Traditional Burmese Tattoo
Shortly after getting my first “Sak Yant” tattoo in Thailand, I was already thinking about getting another, it was just a matter of time. I thought it would be hard to top my past experience. After all, the rush of getting your first tattoo is a really singular experience. I knew that there was a big tattoo culture in Myanmar, as I’ve been noticing all the tattoos the monks have. I wanted to go to their same tattoo artist, but I wasn’t able to get that information out of them. I even asked some of the kids in my English class if they knew anybody who serviced the monks, but they just referred me to local mainstream tattoo shops. I didn’t want to just get another tattoo, I wanted a natural and authentic one.
I turned to the Internet and started reading blog posts. I discovered that there’s still a traditional Burmese tattoo artist at Inle Lake, which is about a ten-hour bus ride from the monastery. It turns out that he still made tattoos with a traditional bamboo implement. There were plenty of comments about how the language barrier made it hard for patrons to even understand their tattoos. It became apparent to me that I could ask some of my students if they would be interested in coming along for the ride! We made an adventure out of it. Many of the students hadn’t even been outside their village because they were too poor to travel anywhere, even somewhere nearby. When word got out about my plan, kids jumped at the opportunity to experience the trip.
Four volunteers and four students jumped into a bus headed for Inle Lake. We called the tattoo master to let him know we were on our way. To our surprise he met us right at the bus stop. We eventually made our way to his house, where his entire family greeted us and offered us tea and sunflower seeds. With the help of the students, I was able to understand what many tattoos actually meant. I decided, perhaps boldly or stupidly, to get one on my chest. I didn’t account that it meant it would be very painful. Even though I’d previously gotten a tattoo, I wasn’t quite prepared for the pain of being given a traditional tattoo on my chest. It hurt worse and worse as he slowly climbed from my diaphragm to my throat. I tried to tell myself it would be over soon- and it was. It only took about 20 minutes, whereas a machine tattoo often takes a longer time. When it was done, the other volunteers felt emboldened to get tattoos as well. As we waited, the tattoo master’s family played some music as we sat on the front porch and enjoyed the scenery of the neighborhood.
We all got tattoos ranging from $10 - $50. As we were walking around the lake, we talked with the locals who let us know that they would have paid substantially less if they got the same tattoos. It turns out this specific tattoo artist has been milking his Internet fame. Regardless, it was a great experience. I would recommend negotiating a price before he begins the work.