From ancient time to nowadays, tattoo has became part of Burma’s culture. Between art and mysticism.
An old Burmese saying goes: “Getting married, building a pagoda and getting a tattoo are the three things that once undertaken can only be altered afterwards with great difficulty”. Despite the advice, tattooing has become fashionable again among today’s youth. 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 one thousand years, probably to discourage Burmese 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.
The animist superstition of tattooing the body as a protection against evil spirits may seem to conflict with Buddhist principles, but that isn’t the case. Theravada Buddhist tattooing took its inspiration from the three spiritual planes that form the cornerstones of ancient tribal tattooing: pain, permanence and the loss of one’s life source (blood). This mystical trio elevated the tattoo from a mere art form into an opportunity for devotees to form a transcendent relationship with the gods, obtain magical powers or protection and enter a trance or visionary state.
The most common Buddhist artwork is the sak yan, or yantra, the physical expression of a mantra. The image itself is considered sacred and may be a symbol of worship or meditation. Many images, such as the tiger and the lotus, are of Hindu origin. The script of a mantra is in ancient Pali and every line represents a point in the Buddha’s teachings.
Sak yan tattoos are religious, never decorative, and some monks apply the tattoo in invisible ink.
Nowhere can the belief in tattoos be witnessed better than at the annual Wai Kru Festival in late March at Wat Bang Phra in Nakorn Pathom, some 30 km northwest of Bangkok.
Thousands come every year to receive the blessing of monks who apply tattoos with Indian ink, using traditional steel skewers, and bless the devotees with the protection of an animal spirit such as a dragon, tiger, or Hanuman, the monkey god of Hindu mythology. The monks take their place at small tables and people form queues to receive a mystic tattoo. The monks chant softly as they work. Concentric lines of yantra are sketched into the backs and shaved skulls of the devotees all day. After they have received the tattoo, the men offer incense, fruit, cigarettes and small wads of cash to the monks. Then they go, no doubt feeling that little bit safer if not immortal.