covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, July 31, 2014
Magazine

CULTURE

Tattoo not Taboo


By David Paquette FEBRUARY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.2


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The first tattoos began accidentally—early man rubbed ash or soot from a fire into cuts and injuries to sterilize a wound. Tattooing became a rite of passage and soon evolved into a magical art

An old Burmese saying goes: “Getting married, building a pagoda and getting a tattoo are the three undertakings that can only be altered afterwards with great difficulty.”

Despite the advice, tattooing has become fashionable again among today’s youth. Even in conservative Burma, pop stars and celebrities are taking up body art and promoting it as cool and chic.

The reactionary Burmese regime doesn’t approve of tattoos, though. According to a Rangoon journalist, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department has banned images of tattoos in publications. “If somebody—a model or an actor—has a tattoo on their body, we need to erase it on the computer,” he said.

In November 2007, hip-hop star G-Tone was arrested after pulling up his shirt while on stage, revealing a full tattoo on his back. He was subsequently banned from performing for six months.

A young Burmese shows off his body tattoos
Tattoos in Southeast Asia have traditionally had paradoxical connotations: the sign of time spent in prison or membership in a gang or the sangha (Buddhist monkhood).

Nowadays, tattoo fans include a wide cross section of Burmese society, from successful sportsmen and pop stars to soldiers and schoolgirls. Whether for cosmetic reasons or religious devotion, for mystical protection from evil spirits or for a simple sense of belonging, today’s youth has taken to tattoo art, piercings and other body decoration like never before.

The word “tattoo” is of Polynesian origin, meaning “to tap,” although almost every culture has developed its own history of tattooing independently. Examples of tattoo cultures and rituals are found all over the world—from the Maori to the Maya, from the Celts to the Egyptians, from the Japanese to the Vikings.

Ancient Chinese records from the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) indicate that men of the Lue and Yue tribes in the Mekong region were tattooed from waist to ankle with designs of demons and “water serpents”—the legendary naga perhaps—to ward off evil spirits.

However, it was the Shan who popularized the craft of tattooing in Burma, importing the practice from southern China. Their tattoos had magical or spiritual connotations, similar to the belief in amulets.

In Shan culture, a young man was often tattooed from the waist to the knees as a sign of virility and maturity. The ritual was performed by the village medicine man, using a long skewer to apply traditional indigo ink or natural vermillion.

The procedure could take weeks and the subject would be drugged with opium to ease the pain. Common designs were animals, zodiac signs and geometric patterns. Tattooing is still popular among young Shan men, who mostly choose Buddhist motifs.

The introduction of Theravada Buddhism in Burma shaped the symbolism of the art. The body was divided into 12 parts. Hindu gods, Buddhist figures and sacred mantras were tattooed only on the back, the arms and the head. The ears, throat and shoulders were reserved for protective animals and mythological creatures. Tattoos in the pubic area symbolized sexual prowess, using images of geckos and peacocks. A tattoo on the ankles was said to offer protection from snake bites.

Tattoos were not confined to men. Women of the southern Chin clans have tattooed their faces for more than 1,000 years, probably to discourage Burman invaders—a similar custom to the Padaung Karen, who supposedly elongated a girl’s neck with brass rings from an early age to put off would-be kidnappers. For centuries, Burmese women of several nationalities inked subtle “love spots” between their eyes and lips to lure the opposite sex.

Another ancient practice of the Shan and other Burmese was the insertion of silver and gold discs under the skin as a charm against death in battle.

Tattoos also serve that purpose today. Karen soldiers often have a black tiger tattooed on their chests, a custom that is also practiced by some members of the Thai Border Patrol Police.



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