Tatts have a colourful history, and Burma’s a good example of it.
You could say tatts fulfill two needs: beauty and spirituality. For a man to have a tattoo enhances his attractiveness to the opposite sex. It is also a sign of bravery (more on that later). However, for women like the Chin and the Monypwa, tattooing is used for the opposite effect. There is some suggestion that the elaborate tattooing common to the faces of Chin women is actually an attempt by the women to look ugly and therefore removed from the unwanted advances of Burmese soldiers. I have seen pictures of Karen men with tattooing across their entire upper thighs. Although Victor Lieberman suggests that this practice was the distinguishing feature of the Burmese men in the 1700s and before. Tattooing was a right of passage although you could say it has become less so in today’s world.
The missionaries that enveloped Karen state in the 1800s found the tattooing, and its direct link to the Karen’s animist and spiritual beliefs, a threat to their work of christianising the Karen. They outlawed the practice so’s to speak and turned tattooing into a symbol of the uneducated, simple primitive. Suggesting that now they had Christianity and were educated souls it was no longer an appropriate practice. It’s also an incredibly painful process with some small possibility of death. One friend spent a week in hospital after getting his, and in True Love and Bartholomew Falla quotes the following,
The pigment is made from the smoke of burning lard, the soot from which is collected in earthenware pots and mixed with the bile of the wild bull, bear or pig…The operation is necessarily a painful one, especially considering the sensitiveness of the skin in the parts operated upon. The parts tattooed swell up, and become highly inflamed, sometimes causing high fever, but I was informed…that not more than 2 per cent die from the effects of the irritation caused.
It seems that tattooing was never far from either a spiritual or political meaning in the past. Falla talks of how Karen in Thailand were forced to be tattooed to show their allegiance to Thailand rather than Burma. That dacoits in the 1800’s were tattooed and then enrolled to fight with the Burmese against the British, it was an oath or allegiance as such. In the 1930’s a famous Burmese rebel was tattooed, as were his followers, to protect them against British bullets. It’s a common reason for getting a tattoo. GH got his first tattoo when he was about 16 and a new recruit to the KNLA. His tattoo is a grid, 3 by 3. In each square is a Burmese character. He calls them “the 9 most powerful letters of the Burmese alphabet”. From what I can gather they are letters used in everyday language but for some reason these 9 have particular importance. Before he got this tattoo, the tattoo master placed a spell to go with the tattoo. In GH’s case this was supposed to protect him from bullets. He says he didn’t really believe in it, just felt a bit of peer pressure to do it. Significantly he was later shot in the arse by one such bullet. These types of tattoo’s often have significance or meaning related to spiritual protection, a jumble of figures, symbols and magic numbers that were somehow a formulae against harm.
Tattooing is carried out in quite crude and makeshift ways, usually in the jungle, pumped through with a bottle of whisky to dull your pain, and with the use of monkey bone as your needle. One way of getting the tattoo colouring comes from a burning lamp with a piece of paper held above the flames. Onto this piece of paper forms a powder like ash substance. They mix this powder with the liquid from a leaf to get the paste for the tattoo.
Commonly I am told that tattooing is a sign of manhood. There are of course others who believe deeply in the power of tattoos and their spells. One story tells of a Karen man who got an ogre tattooed on his chest and at various points in his life he has fallen into a kind of stupor where he goes crazy and cannot be controlled, like the ogre personality has taken him over.
There are also tragically inadequate and commonly humorous elements to tattoos. One Karen friend has a sad looking wobbly cross tattooed on his arm, it represents his Christian faith but it is so woebegone I find it hard to draw any inspiration from or feel it represents anything so powerful as your faith. Falla talks of men he saw with the word “element” tattooed on their arm or the name of their “woman”, common in our western world as well, who remembers ‘Winona Forever’! One Karen man I met, perhaps in longing for a real tattoo, or perhaps out of fear of actually getting the real thing, had drawn in texter elaborate tattoos of tigers and peacocks all over his arms. Some are plainly revolutionary, references to the KNLA or some famous Karen leader.
I have not seen the elaborate thigh tattoo’s on any Karen I have met, although I have certainly seen photos. They seem to be of less significance today, perhaps their original purpose, if ever known, now completely lost. Nevertheless it is quite interesting to see them and to enquire about the bearer’s reasoning for getting them. They are rarely done with no reasoning whatsoever, and most commonly have a spiritual or political element to them. In this context I think you can see some type of defiance in Karen tattoos, a statement perhaps or an act of cultural resistance.