In this article I am not only writing about ‘Burmese tattoos’ but put this topic into the relevant historical and cultural context. Let us begin with our journey into the realm of tattoos.
What do you remember from or know about the year 1991? Not much? Let me help you to remember. It was the year in which the 1st Gulf War began, the former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from Cape Canaveral to take Spacelab into the orbit. With respect to the topic of this article the most important event of the year 1991, was the discovery of ‘Oetzi’ the Iceman on 19 September 1991 in Europe. The extremely well preserved mummy was frozen in ice high on the glacier of the Fineilspitze, a mountain in the Austrian Alps on the Austrian/Tyrolean (Italian) border at a height of 10.530 ft/3.210 m.
Now I can clearly see the question marks in your eyes and hear your questions for what on earth so-called Burmese tattoos have to do with a place in Europe, 4.140 nautical miles/7.670 kilometres away from Burma and who for God’s sake Oetzi’, the Iceman’ is. Do not get impatient I will give you the answers right now; you will be surprised.
Firstly, I will tell you who or what Oetzi’ is. Oetzi’ is the nickname Oetzi, because he was found in the Oetztal Alps) given to a middle aged man (about 46 years old) who was most likely of higher status (he carried a copper axe with him what back then was a status symbol). His life found at some time between 3239 and 3105 BCE a violent end (because he was murdered) at the place where he (what is left of him) was found or in close vicinity to it. He (his mummy) is at the time of this writing some 5.300 years old and remains to this day a treasure trove of valuable information for scientists.
Now I will let you know what the connection between him and Burma is. ‘Oetzi’ is the so far oldest definite proof ever found that already in the copper age people wore tattoos because he had 61 of them spread over 19 parts (wrists, lower legs, lower back and chest, etc) of his body. Some sources speak of 49 tattoos, which was the first amount of tattoos that were found on him in 1991 when he was discovered. This number increased over time because more and more tattoos, which are sometimes barely visible against the dark background of the skin, were found. The last one was discovered in December 2015 what has increased the total count to 61.
Although there are connections in form of migrating and travelling people from Western Europe to central Europe Eastern Europe Russia and China (some mummies found in China are definitely Caucasian and Eurasian of European origin) I do by no means want to claim that the art of tattooing spread from Europe to Burma because it would – I think – be rather foolish to assume that tattooing originated at one specific place and started to spread throughout the world then and from there.
Archaeological findings that are hinting at the existence of tattoos have been reported from different places from all over the world what makes it more likely that at the very beginning tattooing started at different times and in different cultures independently from one another and spread from these regions and cultures into the respective neighbouring regions and cultures until there wasn’t any place on this planet left in which tattooing was not known and practised. No one will ever know how it really was but this is my idea of how it has most likely been.
Into regions and cultures that do nowadays belong to those that make up Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar), tattooing was introduced long after it was already integral part of many cultures in other parts of the world.
I admit that at one time I have seriously contemplated getting a tattoo myself. I have, finally, decided against it for fear of health problems such as HIV and do not have one. The same goes for my wife, daughter and grandson (OK, the latter is still much too small to be tattooed). But otherwise I see them (the tattoos) every day. Everywhere and from morning to evening they are around me in all qualities and from unichrome to multi-coloured.
Burmese – especially men – without at least one tattoo are a very rare thing to see for tattoos are an integral part of what is called ‘Burmese Culture’ and are much treasured by the predominantly highly superstitious Burmese people. That is why I have decided to write an article on Burmese tattoos.
All I knew about tattoos when I decided to write about them was that a tattoo is a picture that is more or less artfully inserted into the skin. Believing that that was all with respect to tattoos I assumed that to write about them would not be a big deal, I was afraid even that I would not have enough stuff to fill a single page; far off the mark. To be sure, what I knew about tattoos was not wrong, but to think that was all that there is to know about it was. It was like believing that all that maths comprises of are the multiplication tables. Quickly I found out that there is much more to the topic ‘tattoo’ but, alas, only a few authentic, reliable and not easily to find sources (most of what you can see on the internet are plagiarism or copyright infringement) on the subject of tattoos and that tackling the topic ‘body art’ better known as ‘tattoo’ means to embark on a huge and vastly complex albeit tremendously interesting subject. Subsequently, this article isn’t meant to cover and explain everything about tattoos, tattooing and related matters. I will confine myself in this article to what I deem the minimum needed to cover the topic tattoos, in general, and ‘Burmese Tattoos’, in particular, as brief as possible and as detailed as necessary.
Let’s go back to the very beginning of the topic ‘tattoo’, shall we? To me the beginning means to, firstly, find answers to the general questions, which are when, where and why people started to get tattooed or to tattooing other people?
When did people begin to get tattooed or to have people tattooed?
Body modification in form of tattoos is proven to be an ancient art and the question for when and how tattooing really began is wide open to speculation and will never be answered. I agree with the assumption that most likely at the very beginning was an abrasion with a penetration of dirt that remained visible in the skin after the wound was healed. From this accidental result of an injury the art of tattooing developed; makes sense to me. The question for the time that is proving that people were tattooed we have already sufficiently answered in that we have identified ‘Oetzi’ the Iceman as the so far oldest known tattooed human being.
But this does not mean that there have not been tattoos in earlier cultures and that there are not older tattooed mummies waiting to be unearthed. However, all other at this time existing archaeological finds, such as bowls with remnants of pigments of black, blue and red pigments and small, pointed and sharp flint stone splinter, long needles made of fishbone and horn, etc. that could have been used for tattooing are mere evidence. These things that were discovered in different countries on different continents with some of them dating back even to before the last Great Ice Age (12.000 years ago or 9500 BC, the Neolithic Era) allow the hypothetical conclusion that tattooing has probably been known and practised already back then are as previously said mere evidence and no conclusive proof. Definite proof would require discovering tattoos on a mummified human body or at the very least a piece of preserved skin identified as human skin with a tattoo older than that of ‘Oetzi’.
Where did people begin to get tattooed?
The first proof of tattooed human beings and answer to the question where people most likely began to get tattooed or to tattoo people we do already have: it was on the European continent – more precisely phrased in the region of present days Austria and Italy as well as most probably in neighbouring countries – as irrefutably proven by ‘Oetzi’.
From later eras such as the times of the Persian Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, the Mongolian Empire, Chinese Dynasties and the South American Inca, Mayan and Aztecs Empires as well as all regions that these Empires included exists ample proof in form of whole mummies or parts of mummies that the respective cultures have been tattooing cultures.
Here are some examples. The mummified Ukok ‘princess’ found in Siberia is 2.500 years old, a 3.000 years old Egyptian female mummy was discovered close to the ‘Valley of the Kings’ and the remains of a 4.500 years old mummified woman have been found by archaeologists in northern Peru.
Around 2000 BC tattooing became a part of Chinese culture from where it spread all over mainland south-east Asia. Some of the earliest tattooed mummies from China that have been found on graveyards in the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang/west China date from about 2000 BC to 300 BC
Why did people start to get tattooed and tattoo other people?
From discovering that it is possible to insert permanent pictures into the skin to the development of tattooing as an art it was but a small step.
The meaning and symbolic of tattoos that developed over time do always and everywhere cover the same aspects of life physical as well as spiritual. That is why the purposes tattoos are serving are e.g. expression of feelings (love and hate), beautification, expression of physical strengths and/or magical power, ethnic identity (tribal membership, nationality), personal identity, social class and financial status, group membership (club, army, criminal organisation), religious affiliation and related symbols and/or texts, medical treatment (acupuncture), punishment or protection from sickness and/or daemons.
Before entering into the topic ‘Burmese Tattoos’ we should briefly deal with two more topics that belong to the rather general part of tattooing, namely the ink(s) used and techniques and methods applied.
One would think that tattoo ink is an ordinary writing/pen ink and comprises just like any other kind of ink pigments for different colours and liquid as solvent also called carrier. However, this is not quite so. The fact that it is possible (but for health reasons not recommendable) to make a tattoo with pan ink does not mean that there is no difference between pen ink and tattoo ink;. The most notable difference is that in contrast to writing ink/ for the colouring of which dyes are added to the carrier that distributes the ink evenly, tattoo ink is made of pigments (not dyes) to provide colours and carrier that is needed to smoothly inject the pigments into the dermis and have them there spread evenly.
Ancient/traditional tattoo inks did basically use to be a concoction of soot, carbon, calcium and lithium as pigments and water and/or other liquids such as alcohol as carrier. However, according to and depending on traditional recipes handed down from older generations, availability of natural (organic and inorganic) ingredients these were additionally added. Examples for this are barks from different trees, insect egg deposits, charcoal, metallic salts and albumin as pigment and breast milk (yes, breast milk!) and leek juice as carrier
The Different Tattooing Methods
Since ancient times mainly 3 different techniques/methods are applied in the process of tattooing, namely puncturing, piercing and cutting. What exactly is it that differentiates these three methods of body modification from one another? The answers to these questions are already more or less clearly recognisable in the names. In other words, the names are pretty much self-explanatory.
Puncturing refers to a technique in which a rake-like device and a stick are used as tools to puncture the skin. Protruding from the rake head’s underside are (up to 50!) sharp, thin and pointed needles made of different materials. The points of these needles, also called pins, are placed in a right angle on the skin that is stretched either with the help of the tattooer’s feet or an assistant. The upper side of the head is hit with the stick in rapid succession (several times per second) what drives the ink-dipped needle points vertically into the skin and out of the very hole made by being driven into the skin.
This is repeated thousands of times. During this process the rake is systematically moved in the directions needed to form the lines, fillings and shadings of the design. For lines of different thickness, fillings and shadings rakes with varying numbers and thicknesses of pins are used.
Piercing refers to a technique in which an up to about 4 ft/122 cm long tapered rod also called tube made of brass, wood or bamboo is used as tattooing tool. The rod is equipped with either a needle-sharp tip or a pronged piece made of different materials at its front end. The handle side is adorned with a tattoo weight in form of a mythical being or magical figure such Mintha (a Burmese hero prince), Zawgyi (an alchemist with supernatural powers) or Belu (a demon). These tattoo weights are serving 2 purposes one of which being to give the forward thrust of the rod more force and the other to lend a good measure extra mythical power to the tattoo itself. The tattooing is performed in that the rod with the ink-dipped tip is while the tattooer (with his feet) or his assistant is stretching the skin fast and in an ongoing process (comparable with the movement of the needle of a sewing machine) at a 90 degrees angle to the skin moved back and forth thereby piercing the skin and injecting the tattoo ink into it.
Although different tools are used for puncturing (rod/tube) and piercing (rake and stick) the results are not so different.
Cutting also called scratching or scraping, however, is a method that differs significantly from puncturing and piercing. As the name implies, the cutting method requires that up to 5 mm deep cuts are made literally ‘carving’ the tattoo into the skin,. Once the cuts are made the tattoo ink is rubbed in. This method does inflict excruciating pain on the tattooed what explains that the ‘cutting’ of tattoos is not merely seen as tattooing but moreover as an act of sacrificing.
Having a magic tattoo does by far not suffice to be for instance, protected from harm or have supernatural powers. In order to develop its magic powers to the full the tattooer needs to be a monk. This monk needs to say prayers during the tattooing process and does also need to blow onto the finished tattoo in order to activate its capabilities of performing magic tasks. The place of the tattoo is also of decisive importance. If, for instance, the snake tattoo is not placed on the ankle it will not protect you from snakebite.
Other tattooing methods are the Tebori technique, the methods applied by the Maoris on New Zealand (Maori Mask) and the method used by the in Alaska and Canada living Inuit tribes, which I mention here for the sake of completion without intending to further elaborate on them at this place and time.
At the outset of this chapter I want to make a quick excursion into Burma’s past because this will help you to better understand the following. I do often hear or read things such as ‘Tattoos have always had their place in Burmese culture ever since the Shans acquired the craft in Southern China, before bringing it to the Burmese’. Formulations like this or words to this effect testify to a severe lack of knowledge on the topic ‘Burmese History’ on the part of those writing or saying such things. Why is this so? This is so because it simply isn’t true, grossly misleading, to say the least. Let me explain; words like the a.m. create the impression that at the time in question (200 BC or hundreds of years thereafter) Burma and a Burmese Culture already existed. This is definitely not so. Why not? At the time that tattoos and the art of tattooing became part of the Shan culture the arrival of the first Burman in the region that is nowadays part of Burma was still more than 1.100 years away. When the Burmans arrived tattooing did already play an important role in the cultures of many different ethnicities that make up the population of what is nowadays Burma (since 1989 also called Myanmar). And, by the by, the Mon a once very powerful people with their mighty kingdoms in what is now south Burma and Thailand were also tattooing cultures long before the appearance of the first Burman. Keep in mind that at the times we are talking about neither Burma nor Thailand existed. What existed were the Mon kingdoms, the Pyu kingdoms and the Shan kingdoms.
The independent country Burma is only 68 years old (Myanmar as it is also called since 1989 only 27 years) thus Burma/Myanmar is a very young country and in the light of this it is not correct to speak of Burmese tattoos, let alone ancient Burmese tattoos or Burmese culture. What existed prior to 1948 (the year British Colonial Burma was granted independence from the British) was British Colonial Burma and before that several kingdoms such as the Mon kingdoms, the Pyu kingdoms, the Arakan kingdoms, Shan kingdoms, and several smaller and larger Bamar kingdoms. But for the sake of a better understanding I will continue calling it ‘Burmese culture’ and ‘Burmese tattoos’.
So let’s go back to our topic ‘Burmese Tattoos’. Prior to the answering of the question what exactly it is that makes so-called ‘Burmese Tattoos’ being ‘Burmese Tattoos’. The answer to this is: ‘beyond the fact that they are made in Burma and that some tattoos include or are confined to Burmese writing frighteningly little’. In other words, there is almost nothing typically Burmese about them. You may now say, ‘what, almost every Burmese is tattooed what goes especially for the males and there is no ‘Burmese tattoo?’ My answer is yes, there are many tattoos in Burma and if you find it OK to inadmissibly generalise things to the point of indiscriminately saying that everything in Burma with respect to tattoos and otherwise is Burmese then you can – although it is not correct – speak of ‘Burmese Tattoos’. However, I suggest you pay close attention to the historical facts I have mentioned at the beginning as well as to the following.
That the majority of the Burmese is tattooed does not mean that their tattoos are typical ‘Burmese-style tattoos’. The culture of the Bamar/Burman after which the country is named because they are the largest ethnic group here was not a tattooing culture when the Bamar arrived in present-day Burma but they adopted the art of tattooing from the already existing people and their cultures. That is to say, they had no own tattoos when they arrived and have not developed own distinctively Bamar/Burman tattoo styles and designs afterwards. And there is also no Burmese race i.e. a people of same stock with a common culture that could rightfully be called ‘Burmese culture’.
Burma is a country with a rich ethnic diversity and almost as of these ethnic minorities have their own tattoo designs to differentiate themselves from other tribes. This kind of tattoo are tribal tattoos and of these there many in Burma, but they are not ‘Burmese tattoos’. In Burma you have also a large number of Buddhist tattoos, animistic tattoos and a mixture thereof, but then again, these are not typical ‘Burmese-style tattoos’. Not enough examples? OK, here is one more. You also see a lot of ‘healing tattoos’ in Burma but they too are not uniquely Burmese because that kind of tattoos is like in any other tattooing culture using a combination of dots, stokes and lines on and within the system of acupuncture points. Again, there is nothing in the way of a ‘specifically Burmese design’.
You will have no problem to identify e.g. a Chinese tattoo as being Chinese and Japanese tattoo as being Japanese the instant you see them because of their highly distinctive designs and patterns but this is not so with so-called ‘Burmese tattoos’ because the Buddhist designs and pattern they are using are identical with those used in other Buddhist countries of southeast Asia and the Animist designs and patterns they are using are not perceivably different from those used in the neighbouring Buddhist countries and cultures of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Thus the ‘Burmese’ Buddhist tattoo is not bearing any distinctive mark not even in case script is part of the tattoo because the text will be in Pali.
However, there are highly interesting and decorative tattoo designs and pattern such as facial tattoos of the Chin tribes and pants tattoos of the Shan for which – although they too are not uniquely Burmese – Burma is still famous for. The facial tattoos are not made anymore because they are since 1962 forbidden by law and the pants tattoo lost its original function and became, ‘outdated’.
Although the facial tattoos are banned the Chin tribes kept on practicing their face tattooing tradition till the end of the 1990s and there are rumours that the law banning the facial tattoos is in remote rural areas still not always abided by. Be that as it may, the fact remains that the tradition of both facial and pants tattoos are on the brink of extinction. For this reason are the in their majority older members of Chin and Shan communities who are still proudly wearing these tattoos and are often living in remote villages in Arakan State (facial tattoos), Chin State (facial tattoos) and Shan State (pants tattoos) highly sought after as the last living pants and face tattooed generation by professional photographer, anthropologists, ethnologists and tourists.
I will in the following briefly describe the facial and pants tattoo designs, their origins and the tattooing processes. As for the latter I will, however, confine myself to the ‘technical’ part and not include other aspects such as the religious and ceremonial ones.
Pants tattoos found their way into what was much, much later to become Burma from China through Laos the Shan.
The name of this tattoo design is self-explanatory as it describes a tattoo; more precisely phrased a series of tattoos that once ready is covering just like short pants do the entire skin area from slightly below the kneecaps upwards to the waist.
Tattooing is always a painful affair but pants and facial tattoos are those that belong into the category extremely painful, because they are (at least partly) placed on the human body’s most sensitive skin areas for which reason they cannot be completed within one single session. Also, in order to keep the perception of the near unbearable physical pain (especially when the highly sensitive areas of inner thighs, groin, genitals and buttocks are tattooed) best possible at bay praying and meditating alone did (or do) not suffice. For this reason the tattooed persons were allowed to smoke opium, what they did in considerable amounts.
The technique used by the tattooists was predominantly piercing with a smaller bamboo rod and the colour used for pants tattoos is exclusively a very dark, almost black, blue. The individual tattoo designs chosen to completely fill the ‘pants area’ vary can also be used as single/stand-alone design. Pants tattoos were the privilege of men.
First the design is part by part drawn on the skin and then tracing the lines of this the tattoo is applied with the inked tip of the rod. The final step of this is to gently rub the ink into the skin. The completion of a pant tattoo in traditional fashion takes depending on the tattooed person’s pain tolerance usually 2 or more sessions stretching over weeks (if not months for one has to include the healing times into the schedule). The tattooed is often accompanied by friends to stretch the skin and give moral support.
Tattoos that were known to take a longer time to complete were usually made during rainy season when no outside work can or needs to be done.
How intensive the pain inflicted during the process of tattooing and later during the healing process is. is definitely unimaginable and known only by those courageous men who already went through this ordeal.
It does certainly require a vast amount of courage, superstitiousness, willpower, religious belief and moral support to decide to voluntarily undergo the immensely painful procedure of getting oneself a pants tattoo or facial tattoo, for that matter, what brings as to the next topic, the full face tattoo.
Facial tattoos have their origin in China where these tattoos were very famous amongst the Derung, Li and Dai Tribe women and have a very long tradition. In Burma it is the Chin tribes that are famous for facial tattoos although not all of them share this millennia-old tradition.
The women of the Chin tribe learn from young age on the art of making facial tattoos and only the women were/are allowed to tattoo and be tattooed. Especially for non-Asians facial tattoos are certainly something that needs getting used to because it is not exactly what they call beautiful. So, when facial tattoos are not beauty enhancing why do Chin women tattoo their faces? If you ask Chin women this question or if you look for answers to this in publications you will get or find several answers. Here are the most common; make your pick.
a) To disguise their beauty in order to prevent being kidnapped by the king and made one of his many consorts.
b) To prevent being kidnapped by slave traders and sold.
c) To prevent being raped by enemy soldiers.
d) As a protection against demons.
e) As sign to be mature and ready for marriage.
f) As beautification.
g) As sign of tribal identity.
h) To gain access to heaven after death.
Personally I believe the reason for the Chin women having facial (and neck) tattoos is a mixture of all or most of the a.m. explanations.
What concerns the facial tattoo designs each tribe has a different one. Some comprise of several geometric shapes, some of vertical lines and dots, some of spider nets, some of butterflies and bees, etc.
The ink used for these tattoos is black. Getting a facial tattoo means to expose oneself to extreme physical pain. The process that usually starts with a tattoo on the forehead, continuous with the eyebrows, eyelids, the space between the eyes, cheeks, chin and often additionally the neck as neck tattoo is briefly described in the following.
First the design is drawn on the skin. Then with a small stick dipped in ink the almost paste-like tattoo ink is drawn on the skin. Next an about 2 inch/5 cm long lime thorn with a needle-sharp tip either inserted into the tip of a bamboo stick or simply used by holding it firmly between thumb and index finger the skin under the ink is with rapid up and down movements similar to movement of a sewing machine needle perforated what at the same time injects the ink into the skin. Finally, the ink is carefully rubbed deeper into the skin. The most painful parts of the tattoo are on the eyebrows and eyelids.
How long it takes to complete a facial tattoo depends as always on the pain tolerance of the tattooed person. Completing a full face tattoo can take more than 1 year.