The Tattooed Face Woman. Are All Traditions Worth Preserving? Part 1

Words by Núria, 25 VIC

Lin Shwe Htang, from the Mun tribe, is at her home with some of her grandsons. It’s their day off school, so they all hang together while their parents are working in the fields. When heavy rain starts to pour, everyone goes inside.

As her grandchildren sit down around her, Lin Shwe lights an old pipe with locally grown tobacco and starts smoking, slowly. She’s been a smoker for a very long time. Lin doesn’t know her actual age but explains to me that she started smoking as a child, to scare mosquitoes away and to warm up in winter.

Chin lady with face tattoos

Photo credit: Núria (Author)

I arrived in Mindat, the main town in the Chin State, to discover all the walking paths had been flooded, so hiking was out of the question. I arranged a “private scooter tour” with a young Burmese man who spoke the Chin dialect and had very good English. I usually prefer travelling without a guide, but on this occasion, having an interpreter turned out to be essential, as no one in the villages speaks English. Riding in the mud is a bit scary, but it’s a great experience. Wandering around the village, I notice a long wooden post with an egg placed on top of it. I’m told it’s because a member of the family is sick, and they believe the egg has healing properties.

Whenever the fog clears, mesmerising scenery appears, with endless shades of green.

Photo credit: Núria (Author)

The first time I had heard about the tattooed face woman in Western Myanmar was whilst travelling in Nepal. I was immediately thrilled. As a journalist, curiosity is intrinsic within me, when I find a story that sparks my interest, I always want to discover more. For me, the idea of having my face tattooed by hand sounded painful and terrifying, therefore I needed to know why someone would go through that.

I sat down in front of Lin Shwe, ready for her story.

When she starts to speak, time stops completely. All that’s left is Lin’s deep voice, the smell of her pipe and the soft sound of the rain. It’s magical. I only have the courage to take a couple of pictures because I am too scared of altering the ethereal atmosphere that has been created.

Lin Shwe explains when she was 14, she got her face tattooed with natural ink made with a mix of black charcoal and green tomato leaves. The process was so painful that other women had to hold her down while the tattoo artist was carefully marking her face. The eyelid area was particularly hurtful, she recalls. She went through it twice more, to make the tattoo stronger and make it last longer, because the ink wasn’t good enough.

I am surprised to discover Lin willingly went through this painful process more than once. As Lin Shwe reminisces about these painful memories, there’s no trace of regret in her voice. Many years have passed since, but Lin still wears her – now faded – tattoos with pride.

Listening to Lin share her powerful story leaves me in a kind of hypnotic trance and brings so many questions to my inquisitive mind. I am hopeful and ready to learn more.

Illustration by AileenYou can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc

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