In the past three weeks, Ye, 37, has inked more images of Aung San Suu Kyi than in her 19 years of tattoos.
“We love and respect her because she has sacrificed so much for us,” he says, holding up a photo of his latest artwork: a realistic rendering of the deposed Myanmar leader, with jasmine flowers, on a woman’s back.
If Nobel Prize fans were undecided about getting a tattoo in his honor before the February 1 military coup, they are no longer. Studios across the country have reported a spike in Aung San Suu Kyi’s ink, with some using her proceeds to support the protest movement.
Aung San Suu Kyi, 75, remains in detention and faces charges of illegally importing walkie talkies and violating Myanmar’s natural disaster law. He faces up to three years in jail, and a court hearing is reportedly scheduled for March 1.
While she remains loved within Myanmar, her international reputation was irrevocably tarnished when she traveled to the international court of justice in The Hague to defend the army against allegations that she had committed genocide against Rohingya Muslims. Some say he was walking a tightrope with the generals to preserve a fledgling democracy; in that sense, this is the downfall. Others have called her a military apologist whose idea of equality falls short for persecuted minorities.
Whatever happens to the leader, she will leave a complex legacy. But in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon, the site of massive pro-democracy demonstrations in recent days, the picture is clearer.
“I don’t even have tattoos from my parents,” said Hlaing, 32, who described the blow as more painful than the six hours it took her to complete her tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi on February 3. “I felt aggrieved and oppressed, I had to get it.”
Ye, who is working on a new design for Aung San Suu Kyi, has raised donations for the country’s civil disobedience movement, which aims to deprive the armed forces of a functioning administration through nationwide strikes.
“The military plans to imprison her to age her, as they did before,” he says. “If they didn’t lock her up for 15 years, our country would be more developed, but the army knows everything.”
Tattooing has been a part of Myanmar culture for centuries. Shan men in the northeast wore waist-to-knee designs to symbolize virility, while in the western Chin state, older women still display the fading tradition of facial tattoos. Some believe that the correct representations could offer magical protection.
But the practice of tattooing was banned during the British counterinsurgency in the 1930s and returned to the mainstream only during the political and economic reforms of 2011.
In Mandalay, tattoo artist Za responded to the blow by inking Aung San Suu Kyi’s designs for free, until February 15, when he started charging $ 3.50 (£ 2.50). So far, he has turned about 70 and all the money raised has gone to striking public officials and others who resist the junta, he said.
“Just yesterday I spent all my time giving him tattoos,” he says. “More people are receiving them and that has allowed us to support the movement.”
While tattooing, most clients indulge in chatting about the coup and gossiping about those who don’t join the civil disobedience movement.
“The conversations never end,” he says.
Tin, a professional wrestler, snuck in on a visit to a tattoo studio in Yangon between training sessions for lethwei, an ancient sport. He doesn’t care so much about the leader’s party, the National League for Democracy, he said. Only for the woman the country affectionately nicknames “Mother Suu.”
“I did it to express my faith in her and my support,” he says. “I don’t care if he ever gets me in trouble with the regime.”