From taboo to modern art
Getting a tattoo is no longer associated with triads and the violent underworld as more youngsters are seeking to get inked
To many Chinese people, having tattoos is synonymous with gangsterism. It is a stereotype perpetuated by movies and television shows that depict hooligans inked with illustrations of dragons and skulls, but it seems perception has been slowly changing over the years.
A growing number of young people in China have now started to sport tattoos, embracing it as a fashion style and an artistic reflection of their identity.
“We receive people from all walks of life, including people in jobs where a tattoo is considered taboo, such as policewomen and kindergarten teachers,” said Shen Weiguo, owner of Shanghai Canglong Tattoo studio.
Huang Xiaodi, a 27-year-old who runs a catering business in Shanghai, has the illustration of a heart embraced by wings tattooed on the back of her left shoulder so that she can choose when to show it off. She said that her tattoo represents her reluctance to open up to people, though she desires to be stronger.
Huang had always wanted a tattoo but did not actually decide on the artwork until she was 20 and was studying in Paris. It was only three years after she was inked that her mother found out during a visit to France. Though the latter never had a good impression about the art form, she did not get angry, partly because she saw a lot of French people with tattoos.
“She just told me not to get another one,” said Huang, who still wants to get inked again. “It’s my body and my decision.”
Artist Zhuo Danting attributes the greater acceptance of tattoo as modern art to the progress of society and the influence of celebrities. Dubbed by CNN as China’s “first lady of tattoo”, the 32-year-old leading tattooist is one of the most recognizable inhabitants of the city thanks to her fluorescent- green, floppy mohawk-style hair and heavily-inked body.
A dropout of Harbin Normal University’s visual arts department, Zhuo finished her apprenticeship as a tattoo designer at one of the few tattoo studios in Harbin, the capital city of Heilongjiang province in Northeast China, and became a full-fledged artist when she opened her first studio soon after. In 2006, she moved to Shanghai where she quickly became the face of the city’s tattoo community.
“People used to associate tattoos with gangsters and thugs. Now they think of F1 drivers, NBA stars, football players, actors and musicians,” said Zhuo, the owner and chief designer of Shanghai Tattoo.
One such celebrity who fits
Zhuo Danting, the bill is Hollywood actor Johnny Depp, best known for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean film series. During a press event in Beijing last year, Depp showed off one of his tattoos on his arm — a Wind Over Heaven sign from a Chinese book called Book of Changes.
Half of the customers at Shanghai Tattoo are expats while the rest are Chinese. Zhuo said that there are times when a manager or a boss, usually a foreigner, would lead a group of his Chinese employees to the studio to get inked.
“The boss gets a bigger-sized tattoo while the workers all get small ones,” Zhuo said. “It’s no longer just gangsters who get them. People now see tattoos as a fashion statement.”
Zhuo said that it is important to determine the right location on one’s body before getting a tattoo. She recalled how some white collar workers used to voice their concern about getting tattoos, only to realize that their bosses cover theirs up with clothing in the office.
The wrists and ankles are small areas that offer many ways to signify feminine charm. Zhuo said that a tattoo on the wrist tends to be small and fairly simple, and can be covered with bracelets or a watch when at work. Ankle tattoos are relatively easy to conceal and they can be quite beautiful as they often look like anklets.
The shoulder is another extremely popular spot for women since tattoos on this part of the body can be easily covered up during office hours. Alternatively, it can be revealed by wearing a strapless or sleeveless top to show it off.
A woman’s waist is a very appealing body part, as evinced by a past trend where women would draw attention to this area by wearing jewelry such as waist chains and bellybutton rings. The small of the back, too, is a good option for tattoos, said Zhuo.
Other conventional areas where people can get tattoos include the neck, arm, chest, leg and ribcage. Zhuo said that the half-sleeve design, where the tattoos cover the top half of the arm, is one of the most popular designs among men all over the world as it is perceived to represent inner strength and toughness.
She also noted that more people in China are getting bolder with their tattoo motifs and are opting to ink them in more conspicuous places.
“This summer, you will probably see more girls with tattoos in places like their wrists, ankles, shoulder blades, upper chest, and on each flank of or around the waist. Those are all very popular places to bear permanent ink these days,” said Zhuo.
It is hard to determine the popularity of tattoo designs because much of it depends on personal preferences. Zhuo said that more people are now opting to push the envelope on design, color and the choice of where to get that tattoo inked.
She added that pursuing a “fashionable” design is the wrong mindset because the perfect ink to get should be unique, something of beauty and an enhancement to confidence that helps one stand out in the crowd.
It’s no longer just gangsters who get them. People now see tattoos as a fashion statement.”
owner of Shanghai
Body of art: Zhuo Danting is widely recognized as one of Shanghai's leading tattoo artists.
Some of the popular choices of tattoos these days include portraits of loved ones and inspirational figures.
Zhuo says that people are pushing the envelope by getting bolder designs in more conspicuous spots.