A mobile phone rings and there’s a shout. “Oh no, it’s my mum! Quick, tell her I’m in a meeting! Don’t let her know I’m here!”
We’re in the Mandalay Ink tattoo studio in Ahlone township, Yangon. A moment ago, a grown man was lying face-down across a reclining chair, wincing in pain as a tattoo gun buzzed angrily against his skin. But at the ringing he looks up in panic, the buzzing sound changing pitch as work pauses on the intricate design slowly taking shape across his back.
“Go outside,” the man yells to his friend, who has jumped up from a chair to answer the phone on his behalf. “She’ll hear the tattoo gun!”
Chan Tha Oo, 31, works in advertising. He says he is “crazy” about tattooing, to the point where whenever he hears the sound of the tattoo gun buzzing, he feels an irrational need to get another design inked.
“I get this way even if I’m just accompanying my friends to tattoo parlours and watching them getting theirs done,” he says. “I started with one on my upper right arm, then I got another one on my inner arm. That got extended to my chest and now I’m extending another one on my back. I’m addicted.” But he has his limits. He won’t get sleeves – tattoos that cover the arms from shoulder to wrist – as he says some people react badly to it. In his line of work, he says, bad first impressions can be horrible for sales.
While the popularity of tattooing is growing among youth in Myanmar, cultural taboos still prevent them from being too public about it, especially in front of their elders. But attitudes are definitely shifting, as the growing number of successful Yangon-area tattoo parlours proves.
Chan Tha Oo first met his tattooist, Ko Tut Pe, at an art exhibition about a year ago. Splitting his time between Yangon and Mandalay, Ko Tut Pe is usually booked up three months ahead in both cities. Chan Tha Oo said he was lucky to get a spot in the chair as quickly as he did.
“I only had to wait a couple of weeks as someone cancelled their appointment. Usually a client would have to wait three months to get an appointment with Ko Tut Pe.”
In Ko Tut Pe’s line of work, there’s no worry about sleeves – his own arms are covered in tattoos – though he says he often wears singlets outside his home. While the sight of his tattoos might make him look imposing, he is soft-spoken, wearing thick, hipster-style glasses that wouldn’t be out of place in New York or Melbourne.
“I started learning traditional bamboo tattooing when I was 19,” Ko Tut Pe said. “Eventually, I became interested in using colours which is how I became interested in modern techniques.”
Ko Tut Pe’s Western-style techniques are pretty much self-taught, he said. He learned styles and techniques by reading, and even figured out how to build and fix his own tattooing machines.
“I borrowed a friend’s machine just to give it a go after practicing with bamboo for many years,” he said. “I enjoyed the variation in style and the subtlety of what I could draw.”
The subtlety comes through in his “bio-mechanical” tattoos, a free-form style of tattooing where the artist draws a rough outline first and then improvises. It’s a style Chan Tha Oo prefers, and one for which Ko Tut Pe is renowned.
“It’s not as common for people to choose a bio,” Ko Tut Pe says, “but actually, there is a lot less room for error than with freehand. If something slips, I can fix it easily – unlike say, a portrait of someone’s mother.”
That may or may not be good news for Chan Tha Oo’s own mother, but she would no doubt be happy to hear about Ko Tut Pe’s high standards of hygiene, something that helped Chan Tha Oo take the plunge the first time he got a tattoo.
“Before actually getting a tattoo with Ko Tut Pe, I went to his studio and watched a friend getting a tattoo, so I felt reassured that ... everything was clean and hygienic,” Chan Tha Oo said.
“Every needle is new and the ink pots are new for every client, so I feel confident that it’s all above board. And he’s also well renowned and trusted, so that means a lot.”
Indeed, Ko Tut Pe’s studio is immaculate. There is strictly no smoking in the tattooing area and the floors and walls are free of stains. He orders his ink from the United States and his needles from China, and has a strict one-time-use-only policy. He said clients trust him for his artistic skill but they come back because they know he runs a safe practice, something more studios are watching out for as tattooing grows in popularity.