Ancient monks and kings and warriors etched symbols on their skin to announce status or ethnic identity. Today, more than 700 years since the end of the Bagan Dynasty or the first Burmese empire, tattoos are once again popular with many Myanmar youth flaunting what must be the most personal form of self-expression.
The subjects and styles evolve, as does society’s response to them. Tattoos often reflect the social landscape of an era. Call it an artistic code, etched on a papyrus of flesh.
At the turn of the millennium, only a few cultural vanguards sported tattoos. Today, young people rich and poor, in a variety of sectors, show off a range of messages.
Like most art, tattoos highlight cultural battlefields. In modern Myanmar, tattoos have wrenched open the gates on gender issues. As the number of women advocates increase, the country’s males may on occasion look on with dismay.
Monks and kings
Historians say the tattoo tradition in this country emerged during the Bagan dynasty (849 to 1287), in the Ari sect of Buddhism knows for its practice of mantra and tantra.
Before the reign of King Anawrahta, monks covered their bodies with tattoos in a cabalistic square pattern. It was transformed eventually to Saka (Indra), Devas, ogre, peacock and rabbit.
In the reign of King Bodaw in Konbong dynasty, aristocrats and noblemen sported tattoos, a practice that later trickled down to commoners.
In the early days, Burmese tattoos featured elephants, floral arabesque and apes (simians) in two main aspects. The first one depicted mysticism (occultism) of three types (God, Ogre, Brahmi and persons having supernatural powers). The other tried to capture the essence of magic, whether through physical power or charm.
Most tattoos were inked on faces, and just above and below the waistline.
Amongst the ethnic people in Myanmar, facial tattoos called “pare” among the Chin females were famous and popular.
In the old days, Myanmar males had their tattoos to show their masculinity. Today, tattoos are more outward-looking messages, statements of one’s love or hero-worship for another: celebrities, rock bands or the names of parents, lovers and children.
Tattoos and Myanmar ladies
While males with tattoos don’t raise eyebrows, women still struggle with social notions of taboo.
Women with tattoos say they suffer peer pressure and discrimination.
“The criticisms and gibes come from their boy counterparts. They also have tattoos on their skins but jeer at girls when they get inked,” says tattoo artist Ma Phyu from Sanchaung Township in Yangon.
Perhaps the males feel women with tattoos are sending some message. But Ma Phyu explains, “Tattoos are not for anyone, but for themselves. They (women) love tattoos so they have tattoos.”
Most women with tattoos are in the 17-25 years age group. Some are over 30 years old. They all come of their free will and conscience, Ma Phyu says, adding the other people have no right to intervene or intrude into their privacy.
“I myself first had my tattoo when I was only 17 and no one criticized me. Why shouldn’t Myanmar women have tattoos? I cannot accept the notion that tattoos undermine and ruin the Myanmar culture. I’d like to ask them, why Myanmar women with tattoos have no right to preserve the Myanmar culture.”
Young singer G Tone blames the criticism on a “backward society” that is too sensitive on some issues.
“I don’t see Myanmar women with tattoos as being loose and (culturally) ruined,” says G Tone.
“Having tattoos by women is a controversial issue not only in Myanmar; it’s the same in all oriental countries,” he adds.
However, Ma Phyu advises care in choosing the tattoo subject matter. It’s not easy to erase a tattoo. It’s not painless.
A tattoo is not carried out like a child might do with a ballpoint pen. They cannot be wiped off by a wet cloth.
“Tattoos are art. We never give our customers sub-standard tattoos and they should also be certain on their choice of figures and patterns. A tattoo is a sort of irreversible art so that both sides should be certain on making and having tattoos,” Ma Phyu cautions.
She urges women to consult first with experts and learn and appreciate historical backgrounds.
First-timers always ask about the pain, says Ko Saing, another tattoo artist.
“Some bear this pain for some minutes and some think it is hell. Pain and sensitivity vary from one person to the next,” Ko Saing notes. “But one thing is certain; you will visit my tattoo studio again after your first visit.”
Some of the criticism stems from the belief that a tattoo is a bit like a narcotic drug; it can be addictive.
Even people who say they suffered severe pain during their first experience seem to be eager for another try.
Among some patrons, there is talk that liquor or narcotics could blunt the pain.
Not true, insists Ko Saing.
A patron under the influence of liquor or drugs could distract the concentration of the tattoo artist. The substances, he adds, are also counterproductive because these could induce severe bleeding.
Instead of drugs and alcohol, patrons should eat nutritious foods before and during the tattooing, he suggests.
Tattoo artists are proud of their skill in this painstaking medium, which can be more difficult than painting. Many top tattoo artists are painters. They render the designs on other media first before skin. They ask patrons to give them the same value. Those who insist on cheap prices cannot expect to have high quality tattoos like those worn by G Tone, Lay Phyu and Zarni.
Flourishing tattoo figures
Since 2010, tattoos have grown popular. The gender gap has disappeared in showbiz and art circles.
A decade ago, it was hard to find a tattoo studio. Many shops have since sprung up in metropolitan downtown areas.
Tattoo stalls can also be seen during traditional pagoda festivals; they have become essential parts of these events.
Tattoo artists advise patrons to take care about hygiene. They must check that needles are new and that other equipment and the environment are clean.
It is best if an artist has “throw-away” kits that are individually packaged and sealed and hold both disposable needles and tubes. It is also wise for artists to wear sterile disposable gloves and use sterile disposable towels for every client.
But even before you think about keeping your body safe, think about what a tattoo would say about you.
Your tattoo is your personal choice. Free will is best enjoyed when exercised with diligence and responsibility.
Whether you like it or not, it will send a message. That is what art is all about: self-expression.
So, what tattoo do you want to get?