Deep in the west of Burma, a two-day drive from Yangon where Chin State meets Rakhine State, live a group of women with facial tattoos. They are the women of the Southern Chin and are the largest group of traditionally face-tattooed women in Asia. They are also extremely proficient weavers, and make much of the fabric which we sell at Kalinko.
These women live in villages which are still exactly as they were 100 years ago. Many still dress in fabrics they have woven themselves. Their wooden and bamboo houses are raised high off the ground from the monsoon rains, and accessed by narrow wooden planks. Whole families live in one room with a fire at one end for cooking, and floor mats at the other for sleeping. Most men work in the surrounding farms, and most women look after the home, with any spare time spent weaving traditional fabrics both to wear and to sell.
And totally uniquely, until the turn of the century, these women’s faces were tattooed at puberty from edge to edge with the marks of their ethnic group. The most recent confirmed facial tattoo took place twenty years ago, when Khin Htay was 12 years old. She is now 32 and is the youngest known face to bear the intricate pattern of her ethnic group, the Laytu, across her forehead, cheeks, nose, chin and eyelids.
Khin Htay’s tattoo would have been applied with great ceremony in the same way that it has been done for centuries: the tattoo master is welcomed into the house at sunrise and presented with a white chicken. Fresh rice plants and a chicken egg are placed by their side to please the spirits. Ink made from a mixture of soot and sap is then administered using bound rattan thorns. The pattern is built up slowly over up to eight hours, sometimes days, or in some instances in stages over a number of years. The egg is rolled over the girl’s face to soothe the cuts as they go. Once complete, the artist is rewarded with a cotton blanket, a glass beaded necklace, a basket of raw cotton and a cotton ball.
Technically, Khin Htay’s tattoos are illegal, the practice having been outlawed in the late 60s. However, given the remote nature of the villages, it carried on long beyond the ban.
Khin Htay’s story, everything written here, and certainly the most precise records of these facial tattoos in existence is thanks to the tireless study of Jens Uwe Parkitny. Jens is from Germany, but is married to a Burmese lady, Swe Yi, and has spent time in Burma since 1999, long before the country opened up to tourists. He spent 14 years travelling to and from one of the most remote areas of Burma to study and photograph this tradition. The resulting portfolio is amongst the most astonishing and beautiful anthropological records on earth.
Where does this tradition come from? Why do they do it? And what do the tattoos mean? Much of this remains a mystery, but thanks to Jens, we do have some level of understanding about these remarkable women.
Jens points out that the first records of Chin facial tattoos is the account of a British Major in 1800, who met a lady with a full facial tattoo who when asked about the origin explained that “they did not know, but said it had existed from time immemorial, and that it was invariably performed on every female, at a certain age.” So even 200 years ago, nobody was really sure.
The common misconception is that it was to make them less attractive, in order to deter those looking to kidnap beautiful women and enslave them at the Burmese court. However, as Jens explains, not only is there no evidence for this, but it also totally contradicts the global practice of tattooing as a way to enhance one’s beauty, or to make a proud cultural statement.
Instead, he points to a far more complex explanation. These tattoos are “a visual expression of belonging and identity, of the ability to endure pain, of having mastered the rite-of-passage, of being a full member of the community with duties, privileges and status, of a particular perception of beauty and - last but not least - of a certain spiritual and supernatural belief”. Certainly, the pain of the process sets them apart from un-tattooed peers. Their proven mental and physical strength gives them a higher social standing in the village.
Jens has managed to identify and photograph 11 major groups and various subgroups distinguished tattoo patterns, and geographical differences between them. For example, the groups in the mountainous Chin Highlands have simple designs, but those down near the Lemro river have much more complex and intricate patterns.
Very little is known about why this would be, or about what any of the patterns mean. Jens speculates as to whether the circular pattern of the Laytu group references the sun, which would tally with their ancient animist belief system. Some have Y-shaped marks which could possibly reference the posts used in sacrificial rituals. But this is conjecture.
What we do know, is that given nobody has been tattooed for 20 years, these are truly the last remaining facially tattooed women in Burma. And given the situation that the country finds itself in today, and the difficulty of accessing the most rural parts of the country, Jens’ photographs, and accompanying illustrations, may be the only conclusive study of these women to ever be done.
He is working on a similar study of leg tattooing in men from the Bama and Kayin ethnic groups. These tattoos are visual expressions of manhood and courage, but also of supernatural strength. The iconography here is slightly more straightforward: peacocks and geckos near the waistline are traditionally an expression of sexual prowess. Tigers down the thighs symbolise strength, literally imbuing them with the strength of a tiger.
Unlike the Chin facial tattoos, leg tattoos were so prolific before the British arrived that it was “unthinkable for men of the Bama, Shan or Kayin to not permanently adorn their skin from waist to below their knees with mythical or animal figurines.” Men of all classes, including laymen and aristocrats, had tattooed thighs. It was the rite of passage to adulthood, as Jens explains, “a transformation from timid young boy to courageous man”.
The tradition started to fade from 1886 and ceased almost completely once the country became independent in 1948. So the remaining men with leg tattoos are all in their 70s and 80s, and will soon die out. Jens’s work on this project is still in progress, but until then you can learn more about the Chin facial tattoos in his astonishing book, Marked for Life. It’s more than just photography. It is an astonishing cultural record, the first and only of its kind. You can buy his book on amazon and prints of his beautiful photographs through our website.
It’s hard to find a more powerful expression of the diversity of Burmese ethnic culture than Jens’s photographs. The portraits are so arresting, the concept so unique, and the craftsmanship of the tattoos totally astounding.