When it comes to tattoos, the UK and Burma aren’t so different: in the UK, one in three young adults has a tattoo, and in Burma the most sought-after tattoo artists have waiting lists three months long.
The British craze started in 19th Century high society, when Cook’s voyages to the South Pacific discovered the trend on Polynesian islanders. It then became a sailor thing, and the preserve of the traditional working classes. These days, getting inked is about as normal as picking up a duck wrap at Pret. It’s a form of expression, the product of a rite-of-passage trip to Thailand, or a way to razzle your parents.
In Burma, the tradition is older than time. Historically, Bamar men were tattooed in boyhood from the waist to the knees, to provide immunity to bullets and knives, or in the case of cat figures on the thighs, to make a man jump with the power of a tiger. Spiritual protection, social status and armour against disease were also inked into shoulder blades, arms, wrists, heads, and in extreme cases, tongues, across tribes and clans all over the country.
You still see these traditional markings, mostly in rural villages and amongst the older men.
But the most beguiling are the facial-tattoos of the Chin women, a tradition outlawed in the 60s by the military regime, but which lives on in Burma’s Southern Chin and Rakhine state. Women of these remote hill tribes tattoo their faces all-over with intricate markings which are unique to their group.
Some women’s faces are almost entirely tattooed. Others have patterns of lines, dots and circles. The meaning behind the markings is lost in history; not even the women know what they stand for, but they do know that their tattoos make them beautiful, and mark their identity, belonging, duty and status within their community.
The ink is soot mixed with the powdered dry gall bladder of fish or cattle, and is administered using a rattan thorn. The tattoos are applied during puberty as a sign of sexual maturity, and a shift in her duties within the village.
The tattoo is applied with great ceremony: the tattoo artist is welcomed into the household at sunrise, and presented with a white chicken, fresh rice plants and a chicken egg. The egg is rolled over the girl’s face to soothe the cuts as they go. It takes up to eight hours to complete the full face, at which point the artist is rewarded with a cotton blanket, a glass beaded necklace, a basket of raw cotton and a cotton ball. (NB all information about the tradition of Chin Tattoos, and most of these photographs come from Jens Uwe Parkitny’s extensive study of the subject. I highly recommend both of his books, Marked for Life and Bloodfaces, and his beautiful hotel, Loikaw Lodge, where his photographs are permanently exhibited).
These days, it is of course the choice of the girl whether she is tattooed or not. Most, unsurprisingly, choose not to, but there are still a handful of villages where teenage girls still opt for tradition over trend. Our weavers come from one of these villages, and, as beautifully presented by Jens in his book, their tattoo markings often reflect their weaving patterns.
This beautiful tradition will inevitably fade with time, along with other vestiges of time-gone-by which will be swallowed by development. This strengthens our resolve to support these village weavers, and help to preserve their traditional patterns in our fabrics. Understandably, the tattoos will go, but let's try and save the patterns.