Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Getting a buzz out of ink

The needles are sharp, the concentration sharper. Eyes focused, hands busy, The Illuminated Woman is at work.

Photos:Aung MyinPhotos:Aung Myin

May Thaw, 29, takes her work seriously enough to practise on herself, when she finds a design she thinks will suit her skin for life.

“My first tattoo was a lock and a pair of keys,” she said, showing the black design on her wrist. It was made six years ago, done by an artist she was interviewing for Trade Times.

Still mixing body art with journalism, she is now a chief editor of Trend Myanmar news website.

She has added four more tattoos on her body, including the red roses on her leg, as well as works by other artists.

None of this was done without forethought. Aware that the image of the tattooed woman was not a particularly respectable one among the conventional, she first weighed her desire for adornment against the risks of disapproval.

She decided to demonstrate through her own lifestyle that a decorated torso did not have to mean a stained character.

“I explained to my father why I had my tattoos done, and assured him that they would not destroy my image,” she said, pointing to her arms, neck, leg and finger.

She used to draw on paper, in pencil and pen, before graduating to the more permanent medium of her own skin. Some designs are done by hand, others by machine.

“The first tattoo I did by myself is the cassette tape on my thigh, which I drew two years ago. When I decided to become a tattoo artist, my body became an exercise book for my art,” she said.

When her first attempt fell below her standards, she did it again, on the same patch of skin, sticking the needles in deeper this time.

As the ink worked into her mind as well as her skin, she studied tattoo websites and pressed former tattoo artists for better designs and deeper knowledge. She took to practising on her boyfriend, also a tattoo artist.

Last year, she started to make tattoos on other peoples’ bodies on weekends, away from her day job. “We artists need to focus on painting small pictures on the skin, without making mistakes or causing too much pain, so that it comes out perfect. I don’t mind the headache, the backache and the eyestrain as long as my tattoo is perfect,” May Thaw explained.

The miniature artworks favoured by most women can take 45 minutes to engrave. Bigger canvases, like someone’s entire back, can take two days or more to fill.

She will take the time to discuss with her customers the best kind of design for them, seeking to dissuade them from images she finds ugly.

“I tried to warn a girl off having her arm tattooed because I knew it was not beautiful, but she insisted. Luckily, she still liked it,” she said.

Among the various styles now current, including Bio, Japan, Character, Fancy and 3D, her favourite form is character, including the cartoon images now highly popular among girls.

For those not as committed, “White” tattoos, which require a very careful scrutiny to be seen, are also in demand.

But the tattooed woman is no longer an object of suspicion, as doctors and teachers now sport their own personal designs.

“People used to think we were not women of good character, but they had to change their minds, because they saw how hard we work,” said May Thaw. Even tattoo artists at pagoda festivals now use needles only once, helping to break the traditional link in some minds between tattoos and HIV.

“When I noticed people looking sideways at me, I just tried hard to be a smart girl. We tattoo girls understood that we need to try harder than those polite girls in traditional costume. We know character is not just skin deep,” she said, though allowing that it might still take more time to change attitudes completely.

Her advice on how to choose a tattoo? Select an image that will suit you unto death.

“When my grandchildren ask about my tattoos, I will tell them how each one has enriched my life,” she said.

As fashions go, then, this one is not as superficial as it looks.

Some of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/FacebookSome of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/Facebook

Some of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/FacebookSome of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/Facebook

Some of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/FacebookSome of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/Facebook

Some of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/FacebookSome of May Thaw’s work. Inset photos: Magic Ink/Facebook