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Modern way of Chinese tatoo inking
Latest Updated by 2007-03-29 10:23:31

Tattoo artist Wang Hao, at his Punx Tattoo Studio in the capital's Haidian District, is among a new breed of innovative artists fusing Chinese and Western designs. (Photo: China Daily) 

The art of tattooing has a long history in the Middle Kingdom, but now Chinese are finding out what happens when modern thinking meets traditional inking.

The art form went dormant in the early 1900s, when mobsters claimed the markings as their signature, making the tattoo taboo. However, today, increased exposure to the West is reawakening an authentically Chinese tradition, and local tattoo artists are making their mark on this rediscovered art form.

"Tattooing is as Chinese as the Chinese dragon," said tattoo artist Wang Hao, who runs Punx Tattoo Studio in the capital's Haidian District.

Wang cited ancient stories such as the classic Outlaws of the Marsh, which tells the tale of 180 tattooed generals who considered themselves heroic because they feasted on meat and swilled wine all day. He was also quick to mention legendary Song Dynasty general Yue Fei, whose mother prophetically tattooed Jin Zhong Bao Guo (be loyal to the nation) on his back.

"Tattoos are regaining popularity in China now, because Chinese people are gradually changing their mindset, and many more people are embracing Western culture," Wang said. "Even elderly people are starting to change their thoughts and accept new things."

The 23-year-old Beijinger and self-proclaimed "punk" stands out in most crowds. His hair is shorn into a barbed Mohawk, and the piercing holes in his earlobes have been stretched by gauged-plugs. Several hoops run up the auricles of his ears, and a lip ring adorns his labrum.

During gigs with his punk band Jokingly Tasty, he thrashes around the stage clad in plaid bondage pants interspersed with zippers and clasps, a leather bomber jacket and a black tee bearing the emblem of his shop: a screaming skull with a red Mohawk and a tattoo needle for a tongue.

"I don't care what mainstream society thinks of me," Wang said. "Young people can accept this kind of culture, particularly rockers, artists and those who pursue fashion."

However, as tattoo artist Dong Dong, who runs Mummy Tattoo Studio in Beijing's Sanlitun bar district, points out, tattoos are not only for China's rebels and fashionistas.

"Seven out of 10 people get a tattoo because they think it's 'cool', but that's changing," Dong said. "More people are starting to think of it as a cultural expression."

China Association of Tattoo Artists (CATA) president Wang Kisen said tattoo artists are now promoting an understanding of the art form as something with meaning.

He said this year's China International Tattoo Artists Convention (CITAC), to be held in Beijing from August 17 to 19, will highlight the cultural component of the art.

After the convention, CATA members plan to travel to the Dulong River, in Yunnan Province, to film a documentary about the 50 remaining Dulong ethnic minority women who have tattooed faces. While there are more than 4,000 Dulong people left in Yunnan, the age-old tradition is dying out, because many Dulong women refuse to undergo the painful process.

CATA organized its first convention in 2002 to provide a platform for China's tattoo artists to exchange ideas among themselves and foreign artists. "The first convention attracted dozens of artists; the second attracted hundreds, and the third attracted thousands," Wang Kisen said.

New York-based tattoo legend Paul Booth attended the 2004 convention, and last year, the association sent a delegation of Chinese artists to the Thailand International Tattoo Artists Convention.

But as today's Chinese tattoo culture matures, local artists say it has been a long hard road to get this far. While Wang Kisen said that "tattooing began to flourish during the '90s, when people were looking to grasp individuality", Dong said that times were especially tough when he first opened his shop in 1994. "When I first opened the shop, I had to explain to every visitor what a tattoo was," he said.

He now inks one customer per day, serves an even mix of Chinese and foreigners, and is familiar with each culture's preferences.

Artists such as Dong, Wang Hao and 34-year-old Xing Haisong, who runs John Long Tattoo studio in Shanghai, agreed that Chinese younger than 30 are more likely to get tattoos featuring traditional Chinese images.

And they are particularly interested in "auspicious" images, such as Chinese ghosts, dragons and phoenixes. However, members of the younger generation are more likely to choose Western images, such as cartoons and skulls.

But because the rekindling of China's tattoo culture began with a Western spark, and globalization continuously increases Chinese people's exposure to the outside world, the degree of convergence is growing. "Tattooing in China will become more internationalized and more diverse, while at the same time, it will become more localized, featuring more traditional Chinese subject matter, such as dragons and Chinese characters," Wang Kisen said.

One of the most common manifestations of this paradoxical set of trends is that most Chinese tattoos feature Chinese subject matter portrayed using Western artistic techniques, he said. It is particularly common, for example, for Chinese- and Western-style ghosts to be blended into a single tattoo.

Xing said such fusions enhance China's tattooing culture and will continue to increase the variety of images available to those seeking tattoos in China. "We are also open to some Western ideas while still keeping traditional Chinese ideas, so that we can see beyond the future and won't be a culture with a limited outlook," he said.

And when foreigners get tattoos in China, the artists said they are more likely to get inked with traditional Chinese imagery. "They might have similar depictions at home, but they want authentic Chinese tattoos. It's a symbol of where they've been," Wang Kisen said.

"Getting a tattoo here is a process of getting to know another culture. When a Westerner gets a tattoo in China, they learn about the specific and unique way a Chinese tattoo artist draws a dragon, which is different from the way Westerners draw versions of the Chinese dragon," he added.

Tattoo artists agree that the quality and variety of tattoos in China will improve as the art form further develops.

But as 30-year-old folk rocker Zheng Wei, of Lanzhou, Gansu Province, said, standards have already increased dramatically since he got his tattoo in 1994.

Zheng decided to get inked on the tail end of a three-day Spring Festival drinking binge. "I was watching a TV documentary about Gandhi with some friends, and I suddenly got the idea to get a Gandhi tattoo on my shoulder probably because I was drunk," Zheng said.

But while Zheng said that nearly every Chinese city with a population of more than 1 million has a tattoo parlor today, these shops weren't so easy to come by in 1994.

"There were no tattoo parlors in Lanzhou back then, so I went to a beauty parlor and had it done with those needles beauticians use on women's eyebrows," he said.

The end product, he said, is a testimony to the progress that has been made in the art form since.

"My tattoo is very basic, because it's not as professionally made and intricate as tattoos done today," Zheng said. "I wanted an image of Gandhi with his eyes open, but I ended up with one of Gandhi with his eyes shut."

Zheng hid the tattoo from his parents for four years, which he said was easy to do, because summer in Lanzhou is relatively cool and he had his own bedroom. When they finally found out, "They weren't too happy with me", he said.

Today, he gets mixed reactions from strangers who see his tattoo.

"Most people don't react much when they see it, but when I go swimming, many middle-aged people ask me about it. If I feel serious, I will explain that it's Gandhi and tell them why I got it. If not, I'll tell them that it's what I think I will look like when I'm 50," Zheng said.

A tattoo artist gives an on-site demonstration to a woman during a beauty and cosmetic expo in Jinan, of Shandong Province. (Photo: China Daily)

A man goes for a butterfly tattoo in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. (Photo: China Daily)

Tool for tattoo. (Photo: China Daily)

Editor: Wing

By: Source:China Daily Website
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