I have been a traditional tattoo artist for 50 years. I learned from an abbot and still practice the traditional method using a bamboo and needle with pots of ink. I’ve never tried using a tattoo gun, as that is not my gift.


There are nine stages of learning as a spiritual tattoo artist. The method I learned is deeply interwoven in Buddhist scripture and Shan shamanism. It involves a lot of study, fasting and discipline. I am the last person who I know of in these parts who still practices in this way.


Clients can choose what designs they want, but there are very clear rules about what kinds of symbols can be tattooed on certain parts of the body. For example, you can’t tattoo religious symbols and icons below the waist as it is disrespectful and calls for bad luck or bad omens to the individual.


I’ve had these tattoos since before I learned my craft. The tiger motif, which is tattooed on in the inside of my calves, prevents dog bite and infection. The spider on my ankles represents spider venom, which can be stronger than snake venom, therefore protecting me from snakebites. This mythical tiger on my stomach represents what the two nat brothers rode in the spiritual realm. The tigers bless me with good health and protect my liver and organs.


I draw by freehand and then use the needle to break the skin in the shape of a design. Then the ink is rubbed in and the process done once more so the ink can settle in beneath the skin. Coconut oil is rubbed over the tattoo to prevent infection and then it is done.


The ink that I use is unique. I have been collecting inks used by previous tattoo masters. They are hardened and carved into the shape of spirit gods and animals. You break a piece of then mix it with water to create liquid ink. Some of these pieces are 500 years old so it’s rare that I use them, it’s more for posterity that I collect them now. I also keep a collection of old ingredients and totemic guides that I refer to when tattooing a client. But I’m not sure who I am going to pass these on to as I have previously had students who have wanted to learn, but for whatever reasons, they have not been that dedicated to the training. It’s a very disciplined training that is challenging and younger people don’t have the patience to learn these methods any more, especially the more difficult aspects of the spiritual training.


U San
Ywarma village
Spiritual tattoo artist