Tattoos and Tattooing

   Until recently, tattoos were widely used in Southeast Asia for decoration of the body, and Burma was no exception. Most rural Burman (Bamar) men had tattoos of a dark bluish hue, usually extending from the waist to the knees, which reminded colonial-era British observers of a tightly fitting pair of shorts. The designs were commonly of animals, nats, bilus (demons), and stylized letters of the Burmese alphabet. Young men underwent the ordeal of tattooing by a se saya (tattoo master), using natural pigments (lampblack gave the bluish hue) and primitive but elaborately decorated needles, to make themselves attractive to women and exhibit their manly stoicism (men boasted of having large areas of skin tattooed at one time in spite of the terrible pain). Additional tattoos were often placed on the arms, chest, or back. Some designs had magical as well as aesthetic appeal; along with other charms, they were believed to make the bearer invulnerable to swords or bullets, help in winning the affections of a young woman, or defend against snake bite or black magic. Many of the peasant soldiers who joined Saya San's Rebellion in 1930 had special charms tattooed on their bodies to protect them from British bullets. Burman women rarely had tattoos, and never in visible places.
   Some of Burma's ethnic minorities, such as the Shans and the Chins, have their own tattoo traditions. Shan men often had elaborate decorations over their entire bodies, exceeding in complexity those of the Burmans. Chin women had geometric decorations tattooed on their faces. During the 20th century, the use of tattoos declined widely throughout the country, a consequence of modernization. By the 1990s, only a few old men could be seen with tattooed thighs. But tattooing has not died out entirely among younger men, and health experts warn that the use of infected needles is a significant cause of the spread of AIDS.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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