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Untold Stories: Lament of a 100-Year-Old Tattoo Artist

As part of our “Untold Stories” series, we meet Makui Lainyiu, who regrets not having done more to pass on her community’s traditions to the younger generation. Her song is a rare glimpse of a world all but lost in the remote hills between India and Myanmar.

Written by Kelly Macnamara Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
“When they are educated, I want my granddaughters to become teachers or nurses,” says Makui Lainyiu, who used to be a tattoo artist. “If they have education I don’t want them to work in the field.” Kelly Macnamara

Gone are the days of fierce isolation, when you could tell a prosperous tribe in Myanmar’s Naga Hills by the number of impaled human heads at the village threshold. The dozens of tribes that hunted, fought and danced on the northern region’s forested mountains have been changed by colonialism, Christian missionaries and war.

Battles between Japanese and Allied troops on the slopes inhabited by the Naga helped determine the outcome of World War II. The Naga region was hacked in two at the end of the war, and today, the Naga Self-Administered Zone, a three-township province in the north of Myanmar, is severed from Nagaland in India by a border that many still resent. Travel restrictions imposed by Myanmar authorities have veiled the region from most visitors – except the army and the military-controlled civil service, which are dominated by the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Bamar, who are Buddhist.

Under the junta, health and education development was severely neglected in Naga region, although there has been an uptick in central government provision in recent years. Literacy is far lower here than in other parts of Myanmar, with only 33 percent of over-15s in the region able to read and write, compared to 89.5 percent in the country as a whole. And there is a deep gender divide. In Lahe, only 16 percent of women were listed as literate in the 2014 census, compared to a quarter of men. Poverty and discrimination have left deep scars in the local community.

Makui Lainyiu fills her simple home with the music of loss. The song she sings is a traditional poem from her Lainong tribe about the loss of culture and traditions since the Naga area was incorporated into Myanmar at the end of colonial rule in the 1940s. For most of that time, the region has been ruled by the military, which flooded minority border regions with Bamar troops and officials, promoting the Burmese language and Buddhism over local languages and beliefs.

The song has been sung around cooking hearths for many years – but has rarely, if ever, been heard outside the region. Its lyrics say more than many people dared to utter publicly during decades of military rule.

But Makui Lainyiu views the decline in Naga culture with a pragmatic acceptance, acknowledging that she herself could have done more to pass traditions on to her seven grandchildren.

I’m very proud of my tattoos, I think I’m very beautiful because of them. I also think you’re very beautiful while dancing when you have tattoos. I have plenty of bracelets, too, and I used to put them all on, stacked high up my arms, before going dancing. I don’t have any photos of those days. I’d wear my bracelets and necklaces even when I was pounding rice.

I used to be a tattoo artist, though I can’t remember the designs I tattooed on other people. In the past, it was considered beautiful for girls to have face tattoos. We didn’t tattoo the whole face though; girls shouldn’t do that. Only men would tattoo their necks and whole face.

If you want to get a tattoo outside of special ceremony days then you have to hold a big reception for the tattoo artists and provide them with food and stuff. I used to tattoo other people on these special occasions. Both men and women.

I was quite young when I had the one on my face done. I got the one on my feet when I got older, just before I got married. I also have some on my arms. The reason I had a face tattoo at a young age was because my parents were worried a Bamar man would marry me. Previously, we were very afraid of Bamar people. When they came we would just run away. We were also banned from marrying Bamars; we were told to only marry our own race.

Everyone thought having a face tattoo was a good thing because it was our tradition. Now we have been told not to get face tattoos, we don’t do that anymore. The Bamar said we can’t do it. They said it’s not beautiful.

When the Bamar [government] forbade us from getting tattoos, I stopped being a tattoo artist and also stopped getting more done. Both the tattoo artist and the customer were punished in order to put an end to this practice.

The traditional festivals have changed and only some people hold them nowadays. I don’t necessarily feel sad about it. I haven’t really taught the younger generation about these traditions, either, and I don’t want to start now. I can’t work or talk very much anymore.

Lahe, the administrative seat of Naga region, is on Myanmar’s border with India. (Kelly Macnamara)

When they are educated, I want my granddaughters to become teachers or nurses. If they have education I don’t want them to work in the field. We don’t make them do any farm work now, either, because they’re studying.

When I was young, my parents didn’t let me go to school. They just made me work on the farm. It’s good [that this has changed]. I would have wanted to go to school if I was allowed to go like girls today are.

There’s no one left here of my age now – I must be about 100 years old. I used to go to Hkamti [a three-day walk away] to dance at the festivals. All the people that I travelled with in those days have since passed away.

But I’ve only been as far as that. I was once offered a trip in a helicopter but I was too scared, so I didn’t go. If they asked me now I’d say yes.

A version of this story originally appeared on The Kite Tales.

More in the series “Untold Stories”:

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