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

Since ancient times, Asians have adorned their bodies with inked designs. In early china, tattoos intended to ward off evil spirits were placed along acupuncture points and meridians: a practice, which spread throughout Southeast Asia. According to legend, the art of tattooing was introduced to Burma c. 200 BCE by ethnic minorities migrating from southwest China.

Tattoos became popular in different parts of Burma, especially amongst the shan: A Ta’i ethnicity still dominating the present Shan States in northeast Burma. Shan men were (and are) tattooed between the waist to the knee as a sign of virility. While it is believed that in ancient times both genders were tattooed more widely, nowadays tattooing of women is extant only in the chin state in western Burma, where for at least the past century facial tattoos are cosmetically desirable.

The traditional art of tattooing is deeply rooted in Burma's history: from kings to commoners, tattoos were exemplars and devices of masculine strength, feminine beauty, cultural identity and aesthetic appeal, while endowed as well with spiritual powers serving as protection from evil forces. Tattoos also demonstrated religious devotion to Buddhism as well as seeking protection.

skin deep