Rare books on tattoos added to Library’s U-M collection

May 14, 1997
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Rare books on tattoos added to U-M Library’s collection

EDITORS: Photos—prints—available on request. Photos below are 2 of 9 new parabaiks in U-M’s collection–written in Burmese and illustrating the use of body tattooing.

ANN ARBOR—Body art and artists abound, but tattoos are not unique to today’s culture or the cultures of the Western world. In Burma (Myanmmar) tattoos covering the body from the upper thighs to the feet were an essential component of attaining manhood, warding off evil, protecting a warrior in battle, or as an aid to courting.

Nine rare 19th-century manuscripts known as parabaiks (pronounced “para bikes”) describing and illustrating the significance of body tattooing have recently been added to the collection of the Southeast Asia Division of the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan. These parabaiks were a gift from the University of Minnesota’s Ames Library.

These elongated paper manuscripts that fold in concertina fashion were used in correspondence to informal notes of a purely personal nature. They are written in either Burmese or Shan languages. The writings and illustrations in the parabaiks for the most part are black or a red-orange ink on a layered thick paper resembling a thin cardboard. One example in the collection, however, is white ink on black paper. Others in the U-M collection are laminated in gold and were used by the monks and considered blessed objects in Burmese temples.

“These are most prized collectors’ items today,” says Fe Susan Go, U-M’s Southeast Asia bibliographer, “for they represent a more indigenous written culture prior to the appearance of the mass use of Western paper in the 1880s.”

The U-M Library has acquired manuscripts on Burmese history from various institutions and individuals in Burma and is actively engaged in acquiring new publications from Myanmmar. U-M is the most active center for the advanced study of Burmese history in North America.