirts of battle became transcribed onto skin instead, as a means to signify class standing among government officials as well as civil servants.
Today, this particular practice of tattooing is thriving more than ever, especially since it has been increasingly taken up by Thailand's younger working-class citizens ever since the 1990s, when sak yant rose to prominence through the advocation of the late and renowned monk Luang Por Phern Tidtakuno. Because of this long-standing tradition behind the art form, the ceremony is not only meant to empower the sacred markings of their wearers, but it is also meant to honor the masters of sak yant as well as the passing down of the practice from monk to monk.
On the night before the ceremony, the monks, who are responsible for keeping the tradition of sak yant intact, tattoo upwards of 1,000 people in preparation for the following day's festivities. These monks are the sole stewards of this cultural practice.
The knowledge of the sacred art form's age-old techniques as well as rich symbolism is passed down among the monks' ranks. The ornate script seen in sak yant, for instance, is an ancient form of Khmer, and each of the practitioners of these tattoos has to be fluent in the language's calligraphy in order to appropriately spell out the magical incantations. The recipients of the tattoos do not traditionally get to choose the iconography with which they are marked. Instead, the monks will select an image that compliments the individual's walk of life. For example, someone who travels extensively will be marked with a sign of protection to help them along their journeys, while a merchant would likely receive emblem of luck or good fortune to aid them being successful in their business ventures.
The turnout for Wai Kru is always incredible. Generally, more than 10,000 people gather at the temple, some to just observe but most of them to have their body art blessed, which just goes to show how much their tattoos mean to them on both a cultural and personal level.
With such large crowds, the day-long ceremony often becomes heated and sometimes almost too intense as it nears the main event, in which tons of attendees charge the stage while under the influence of possession. The resulting scene is best described as mayhem. Their erratic movements and the loud sounds can be significantly unsettling. Because the situation tends to get so raucous, a large military and police presence is required, and people are regularly injured every year.
For many spectators, this ritual may seem totally insane, but for the individuals who participate in it, this ceremony represents a deep connection to their people's heritage as well as the contemporary cultural landscape of Thailand. They fact that they believe so strongly in the mystical power of their bodily markings, to the point that they act as if actually possessed by the deities and creatures that their tattoos depict, exemplifies that this profound sense of spirituality courses strongly in the lifeblood of most of the Thai population. In short, for as intense as this ceremony can be, it is also beautiful in the way that its violence is expressive of just how passionate these people are about their religious beliefs.
One of the most troubling aspects of this wild event is not the danger that it embodies, but the fact that it has attracted the attention of tourists, some of whom have even visited the temple to get their own tattoos. This has created some tension within the community surrounding sak yant. Because these pieces of body art are so integral to their way of life, many individuals have rightfully taken offense to the fact that westerners, celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Steven Seagal among them, are coming to the ceremony and appropriating this portion of Thailand's cultural heritage.
In 2011, for instance, the Thai government even passed a law prohibiting foreigners from getting these magical tattoos, but it has been largely unenforced, and it is likely that tourism will continue to dilute the spiritual potency of the event in the future. This is as regrettable as it is egregious, but given just how much of a spectacle Wai Kru is, it may be (and it pains us to say this) inevitable.
If you want to see footage of this shocking ritual, make sure to check out this video, which shows just how frenzied and dangerous things tend to get toward the end of the Wai Kru ceremony. Be warned though, it is graphic and definitely not for the faint hearted. While it would be fascinating to attend the ceremony in person, we think we'd probably watch things unfold from afar.