Young punks and flowery monks

Tattooer at work in China
Tattooer at work in China

Tattooer at work in China

Only ten years ago policemen in certain areas of China would question young men with tattoos since they were usually regarded as punks looking for trouble. But today, like photography, tattoos are a way for Chinese people to express their personal emancipation and hopes about life. With a rising middle class, the Chinese have more disposable income than ever, giving them the ability to spend more on leisure and personal expenditures such as body art.

While American tattoo culture has evolved over the last 150 years, from the sailors and soldiers who marked their skin as a rite of passage to the inked bikers, rockers and celebrities of today, China’s modern relationship to the tattoo is relatively new, beginning with the country’s embrace of the West, and although the growing popularity, the tattoo industry still exists as a small niche culture in China without regulations to ensure hygiene or sanitary working conditions.

Called 刺青 Ciqing or 纹身 Wenshen, tattoos has been known in China for ages, but has been a slightly uncommon practice in China, apart from some minorities. The most famous tattoo in Chinese history comes from the legend of the South Song Dynasty general 岳飞 Yue Fei. During battle with northern enemies the Field Marshall under whom Yue Fei served betrayed the South Song and went over to the enemy. In protest Yue Fei resigned and returned home. His mother grew angry with him, telling him that his duty was first and foremost to his country, despite all else. To remind him of this fact she tattooed 尽忠报国 (Serve the country with ultimate loyalty) on his back with her sewing needle. Other famous tattoos are those on the book Water Margin, as we’ll see below. At some points in Chinese history criminals convicted of a severe crime would be ordered to have a tattoo printed on their face and exiled into a faraway land. A form of punishment known as 刺配 Cipei. Even in recent Chinese history tattoos have grown somewhat of a stigma as being affiliated with organized crime.

Lu Zhishen. Yoshitoshi, 1887. woodblock print.

Lu Zhishen. Yoshitoshi, 1887. woodblock print.

A turning point might have been the years around the Beijing olympics. Some may remember media reporting sensational news of Chinese guys getting ‘Olympic tattoos’ before the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Back then Beijing was still welcoming you and foreign cultures were massively flowing into China, everybody was mad about learning English and many foreigners reinvented their lives in China as English teachers. So apart from Nike, Adidas and hamburgers, foreign niche subcultures also started to penetrate the imaginary of the Chinese. This was helped also by the popularity of the American tattoo-soaked television show Prison Break that despite being banned in China, saw bootleg DVDs spreading all over the country.

Interview: To understand more about tattoo culture and industry in China I interviewed my friend Bao Jia (Wechat: 649206010 Phone: 18601139764), a female tattoo artist working in Beijing.

Hi Bao Jia, let’s talk a bit of how did you start doing tattoos? What is your background?

Back then when I was studying English, I came across the word ‘convention’. Since it was too hard to pronounce I decided to remember the Chinese 肯纹身 Kenwenshen [纹身 Wenshen = ‘tattoo’]. Then one day I found out that tattoos are quite an interesting thing and begun to investigate them.

What are people requesting nowadays? Where do you think is the tattoo market in China heading to?

Most of the times people want “a skilled tattoo artist for a cheap price”. I think the market in China for tattoos will follow the same trends it used to follow in the West even in terms of patterns and styles, only a few decades slower.

What was the role of tattoos in traditional China and how it evolved in the recent past? 

Tattoos in traditional China represented marks of the criminal law. Anyway in some books tattoos are not representative of the Penal Code and they are either for the simple sake of beauty or have a particular meaning. For example in the book 水浒传 Water Margin 鲁智深 Lu Zhisheng [nicknamed “Flowery Monk” 花和尚] and 史进 Shi Jin [nicknamed “Nine Tattooed Dragons” 九纹龙] both have multicolored pictorial tattoos that cover the entire body. In modern China there are a few black society groups [triads] and for them tattoos are a way to determine different levels within the group, just like the Yamaguchi-gumi group in Japan. In China dragon tattoos and such patterns may represent the highest power. In places like Chinese prisons not everyone can get a dragon tattoo, but on the level of the civil society the large majority of tattoos are body decorations or just commemorate an event in life. Only a few clients just want to get a tattoo no matter what they get.

Asia and Europe had a different approach when it comes to painting, european artists were accustomed in representing shapes trough shades, while asian painters were more familiar with the use of curves and lines. Do you think this difference can still be seen in the work of contemporary tattoo artists?

It can be seen, for example asian traditional tattoos mainly use lines and plain surfaces. But slowly a new tattoo style called New School* coming from Europe and America is bringing brighter colors and generous shapes to Chinese tattoo scene and is set to become the next trend.

Japan has a long history of tattoos and a very recognizable visual identity. What do you think is or should be the identity of Chinese tattoo art works?

This is a very difficult question, and I have yet to find the answer.

Tattoos are not a men prerogative but tattoo artists are mostly men, is being a female tattoo artist helping you to stand out of the crowd or do you find some reticence? Do you know other women doing your profession? Is being a woman attracting more female customers?

If you are good-looking and know how to dress up, it’s very easy to stand out. I know some very beautiful female tattooers and despite their tattoo skills are not so good they can attract a lot of customers. Being a female tattoo artist it’s indeed easier to attract the interest of the people, both from men and women, but apart from some female customers that specifically come to me because I’m a woman, some clients still doubt of the skills of a female tattooer and prefer to move on to a male one.

Thank you for your time and good luck!

You are welcome!

Original transcript:

嗨包佳,我们来聊一下你当时是怎么开始做纹身的,你的背景是什么?

当时背一个英文单词,叫convention,背不下来用中文背,中文读作‘肯纹身’,然后突然发现纹身这个东西好像很有意思,然后就开始研究纹身了。

今天大部分人的要求是什么?你觉得中国的纹身市场正走向哪个方向?

大部分人的要求是‘价格便宜还要技术好’。我觉得中国的纹身市场会模仿国外的模式发展,只是慢几十年而已,包括纹身模式和纹身图案风格。

 

Shi Jing. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 - 1861

Shi Jing. Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1798 – 1861

在传统中国的时候代表什么?而在当代社会纹身演变成了什么角色?

传统中国大部分印象是代表刑法,但是水浒传等书中的人物都有不是代表刑法的纹身,是为美观或者代表了某些意义,比如花和尚鲁智深和九纹龙史进。当代社会有一部分貌似黑社会的组织,纹身好像代表了等级,比如日本山口组,中国可能纹龙等纹身也代表老大的意思,比如监狱里,不是谁都能纹龙的。另社会上绝大部分大都是为了美观或者纪念某些事情,很少一部分只是为了有纹身而纹身。

欧洲和东亚的视觉语言具有两个不同的手法,欧洲画家以色彩表现图像而亚洲的更倾向于曲线为表现工具。你认为在当代的纹身作品中还能够看到这个区别吗?

能看到,比如东方传统纹身都是线面为主,而新传统纹身慢慢往更丰富的色彩上发展,慢慢欧美的New School也将是中国纹身发展的趋势。

日本具有一个非常悠久的纹身传统,日本纹身的视觉形象很容易被识别。你认为当代中国纹身师的视觉语言和形象是什么或者你觉得应该是什么?

这个非常难回答,暂时我找不到答案,还在摸索。

纹身不止是个男性的特权,但是绝大多数的纹身师却是男的。作为一个女性纹身师你觉得比较容易脱颖而出还是会带来一些沉默?你还认识其他的女纹身师吗?作为女纹身师会吸引更多的女客人吗?

如果漂亮会打扮,是比较容易脱颖而出的,我认识一些非常漂亮的美女纹身师,她们的技术已经不是那么重要了,容貌会吸引非常多的客人。作为一个女纹身师,确实吸引了一些客人来纹身,包括男性客人也包括女性客人,而且有些女性客人是专程来找我纹身的,但是与此同时,有些客人会因为怀疑女纹身师的技术而更愿意相信男纹身师。

谢谢你接受我的采访,祝你好运!

别客气啊~

* [New School refers to tattoos that are bold, bright and in-your-face. These are more contemporary and fantastical designs and are a favorite of many younger artists looking for a challenge.]