‘Icon of courage’: photographer captures the last Kayin men’s leg tattoos

25 December 2018
‘Icon of courage’: photographer captures the last Kayin men’s leg tattoos
Photo: Ruby Ye

German photographer Jens Uwe Parkitny’s photography exhibition opened last Friday at the Goethe-Institut showing the disappearing leg tattoos of Kayin men.

The exhibition “Icon of Courage” will be on display at the Goethe-Institut from Dec.21, 2018 to Jan.10, 2019, as a sequel to the photographer's last exhibition “Marked for Life” on the facial tattoos of Chin women two years ago.

“I was fascinated when I first saw the leg tattoo”, said Parkitny, the photographer, “because I thought it’s incredible craftsmanship. It takes you into one aspect of Burmese culture, and the tattoo is part of Burmese culture.”

Parkitny took the exhibited photos of approximately eight to ten tattooed men in 2014. He said the biggest challenge was to find the last men with leg tattoos in Kayin State, which he finally found under an 81-year-old monk’s guidance. In terms of shooting, it only took him three whole days.

Parkitny said he named this photography series “Icon of courage” because, in ancient Myanmar, a completed tattoo on both legs and the waist served as a visual expression of manhood and courage, as well as supernatural strength and capabilities. Besides, it proved a man's ability to endure the pain during the practice of leg tattooing. A young man without a tattoo was not considered to be attractive to the opposite sex.

Parkitny highlighted the details of different mythical or animal figurines, for example, the Keinnari Birds, the Black Cats and the Deers in his photos. Some of the designs such as a Peacock and Gecko usually adored the waistline to express sexual powers, said Parkitny.

“My first feeling is really surprised”, said Teona Aslanishvili, from Georgia, “I had no idea such practices existed, so I’m really exploring with surprise. This definitely isn’t the kind of tradition that’s on the surface.”

Under British colonial rule, however, the custom of male leg tattooing began to fade. Eventually, the custom was suppressed by the colonial administration. By the time Myanmar gained its independence in 1948, the practice of leg tattooing had ceased to exist. Today, the “youngest” men still bearing the traditional marks are well over 70 years of age, said Parkitny.

“We are living in a modern world”, said San Lin Tun, a local attending the exhibition, “Some of the customs are not fitting in the modern world. But this is actually our past history.”

Parkitny said has not completed this project and he continues to search and extend the portfolio all the time.