In 1907, Maud Wagner grabbed her husband’s tattoo machine, drew her first ink and earned the title ‘America’s first female tattoo artist’.
More than a century later, half way around the world, a young girl from Mandalay picked up her first tattoo gun and dreamed of having her own studio. In 2016 that dream came true with the opening of Big Star, Mandalay’s first female-run tattoo shop.
“I am a trained pharmacist, but since I was a kid I have been interested in painting and drawing,” said Kyal Sin Su, the founder of Big Star.
After getting her first tattoo, she was hooked but never thought she could make a career out of it. “The guys [male tattoo artists] did not want to help. They don’t want to have competition from women,” she commented.
However, Kyal Sin was determined.
Thanks to the Internet, and with the encouragement of her friends, Kyal Sin was able to learn the basics online and invested in her first tattoo gun. Her friends, mostly girls who were too shy to go to male artists, let her practice on them.
“I loved it. I felt really proud of the art I was creating and I had confidence in myself as a tattoo artist,” she said.
Still, opening her own shop seemed almost impossible. In a field dominated by men, she was alone.
Thanks to word of mouth, she was able to launch Big Star in April last year and has not looked back. She has done everything from detailed black-and-white portraits to whimsical, colorful cartoons.
And thanks to her high quality work, Big Star is starting to attract male customers, although for the time being, the majority of her clients are female.
“I had wanted a tattoo for a long time but felt embarrassed to go to a male artist because they might judge me. With Kyal Sin, I feel comfortable because I know she takes her work seriously and is professional,” said one of her female clients.
Kyal Sin is soft spoken and does not boast about her accomplishments nor does see herself as a trailblazer. To her, the work is rewarding and she is happy to have satisfied customers. But she does hope that other women in Myanmar will also have the courage to become tattoo artists.
“I want to help train and teach other female artists and share my experience with them,” she said.
Without a doubt, Big Star will continue to shine bright in the Mandalay tattoo scene.
75th Street between 37th and 38th Streets
Phone: 09 40256 6775