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.
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!
* [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.]