Yangon, Myanmar – The ink on Myo Koko‘s back is still wet as he cranes his neck to admire the reflection.
“My parents don’t like it. Their view of tattoos is that they’re for gangsters and drug users,” he says, chuckling and shaking his mop of dyed rust-blonde hair.
At the Golden Dragon tattoo studio in Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital, Koko is one of many young countrymen inking the renaissance of an art form suppressed by the colonial British government and considered taboo under the cloistered juntas that followed.
In 2011, a group mainly comprised of retired generals took power here following a much-criticised 2010 election. However, they soon surprised observers, dismantling draconian Internet and media censorship laws, and exposing Myanmar’s youth to foreign cultures on a dramatic new scale.
Now, tattoo counter-culture is going mainstream, a symbol of the social and cultural changes capsizing convention in this long-isolated country of 60 million people, which officially changed its name from Burma in 1989.
“Five years ago there was no Internet, no communication,” says tattoo artist Nga Lunn. Social media websites such as Facebook and YouTube have opened people’s eyes to music videos, international footballers and celebrities, he says. “Our country’s culture is changing… our people got their eyes widened.”
The shelves of the Golden Dragon studio are festooned with kitsch keepsakes, tattoo paraphernalia and grimacing wooden masks. A row of traditional puppets hang above the window, through which stray a discord of car horns and jangling music.
“I am a canvas of my experiences, my story etched in lines and shading,” reads a sign on the day-glo orange walls.
Indeed, Myanmar’s youth are inking their newfound cosmopolitan identity across their bodies, ditching traditional motifs for exotic foreign designs.
Ten years ago there were no tattoo parlours in Yangon, but artists say youngsters have been rushing to get under the needle in the past 18 months. New studios are popping up across town. New equipment and ink have been easier to acquire since the West lifted most trade restrictions last year.
“I don’t like those traditional tattoos because they’re old-school,” says Myat Thu, who is getting a Chinese warrior, Guan Yu, inked across his back.
His friends are becoming competitive about getting bigger and better tattoos but, like many others, Thu says his parents aren’t happy with his medium of self-expression. “My parents have a different mind. We’re not the same. I have a modern vision.”
Tattooing had been in vogue for more than 1,000 years before the British annexed the country as part of Greater India in the 19th century.
The practice was popularised during the 12th century. Various ethnic groups used tattoos to denote a boy’s ascension to manhood, beautify women’s faces or make the bearer “invincible” to the blow of a sword or spear. Ethnic Shan women would shun men without the traditional shorts tattoo covering the waist to knee. Such designs involved dozens of symbolic animals and elaborate patterns.
The people here were isolated for so long, but now tattooing is a way of showing we are modernised. Young Burmese feel proud to wear tattoos.
In some instances, criminals were branded with tattoos reading “thief” or “murderer” across their foreheads.
According to the book Myanmar Tattoos, written by Sin Pyu Jun Aung Thei in 1981, tattooing was banned during a British counterinsurgency campaign against the warrior monk Saya San in the 1930s. Many of his followers bore tattoos for spiritual protection, so the colonial government rounded up anyone with tattoos, believing them to be insurgents. Burmese could be arrested simply for owning a tattoo needle and tools.
Later, in the 1960s, the socialist government banned the ethnic Chin practice of tattooing women’s faces with intricate indigo contours, while media censors reportedly banned images of tattoos in publications. “In Myanmar law, tattoos were not allowed to be advertised,” says 24-year-old tattoo artist Ko Shine.
Local rapper G-tone was arrested in 2007 for revealing a tattoo on the back of his hands pressed together in prayer while on stage. Police believed he was showing solidarity for a monk-led uprising earlier in the year and banned him from performing for six months.
The revival of tattooing can be traced back to 2003 when Toe Toe opened Yangon’s first tattoo studio, Golden Land. Toe had barely a handful of customers in his first year and it was difficult to get equipment and ink. His schedule is now full.
“The people here were isolated for so long, but now tattooing is a way of showing we are modernised. Young Burmese feel proud to wear tattoos,” Toe says, swaying his arms, imitating a swagger. A portrait of communist revolutionary Che Guevara peeks out from beneath his shirtsleeve.
He says most of his customers want Japanese and Western tattoos like Yakuza dragons and “bio-mechanical”, a style imitating cyborg innards. Meanwhile, tourists ask for traditional tattoos such as Hinthar Pyada, a tiger that is believed to secure protection. “The people from Asia like what they see from America and vice versa. It’s a sharing of culture,” Toe says.
Although the lustre of local tattoos is broadly fading, Ye Kyaw at the Golden Dragon studio has made a name for himself attempting to keep the tradition alive. He produces a yellowing accordion-style book of sacred tattoos and an antique tattoo stylus topped with a Buddhist deity, the kind that would have landed him in a colonial jail 80 years ago.
Circling his right wrist are five dancing figures copied from bronze statues dating back more than 1,000 years to the Pyu period when Buddhism first spread to the country.
Change in Myanmar has been rapid since 2011, but observers remain cautious. Reforms are fragile. Many new freedoms, like that of the right to assembly, are the result of the government turning a blind eye to junta-era regulations, and are not yet enshrined in law.
Similarly, although the government is more open-minded, none of the tattoo studios in Yangon have official licenses and could be closed any day, Kyaw says. “They have one eye open and one eye closed.”