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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Tattoo history 14: Percy Waters

Percy Waters was a well-known American tattoo artist from the early 1900’s. Born in 1888, in Anniston, Alabama, he was (allegedly) first introduced to tattooing through the sideshows of traveling circuses that passed through his hometown. At the time he was learning the trade of molder, and tattooing locals became a hobby on the side. 

Man tattooed by Percy Waters from Docks Weird Years
Percy Waters at work, featuring Pharaohs Horses. From Gabriele Donnini

He’s known to many as a Michigan artist, and not from a small town in Alabama, due to the fact that in 1917 he tattooed someone he shouldn’t have and got in trouble. He left Anniston and moved to Detroit, Michigan. He built up a successful tattoo business where he also sold supplies to other tattoo artists. In 1929 he even got a license for his tattoo machine design, which was an adjustable two-coil electromagnetic machine that hasn’t changed too much in modern tattoo machines. It had also taken almost 55 years (from 1875) for the tattoo machine to be adjusted after Edison’s machine. In 1939 he moved back to Anniston and ran what was most likely the biggest tattoo supply company in the world at the time until his death in 1952. 

Two men tattooed by Percy Waters
Man tattooed by Percy Waters in 1921

Percy was very modest and was known to call himself “just a good tattooer”; However, he was quite well known regardless of his humility, particularly in the sideshow world where he tattooed “tattoo attractions” such as; Bobby Smith, Red Van, Detroit Dutch, Shelley Kemp, Clyde Williams, and Mrs. Ted Hamilton among others. 

Percy Waters flash from 1923 from Docks Weird Years
Battle Royale painted by Percy Waters from Docks Weird Years

His style stays true to early 20th century old school designs. With classics such as portraits of women, dragons, eagles, snakes, panthers, good luck symbols, ships, and more. His original designs are still redrawn often today, and many contemporary artists are heavily inspired by him in their own styles. 

Percy Waters design by Ryan Cooper Thompson
Percy Waters flash from Docks Weird Years

Some of the most well-known tattoos he did were Pharaohs’ Horses as a back piece, an image of a woman riding an eagle, and whole-body suits made up of patriotic American pieces coupled with images such as butterflies, flowers, dragons, snakes, and ladies. 

Percy Waters business card from Celluloid Dreams
Percy Waters business card from Celluloid Dreams

Do you have a Percy Waters tattoo?

Edited by Harrison R.

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Fukushi Masaichi “the skin collector”

Fukushi Masaichi (1878-1956) was famous for his interesting and macabre collection of human skin, specifically tattooed human skin. Dr. Fukushi was a Japanese physician, pathologist, and professor of Nippon Medical School in Tokyo. He was studying moles and movement of pigmentation in human skin, which is how he became interested in tattoos; more specifically Japanese bodysuits. This interest led to him collecting tattooed human skin after people died (with their permission).

Dr. Fukushi worked for a long time at the Mitsui Memorial Hospital in Tokyo, which mainly helped the poorer and lower classes. At the time, these classes were largely the kind of people who were also getting tattooed in Japan such as gangsters, construction workers, and other day labourers.

The doctor had such a fascination and interest in tattoos that he even paid for some people to get full bodysuits, or to finish existing work on the condition that he could harvest their skin when they died. 

This fascination also lead to him forming friendships with his tattooed patients, and helped form the Tattoo League of Japan. The League would meet in public bathhouses to show off their body art to each other and the doctor.

Don Ed hardy is one of the few lucky foreigners to have seen the collection in 1983 at the invitation of Dr. Katsunari Fukushi, Masaichi’s son, who also continued the collection. At the time there were over 3,000 photographs of tattoos, over 100 tattooed human skins, and notes and records from Masaichi. 

Edited by Harrison R.

Information from: Don Ed Hardy, Remains to be Seen, in Tattoo Time, Volume 4: Life and Death Tattoos, (1987).

Vice Magazine, June 29 2015, Simon Davis. Human Pelts: The Art of Preserving Tattooed Skin After Death

https://www.eikondevice.com/blog/tattoo-histories-skin-collector-fukushi-masaichi-1878-1956

Tattoo History 13: Doc Forbes

Doc Forbes is one of the most famous early tattoo artists in Canadian history, having learned the craft from Frederick Baldwin, the first tattoo artist in Canada to use an electric tattoo machine, in the 1920’s. 

Doc Forbes showing his sleeves off, from Classic Tattoo Appreciation
1966 heart by Curly Allen on Hasting street .. and 1967 swallow and rose by Doc Forbes at Ace Tattoo on Davies Street

Doc Forbes trained under numerous brilliant artists including Pat Martynuik from San Francisco. Much of Doc’s work can be found in Lyle Tuttle’s collection, although unfortunately Doc suffered a stroke in the early 70’s which led to severe depression, which in turn led to him destroying a lot of his work. 

Doc Forbes tattooing a sailor around 1965 while his buddies look on. From vintage tattoo photo archive
Doc Forbes with a young man from the Navy that he tattooed. Picture from New York Tattoo History

Doc Forbes tattooed in the classic old school American traditional style, and most notably worked near the navy base in Victoria, and then on Davies Street right in Vancouver from the 1960’s through to the 1970’s. He died in 1977 on Lyle Tuttle’s birthday; October 10th. Though Doc was a pioneer of old school tattooing in Canada, he also performed medical tattoos on burn victims, and cosmetic tattooing on women’s lips and eyebrows. 

1960’s pink panther by Doc Forbes
Doc working on a woman’s back from Classic Tattoo Appreciation

Doc tattooed everyone, but his main clientele was young men in the Navy who often got classic military and navy designs such as eagles, skulls, roses, ships, and lover’s names. 

Doc tattooing a young woman’s chest, from Docks Weird Years
Leg sleeves in progress by Doc, from New York Tattoo History

A brilliant documentary about Doc can be seen here on CBC’s website. Made in 1964, and entitled “The Diary of a Tattooist,” the short documentary and interview features CBC host Harry Mannis visiting Doc in his shop in Victoria. Numerous people are tattooed in the short film including a mother of four, a man in his 80’s, a close friend of Doc’s, and two sailors. Throughout the documentary Doc talks about hygiene and safety in tattooing, how he makes his colours, the technicality of running the machine, who his clientele are, and much more.

$18 for the pair on a man before he joined the navy
Doc tattooing Lyle Tuttle

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Tattoo History 11: Tattooed Ladies

Pictures courtesy of Vintage Tattoo Photo Archive.

For over 100 years, “The Tattooed Lady” was an attraction not to be missed at circuses, carnivals, and freak shows all around the world. While men also performed and showed off their tattooed bodies, women were what people wanted to see. Pick a time in history, or modern day, and sex and danger sells. Thus, tattooed women sold tickets wherever they went, and attracted tourists and locals alike.

Some of the most famous tattooed ladies of the 1800’s and 1900’s also had fabricated back stories to make themselves seem more interesting. What’s more interesting (especially given the times); “woman tattooed by force after capture by ‘savages'”, or “woman gets tattooed by her common-law partner?” This was part of the fabrication and later true story of Nora Hildebrandt.

Betty Broadbent April 4th 1938, Australia

Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first professional tattooed lady. She was tattooed by her common-law partner, Martin Hildebrandt (some people refer to them as father and daughter but more evidence points to them being romantic partners rather than father and daughter). Martin Hildebrandt is a hard person to pin down due to the amount of traveling he did. But according to numerous reports it looks like he eventually settled in New York in the 1850’s. Nora Hildebrandt began performing at sideshows in 1882, with over 365 tattoos all over her body. This number helped her fake back story of being captured by “Indian savages” and forcibly tattooed one per day for a year (which she later admitted was false and just helped sell tickets). Nora most famously performed with Barnum and Bailey’s circus in the 1890’s as their main tattooed lady.

Nora Hildebrandt 1880’s

Artoria (Anne) Gibbons is another well known tattooed lady. She worked for over 30 years in circuses and sideshows in the early 1900’s including Barnum and Bailey’s, the Ringling Brothers, and others. She met Charles “Red” Gibbons, an already well known tattooer, and the two eventually married. After being married for 4-5 years, Red started tattooing Anne, and she became almost like a business card or canvas to showcase his work. She was apparently so beautiful, and the tattoos on her body so well done, that she stole the show wherever she went. In an interview in 1934, Anne said that she was often asked if she was born that way (seriously). From medieval times to the mid 1900’s many people believed in the “mark of impression,” that something the mother had done or seen would leave a physical mark on the baby. Doctors legitimately thought that her mother had watched too many movies while she was pregnant with Anne and that’s why she was covered in images.

Artoria Gibbons and her famous last supper tattoo in 1920

A third well known tattooed lady was Betty Broadbent. She was born in the early 1900’s and at the age of 14 went to work for a wealthy family in Atlantic City as a nanny. It was there that she came across the heavily tattooed man, Jack Red Cloud on the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. He was performing as a Tattooed Man and was happy to talk to her about tattoos and art. Betty started her body suit after being introduced to Jack’s friend, the famous Charlie Wagner. She spent her life savings tot ravel to New York City to and start being tattooed by Wagner. She was also tattooed by another New York artist named Joe Van Hart, and eventually collected pieces from Tony Rhineagear and Red Gibbons. The process took about two years and included 365 individual pieces, varying in theme. They covered her arms, legs, back, and chest. Pieces included historical figures such as Queen Victoria, religious figures such as the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Though one of her most notable pieces is a huge eagle that spreads from shoulder to shoulder. When asked about it she reportedly said “it hurt something awful, but it was worth it.”She joined the circus in 1927, working with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s. Betty was also one of the few well known Tattooed Ladies who didn’t use a fabricated story about her tattoos.

Betty Broadbent, April 4th in38, Australia

The last Tattooed Lady I looked at is Maud Wagner. Along with being a Tattooed Lady, Maud also performed aerial acrobatics and was an accomplished contortionist who travelled with multiple circuses. She was born in 1877 in Kansas. Maud met her husband, Gus Wagner at the Louisiana World’s fair in 1904, and learned how to do hand-poked tattoos from him. She would become America’s first known female tattooer, along with her work as a performer in the circus industry. The couple had a daughter, Lotteva, who learned the family trade at the age of 9 and continued tattooing throughout her life. Maud’s tattoos included patriotic art, and animals mainly.

Maud Wagner 1907

It is often assumed that men dominated the tattoo world, but through research it’s clear to see that women have been just as important in shaping tattoo culture. Tattooed Ladies brought tattoos to the forefront of underground society, and helped make them “more acceptable.” Tattooed Ladies were able to make a name and living for themselves for over 100 years, from the late 1800’s to mid 1990’s through circuses and carnivals, and now are able to through websites and magazines.

Who is your favourite historical tattooed lady?

https://www.cloakanddaggerlondon.co.uk/history-tattooed-attraction-betty-broadbent/

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/05/maud-wagner-known-as-the-inked-woman-was-the-first-female-tattoo-artist-in-america/

https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/gibbons_artoria.php

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Tattoo History 10: George Burchett

Referred to as the “king of tattooists” by himself and others, George Burchett- (Davis) was one of the most famous tattoo artists of his age, particularly in the UK. Notably tattooing in London, marking both the social elite and the hard working class, and even members of the Royal family.

George working on a forearm piece. (photo colourized)
Burchett Devil by Quinn Jordan Campbell.

In Burchett’s “Memoirs of a Tattooist” he states that “I have tattooed the subjects of six sovereigns, starting with portraits of Queen Victoria. The tradition has been maintained and still seemed to be strong when I prepared the designs for the coronation of 1953.” He also reminisces about tattooing The Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one of Queen Victoria’s favorite nephews, Prince Christian Victor, a grandson of Queen Victoria, and King GeorgeV. Along with English royalty he also tattooed King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and King Frederick IX of Denmark.

Burchett was born in Brighton in 1872, and had a very early introduction to tattooing. He practiced tattooing on his five year old brother, Charles, who apparently traded candy for some scratched designs in his skin. George also tattooed his classmates until he was expelled for doing so at the age of twelve.

Burchett doing a full back. Found thanks to vintage tattoo archive, linked at the end of article.
Burchett tiger head done by Mike C Davies.

After being expelled, George joined the Royal Navy and sailed as a deckhand all over the British Empire, including stops in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and East Asia. This was also where he fell farther in love with tattooing, as he was able to see marvellous styles and designs from all over the world. He was able to develop his own skill and style by tattooing other sailors.

Life at sea proved to not be for George, so he left the navy while on leave in Israel, and set up his first shop in Jerusalem. This only lasted a short time as he feared being caught by authorities for deserting the navy. This led to him boarding a Spanish merchant ship. He was able to avoid persecution for twelve years, but missed England. It was at this point that he dropped the “Davis” in his last name to make it harder to catch him, and set up shop in London, but this time as a cobbler. Though he did continue to tattoo on the side whenever the opportunity arose. During this time he was fortunate enough to meet two other legendary artists, Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald. MacDonald took George under his wing and taught him more about techniques and designs of tattooing.

Burchett black trad design by Coque Sin Amo.
George’s shop. Found on vintage tattoo archive.

During his time as a cobbler/tattooer he grew more and more popular with the working class as a top tattoo artist, working mainly on sailors, dock workers, and transients that happened through London from all around the world. In 1900 George was able to start tattooing full time and give up cobbling. He opened a proper shop on Mile End Road where he could easily catch soldiers on their way to the front lines in World War One.

As his shop grew in clientele, so did his reputation, leading him to tattoo more wealthy Londoners, and even royals. Though Riley and MacDonald tattooed more royals than he.

King Frederick IX of Denmark, dragon on the chest tattooed by Burchett in London.
George tattooing “The Great Omi.”

Another of his more famous clients was “The Great Omi,” (Horace Ridler) who was a well known circus performer. George was paid several thousand dollars to tattoo a full body suit that turned The Great Omi into a human zebra.

George is also one of (if not the) first artists to use tattooing as a cosmetic procedure, tattooing women lips and eyebrows (though he also tattooed many flowers and lovers initials on his female clientele).

George tattooing a woman’s eyebrows.
Colourized photo of Burchett tattooing a woman’s leg.

George Burchett was undeniable a classic American traditional artist, though like many historical and modern tattooers, drew influence from African and Asian art that he had the good fortune to see during his travels at sea.

He tried to retire at the age of 70 in 1942, but because of World War Two, tattoos were at an all time high demand, essentially forcing him and his two sons to tattoo the immense amount of soldiers and sailors walking through the door.

Another shot of “The Great Omi.”
Burchett battle piece done by Nick Roses.

Because he never retired, George worked until Good Friday of 1953 when he died suddenly at the age of 81. His work is still highly influential today with people still getting his designs, or variations of them, tattooed in large numbers.

To read more on Burchett’s life and legacy check out the links below: https://www.tattoolife.com/tattoo-portraits-george-burchett-king-tattooists/

https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/burchett_george_charles.php

As well as the books “King of Tattooists: The Life and Work of George Burchett” and “Memoirs of a Tattooist

Check out https://www.instagram.com/vintagetattoophotoarchive/ for more vintage tattoo photos

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Sun Dancer Tattoos:

The Sun Dancer tattoo is an easily recognizable American traditional design, first painted by Bert Grimm, a pioneer of American traditional tattooing who worked from around 1916-1970. An important part of Indigenous history and culture, the Sun Dance is a spiritual ceremony that was and is still very important to different groups, primarily to those of the plains cultures in America and Canada.

Sun Dancer with eagle and heads by Fabio Onorini.
Blackwork back done by Clemens Hahn.

The ceremony is a gruelling but important one, primarily (though not entirely) performed by males. The dancer fasts, going without both food and drink for days at a time, while dancing around a sacred fire and traditional pole meant to represent the sun. Others drum and sing prayers while the dancer dances until exhausted.

Sun Dancer true to Bert Grimm by Kim-Anh.
Backpiece true to Bert Grimm by Gustavo Silvano.

As part of the ceremony, piercing and suspension is also common. This involves a leader piercing rods into the chest or back of the dancer, while they drag a bison head until the skin rips. Other variations involve horses pulling at the rods, or the dancer being suspended from the pole by the rods in their skin. This inspired modern suspension.

Blackwork interpretation by Flurick Ruslan.
Cute foot Sun Dancer by Heath Arnolde.

Often times the dancer would become delirious and hallucinate both from the physical and mental exertion, topped with dehydration and extreme hunger. Unfortunately the ceremony was banned in Canada in 1885 under the Indian Act, but the ban was dropped in 1951, though Indigenous people continue(d) to be treated unfairly. Today the Sun Dance is still performed by some communities.

Sun Dancer with dragon in this piece by Florian Santus.
Big thigh Sun Dancer done by Nick Griffiths.

One of the first examples of this ceremony being painted is Bert Grimm’s Sun Dancer flash and tattoo. The original painting depicts a girl dancing with her left knee raised, right hand holding a spear, with a shield depicting a bald eagle in her left hand. A red sun and traditional roses make up the background.

Sun Dancer and dragon by Rich Hadley.
Skeletal Sun Dancer by Roger Oliveira.

As the design was first made by a pioneer of American traditional tattooing, it is mainly tattooed today in the same style. Though people do take artistic liberties, sometimes including animals or other flowers, and even changing the subject of the tattoo. It is often done as a back tattoo, but can also be seen on arms and legs, usually as still large pieces, though through adaptation artists have created smaller pieces as well.

Punk interpretation in a painting by Miguel Neils.
A more neo traditional animal version of the Sun Dance by Robson Nagata.

To read more about the Sun Dance please check out https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sun-dance

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Tattoo History 9: Lyle Tuttle

Lyle Tuttle was known as the father of modern tattooing, working in the industry from the late 1940’s until his death ( March 2019).

Lyle outside his San Francisco shop

He got his first tattoo at the young age of 14 for the cheap price of $3.50 and was hooked immediately.

Lyle’s front done by Bert Grimm

Lyle’s most well known tattoos on himself were done by the famous Bert Grimm back in 1957 and 1958 at the very shop he would then work at for a number of years, known affectionately as “The Pike”.

Lyle’s back done by Bert Grimm

After working for Bert Grimm, and a couple of smaller shops, Lyle opened his own shop in San Fransisco in 1960. He worked at the shop for 29 years before an earthquake damaged it. After tattooing for years he officially retired in the 90’s, but did small pieces for friends and dedicated fans. He also taught courses on building proper tattoo machines and tattoo etiquette and hygiene.

Lyle tattooing a customer

Lyle was one of the most outspoken male tattoo artists who were pro tattooing women, and women becoming tattoo artists. When asked about what helped tattooing gain such rapid popularity he said “Women’s liberation! One hundred percent women’s liberation! That put tattooing back on the map. With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they so desired. It increased and opened the market by 50% of the population — half of the human race! For three years, I tattooed almost nothing but women. Most women got tattooed for the entertainment value…circus side show attractions and so forth. Self-made freaks, that sort of stuff. The women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form.”

Lyle was also a huge advocate for the normalization of tattooing and is famous for saying “Tattoos aren’t meant for everybody, and they’re too goddamn good for some people.”

Lyle’s famous business card

Another of my favourite quotes of his reads thus, “Tattoos are travel marks, stickers on your luggage. Tattoos are special, you have to go off and earn them. You can go into a jewelry store and buy a big diamond and slip it on your finger and walk out. It’s not like that when you go into a tattoo shop and pick a big tattoo and pay for it. Now you got to sit down and take it.”

Old school Lyle flash

This is something I strongly believe in. When people ask me why I get them if they hurt so much, I say it’s part of the experience. And if someone says “just use a numbing cream”, I say you have to earn that tattoo. If you can’t take it, don’t get one.

Old school Lyle flash

Lyle will be greatly missed by his friends, family, and those in the tattoo community. Do yourself a favour and get yourself a piece from his flash in the near future to keep his work alive.

Old school Lyle flash

Tattoo History 8: Myanmar’s Tattooed Chin Women

All pictures are by Eric Lafforgue, not myself.

There are 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar. One of them is called Chin, after the Chin state that they live in. Each of these groups has rich cultural traditions. The Chin people are known for their remarkable face tattoos. The women of Chin state have been getting face tattoos since the eleventh century according to legend.

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The tradition of tattooing the faces of girls started when a Burmese king visited the area. Becoming enthralled with the young women he kidnapped one young girl to be his bride. The elders then decided to tattoo their young girls faces to dissuade other men from stealing them. It is also said to make them more beautiful, and to be able to tell them apart from the women in other tribes. The third legend of the beginning of face tattooing is that local pastors told them only those with face tattoos would get into heaven. This being after the area was colonized by British missionaries.

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There are different tattoo patterns for different groups within the Chin state. For example, the M’uun women have more sloping, curved shapes, the Yin Du have long vertical lines that cross the entire face, and the Uppriu have their entire face tattooed full of dots.

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As with most of these ancient tattoo traditions, it is extremely painful to get them done. The tattoos are made using leaves, grass, and soot. The leaves are used to make colour, the soot is sued as a disinfectant and binding agent, and the grass shoots are later used to wrap the tattoo, giving a natural bandage. The tattoo is given using long, sharp cane thorns. The face would stay swollen for 5-7 days, but it was all worth it for the beauty and tradition!

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The government banned getting these tattoos in the 60’s, but some women still practise this ancient tradition since they are so far from the capital.

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The women who still have their face tattoos love them and see them as a beautiful addition to their bodies. The younger generations don’t seem to like how they look for the most part, but the older women stick together and still admire each others art.

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