Burmese Tattoo Needles: The Marks of History

Through Burmese history courses a vein of ink: the tradition of tattooing, by which the bearer is endowed with talismanic protection and powers in the manner of amulets and charms; a practice at variance with the cosmetic tattooing that prevails in this day and age.

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Practiced by ethnic groups including the Baman, Shan and Karen, traditional tattooing comprises myriad designs that can address a number of concerns, investing the bearer with invulnerability against an arsenal of weapons, protection against evil spirits and disease, and a command over the affairs of the heart. Tattooing was a painful process, yet practitioners believed that the protracted and grueling ordeal served as a conduit for otherworldly and cabbalistic energies, which would enter the body of the bearer. For this reason, the front of the thighs was the favored site for tattoos.

Tattooing customs likely seeped into the Burmese region from the neighboring Thai, Lao or Shan people with the rise of Shan dominion in the centuries following the collapse of the Pagan empire in the 13th Century. In addition to being an important component of the rite of passage for young men and women, tattoo designs were used by the Burmese administration as a means of identifying captives, criminals, hereditary slaves, palace servants and soldiers in various ranks of the military.

The tattooing was performed by an itinerant master, who would wander from village to village with a retinue of apprentices. Each design, chosen by the master after a consultation with his client, was applied with a brass implement, approximately 40 cm in length, in keeping with three fundamental tenets of the technique; a calibration of the style of the design, the width of the tattooing instrument, and the weight (pigmentation) of the ink to suit the wearer’s needs. The most popular of these designs is the image of a kneeling ogre or human figure wearing an ogre headdress and wielding a pair of clubs. As could be expected, the tattoo weights were a masters’ greatest asset, and were of such quality and beauty that tourists often mistake them for the effigies of deities and devotees customarily arrayed at the base of a Buddha image.

Banned under the British colonial regime, the practice of thigh-tattooing verges on vanishing, supplanted by faster and less painful electrical instruments that were introduced in the 1920s. In the present day, the tradition is sustained by a few Burmese people, who continue to tattoo their chests with the talismanic squares and symbols that once adorned generations of their ancestors, inscribing and carrying history, upon their bodies, into the future.



Fraser-Lu, S. (1994). Burmese Crafts: Past and Present. Oxford University Press.


Lot 799
Two Burmese bronze tattoo needles with iron stand decorated with Jataka epic at handles (2 pcs.)
Style: Burmese
Dimensions: W 3.5 cm. H 36 cm.
Circa: 19th Century
Estimated Price: 20,000 - 25,000 THB
Starting Price: 15,000 THB