Tattoo Traditions in Myanmar
by Ma Thanegi
In ancient days a young man’s courage is declared for all to see when he tucks up his pasoe (waist garment) into shorts, bringing the front between his legs to tuck up the edge at his waist on the back. Worn this way for work in the fields or for playing the Chinlon cane ball game, the slightly low waist would show the upper edge of his tattoos circling his torso. From waist to knee the thick patterns of a figure set in an oval continued. It would have been a painful process but well worth the suffering for he could, as long as he live, give proof of his prowess.
Apart from this waist to knee style individual runes are tattooed on chest, shoulders, shoulder blades, thighs, arms, wrist, on the head (where re-growth of hair would hide it), the back of the hand or fingers and for extreme forms of protection, on the tongue. In the old days thieves or murderers were tattooed with the names of the respective crimes on their foreheads and the king’s army had soldiers with symbols tattooed on the back of the neck to identity the troop they belonged to.
The tattoo master who is also a medicine man would travel the country. Before proceeding with his work he would need to fast and say prayers for a few days. An auspicious date and time is chosen and the men are taken to a newly constructed open hall of bamboo, some distance away from the village. The ground would be covered with pure sand and the walls screened with white sheets. A ritual of offering food, betel and flowers to the spirits ensures that the ‘medicine’ and ‘magic’ of the runes would work.
In a tent or hall a few yards away the sweethearts of the men would play music and sing encouraging songs. The fact that their women are sitting within hearing distance would ensure that the braves do not scream too loudly.
The Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire
First, blocks of patterns are dipped in ink and then pressed to the flesh, over which the master will prick the skin with a bronze needle with up to 16 sharp and tiny points at the tip although two or three points are normally used. The complete hollow needle can be unscrewed into three parts: the middle which is the handle, the needle and the balancing top part which is often in the form of a celestial or an ogre, depending on the ‘magic’ of the rune. Some runes are about devotion to Buddha and his teachings and others are about charming other people, achieving fortunes or power, or for protection.
Some men are such ardent believers in the power of runes that after a certain rune has been tattooed on him he would avoid, on the practitioner’s advice, eating certain foods or going to certain places that are deemed ‘lowly’ such as cemeteries so that the rune would not ‘turn against him’. This strong belief has sometimes enabled alcoholics to give up drink after the completion of a tattoo.
Cat figures are usually tattooed on the thighs and believed to make the man able to jump like one while a tiger motif gives power. Some designs goes beyond giving protection as they are supposed to actually stop a bullet from hitting the person, not that it really worked. Such runes began popular when rifles were first brought in by the British army in the first Anglo Burman War of 1824 and the battle field must have been littered with tattooed corpses of the fallen soldiers. An early sect of animist priests around the 8th century practised martial arts and also had tattoos. The fact that they could fight without being injured must have somehow become equated with the power of their tattoos and not their martial art skill.
Traditionally only black and red colours were used for tattoos. The inks used are diluted red mercuric sulphide and soot obtained from burning an oil lamp covered with a bowl. Mercuric sulphide is seeped in water over a few days and the water changed often. Then it is steamed for about an hour and only then it is ready to be diluted and used.
For black ink, the soot must be mixed with powdered dry gall bladder of fish or cattle, tied in a cotton cloth and boiled in water in which leaves of the Kyet hin gar (bitter melon) has been simmering. Then the packet is retrieved and dried and the powder mixed again with the much-reduced water, although some medicine men prefer to mix with oil. The paste is formed into a stick and dried again until needed, when it will be ground on a small stone slab with lemon juice or water. The ink is gathered in an ink well made of wood which is usually carved in a special form such as a monkey or tiger according to the specifics of the rune.
Certain runes sometimes call for additional ingredients in the ink such as concentrated water obtained from boiling tubes of rare lilies or animal parts. Immediately after the pattern has been punctured with heavy spikes made of bronze, the pierced areas are dabbed with crushed leaves of Kyet hin gar Padaing (Dutura suaveolens) or Maizeli (cassia siamea) which gives a greenish tinge to the black, a colour much admired in tattoos.
For about a week until the scabs fall off, the pricked skin is washed with water in which gourd leaves or the bark of the plum tree has been boiled or hours. After that, the rune is supposed to work. The power of suggestion can be extremely strong and many a tattoo have given confidence to thousands of men over the ages.