Tattoo History 15: Myanmar

Tattoos have long been an important part of Myanmar (Burmese) culture. Legend has it that tattoos were first introduced to what was then called Burma around 200 BCE by ethnic minorities that migrated to the area from southwest China. 

Yaw Shen, who got her tattoos at the age of 15, entertains visitors by playing the nose flute, also a vanishing art. (Credit- Dave Stamboulis)

Tattooing was/is a very important part of belonging to Myanmar, and everyone from the kings to commoners would get work done, and continue to do so even today. Early on tattoos were a way of showing off masculine strength as well as feminine beauty, on top of cultural identity and aesthetic appeal. Lots of tattooed people also believed (like many ancient cultures) that tattoos would serve as a protection from evil and that they (tattoos) could protect the wearer from harm. Being largely a Buddhist country (90% of the population is Buddhist), Buddhist tattoos have also been important in the area. Tattoos related to Buddhism would often be created at temples by monks, thus ensuring that the wearer would be protected from harm. 

M’kaan woman (Credit- Dave Stamboulis)

Early on in Myanmar’s history it was mainly the Shan, A Ta’I ethnic group that were getting tattooed the most frequently. The Shan States still dominate Northeast Myanmar today. Men would mainly get their waists down towards their knees tattooed as a sign of virility. Early on it’s believed that both men and women were tattooed frequently, but by the mid 1600’s only women were mainly receiving facial tattoos, particularly women of the Chin State in Western Myanmar. The women of the M’uun tribe are easily recognizable with the looping “P” or “D” shaped tattoos on their faces, along with the “Y” on their foreheads. The M’kaan women have lines on both their foreheads and chins. There are six tribes in total in the area where facial tattoos were popular for women, though sadly in the 1960’s this practice was outlawed and when these women pass away a piece of history will die with them. 

M’uun woman (Credit- Dave Stamboulis)

Below are a few charts that show what kind of person was getting what kind of tattoo, and where on the body, with regards to military action. 

Other common motifs for tattooing in Myanmar include cats of various sizes from house cats to tigers, dragons, geometric patterns, and figures from Myanmar’s and Buddhism’s history and culture. 

Information from “Tattoo Art in Myanmar Culture: Special Reference with State Bondsmen of Cavalry Corps 2016” written by Moe Moe Oo from the Ministry of Education, Myanmar, and 

Tattoo Art in Burmese Cultures: History, Technique, Design, and Symbolic Functions of Tattooing in Burma/Myanmar 

9/1/11 to 11/20/11 Northern Illinois University School of Art DeKalb IL

Edited by Harrison R.

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Japanese Blackwork Tattoos:

Japanese is undeniably one of the most popular tattoo styles, but heavy black pieces are changing the game.

Blackwork wave sleeve mixed with geometric patterns by Raimundo Ramìrez.
Spirited Away’s Yubaba done by Stephen Doan.

Japanese tattoos traditionally use lots of red and black, but also feature some yellows, orange, and shades of grey. Basically the same colour palette as original American traditional.

Blackwork tiger back done by Takizomoro.
Samurai Hannya done by Daniel Ra.

Blackwork is becoming a more and more popular style all the time, and can be done in many styles.

Blackwork leg sleeves done by Guy Le Tatooer.
Blackwork cloud sleeves with geometric patterns done by Gakkin.

Japanese blackwork often makes great use of negative space, making the subject pop, particularly when done on lighter skin tones.

Blackwork Bodhidharma by HoriNami.
Blackwork peony and snake sleeves by Lupo Horiōkami.

Some artists also mix styles such as Neo-traditional and geometric with their Japanese work. Both of these styles are often done as all black pieces, so it mixes well.

Blackwork namakubi by Damien J. Thorn.
Blackwork fish by Horihiro.

Which tattoo is your favourite?

Blackwork negative space sleeve by Oscar Hove.
3/4 sleeves and chest panels by Gotch.

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Artist of the Month: Shige

Shige works out of Yellow Blaze Tattoo Studio in Yokohama, Japan.

350
Beautiful back piece that leads into a sleeve as well as legs.
592
Very bright sleeve.
1385
Full leg sleeve.
2977
Rib panel that attaches to a back piece.

He has been tattooing since 1995, after teaching himself the craft.

378
Brilliant bodysuit.
720
Full samurai back piece.
1409
3/4 sleeve with a Buddhist goddess, Benzaiten.
3246
Hannya torso piece.

He tattoos in the Japanese style, while adding some realism to his pieces, making a lot of his work neo-Japanese.

555
Full sleeve that also contains some coverups.
754
Hannya back piece.
1987
Hannya chest piece.
3620
Full body suit with lots of colour.

Shige does large pieces including full sleeves, leg sleeves, back pieces, chest, and body suits.

573
Half hannya torso piece mixed with tribal in a collaborative piece.
810
Almost full bodysuit with lots of natural imagery.
1992
Tiger on top of the head.
1993
Fudo Myoo on the back of the head.

Much of Shige’s work revolves around Buddhism, including demons and gods and goddesses.

576
Bright full sleeve.
1278
Sleeve topped with a raven.
2141
Bright red hand piece of Agyou.

Shige is a must see artist in Japan.

Geisha Tattoos:

The geisha, or, “person of accomplishment” date back to 1751 in the mid-Tokugawa period in Japan. Geisha’s were originally men, but eventually became women.

geisha Ami James
Deep in thought by Ami James.

Geisha’s were trained artists skilled in tea ceremony, flower arranging, and as singers, dancers, storytellers, servers, and conversationalists. These women were all literate and were familiar with poetry and tales of warriors in order to entertain their patrons. Geisha’s were not prostitutes, but worked in the pleasure districts, also called “the floating world” and while not they were not sex workers, some did become concubines or mistresses for men who would buy their contracts from their masters.

geisha Andrew Mcnally at Northside Private Rooms in Newcastle
Black and grey neo Japanese geisha with cherry blossoms by Andrew Mcnally at Northside Private Rooms in Newcastle, UK.
geisha Anna Yershova
Realistic side/stomach piece with cherry blossoms by Anna Yershova.
geisha Asakusa Horiyasu
Brilliant Japanese back piece by Horiyasu.

Geisha’s are known for their musical prowess, particularly with an instrument called samisen, which today is also used in kabuki plays and has an inherently “Japanese” sound. As for appearance, while working a geisha would wear a kimono tied from the back, which is another difference between a geisha and a prostitute as a prostitute would have her kimono tied in the front. A thick white foundation of makeup is applied to the face, neck, and upper chest, with a line around the hairline creating a mask like appearance. Other makeup includes black around the eyes and eyebrows with bright red lips.

geisha Daniel Gensch
Fantastic neo traditional neck piece also with cherry blossoms, by Daniel Gensch in Berlin, Germany.
geisha Emily Rose Murray
A more Westernized neo traditional geisha by Emily Rose Murray in Melbourne, Australia.
geisha Gakkin
Blackwork Japanese piece of a sly looking geisha by Gakkin in Amsterdam.
geisha Horihana in Brasil
Another traditional Japanese back piece with cherry blossoms, skeleton, and Buddhist imagery by Horihana in Brazil.
Geisha Jarrad Serafino at The Sweet Life Tattoo in Melbourne
Dark American traditional geisha and flower by Jarrad Serafino at The Sweet Life Tattoo in Melbourne, Australia.

Geisha’s still exist today, though due in part to the rigorous training in order to become one, are much less frequent. Today, geisha’s mainly entertain politicians at parties.

geisha Kevin Nocerino at Still Life Tattoo
Neo traditional namakubi or severed head geisha with peony by Kevin Nocerino at Still Life Tattoo.
geisha Mark Wosgerau
Realistic black and grey geisha by Mark Wosgerau at Sinners Inc in Denmark.
geisha Michael Litovkin
Bold mix of black and grey and colour in a realistic style by Michael Litovkin.
geisha Pavel Krim
Soft, colourful, realistic geisha by Pavel Krim in Stockholm.
Geisha Reuben Todd at Kapala tattoo in Winnipeg
American traditional black and red work by Reuben Todd at Kapala Tattoo in Winnipeg.

As a tattoo a geisha will generally be done in Japanese traditional style, neo Japanese, American traditional, neo traditional, black and grey, or realism.

geisha Shon Lindauer in Hollywood
American traditional work by Shon Lindauer in Hollywood.
geisha Thomas Pineiro at Black Garden Tattoo in the UK
Fantastic Japanese piece by Thomas Pineiro at Black Garden Tattoo in the UK.
geisha Tony Nilsson in Norway
Bold American traditional piece by Tony Nilsson in Norway.
geisha Victor Octaviano
Modern watercolor piece by Victor Octaviano in Brazil.
Geisha William Roos in Stockholm
tiny blackwork geisha and hannya by William Roos in Stockholm.
Geisha Zak Partak in Toronto
Geisha head and fan by Zak Partak in Toronto.

Geisha’s are an important part of Japanese history and make a fantastic design!