Earlier this week we featured the work of photographer Eric Lafforgue, who documented the scarification practices of the Omo Valley Tribes in Ethiopia. Today, in a series titled Ugly Becomes Beautiful, he takes us far into the hills of northwestern Myanmar, where the tattooed women of the Chin culture live. It is uncertain when the practice began, but as Lafforgue writes, some believe that long ago, “the royalty used to come to the villages to capture young women. The men from the tribe may have tattooed their women to make them ugly, thereby saving them from a life of slavery” (Source). Over time, although it is a declining practice, the tattoos became symbols of culture and beauty.
There are three types of facial tattoo patterns: the spider web, the dotted B pattern, and one where the entire face is inked. They are created using needles made of bamboo or thorns, and the ink is a blend of cow bile, pig fat, soot, and plants. The process—which takes one to three days, depending on the pattern—is painful. Lafforgue relates one woman’s experience:
“I was 10 years old. The day before the tattoo ceremony, I only ate sugarcane and drank tea. It was forbidden to eat meat or peanuts. During the tattoo session, I cried a lot, but I could not move at all. After the session, my face bled for 3 days. It was very painful. My mother put fresh beans leaves on my face to alleviate the pain. I had no choice if I wanted to get married. Men wanted women with tattoos at this time. My mother told me that without a tattoo on my face, I would look like a man.” (Source)
Today, facial tattoos are deemed illegal by the country’s military junta; hence, many of the women were reluctant to have their photos taken. In these immersive images, Lafforgue provides a rare glimpse into a practice that, tested by modernity, transforms notions of “ugliness” into the diverse beauty of tradition and cultural meaning.