After pacing the block in search of the tattoo studio we climbed the dusty steps of a nondescript downtown apartment building. Aside from operating unofficially in a residential building, the studio looked exactly like those I had visited abroad, save for the Buddhist altar tucked in a corner above stacks of binders teeming with photos of fresh tattoos.
We were greeted by Ko Yoe Thit Nwe, a Yangon-based tattoo artist and mentor of the tattooist we had come to see, Ma Phyu Thazin Soe. Many would recognise Ma Phyu Thazin Soe, who is believed to be Yangon’s first woman tattoo artist, by the tattoos covering her arms and legs.
Astonished by how similar the studio was to those I had visited as a youth, I didn’t notice when Ko Yoe Thit Nwe slipped out to buy tea. We sipped our beverages anxiously awaiting Ma Phyu Thazin Soe. She usually works from home and, like us, was having trouble finding the studio.
Squished on a black leather couch – a staple in any established tattoo joint – we leafed through binders and gazed at the hundreds of tattoo photos tacked to the wall above us. Most were the same tried and tested designs popular overseas – and more recently inked on young people in Myanmar. Chunky shapes, creatures wrapped in fire and birth signs were common amongst the archives.
A few phone calls later Ma Phyu Thazin Soe arrived with a female client. Wearing a T-shirt and shorts Ma Phyu Thazin Soe happily told us about her exposed tattoos. One, on her arm, was a big portrait of her husband. Another was an even larger portrait of her sister, and just above it was a cult favourite, an image of a femme fatale wielding a tattoo gun and wearing a mask.
“In the past so many people stared at me, maybe because they liked the designs and maybe because they didn’t,” she said.
“But I don’t really care if they’re looking. Day by day it’s different; now, so many more girls have tattoos.”
The process of getting her first tattoo didn’t hurt at all, she recalled, laughing. “I really wanted a tattoo, so it didn’t hurt. I was amazed, this image just appeared on my body!”
Her next, and potentially last tattoo, will honour her father, Ma Phyu Thazin Soe said.
Ma Phyu Thazin Soe, 24, was a painter before she started getting tattoos and tattooing four years ago. Her style is a welcome change from the regular clichés; she specialises in detailed portraits reminiscent of 1950s pin-up girls.
With more young people seeking original and detailed designs, she has no shortage of clients, most of whom are women.
Ma Phyu Thazin Soe said she prefers word-of-mouth referrals and works from home to avoid encounters with drunk, aggressive patrons. She enjoys a stable income and growing recognition from having tattooed some well-known Myanmar celebrities, including model Thun Ti Za.
Since last year the number of women tattoo artists in Yangon has grown to about four. One of the reasons why it is difficult to make a living as a tattoo artist is the need for connections, said Ma Phyu Thazin Soe. It is especially difficult for women to find teachers.
“For men it is easier to connect with professional tattoo artists here, they drink together and they make friends. For the girls, it’s harder to get in,” she said.
Despite having established a successful career against significant odds, Ma Phyu Thazin Soe is uncertain she will continue as a tattooist. Her parents work in the rice trade and have encouraged her to join the family business.
“But maybe I can do both,” she said.
After the interview we watched Ma Phyu Thazin Soe at work, creating what’s known in the industry as a “cover up” image over a small, faded tattoo on her client’s ankle. She worked quickly, pausing only to tuck her long hair behind an ear.
We let ourselves out and the faint buzz of the tattoo gun followed us down the hall.
This Article first appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.