Shanghai has become China’s tattoo mecca, but societal stigmas still exist

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/25 18:13:39

One of the most reputable tattoo artists in Shanghai, Zhuo Danting, is a sight to behold. With neon green hair, a blue-and-red Sacramento Kings tee, metallic-gold sneakers and a kaleidoscope of colorful ink adorning her entire body, she practically blends into the background of her prismatic shop, Shanghai Tattoo. Since 2007, Zhuo has made a domestic and international name for herself as one of China's most reputable ink slingers.

The store itself, which is owned and managed by Zhuo, is a direct reflection of her eclectic personality: colorful, carefree and creative. A skeletal toy dog stands guard at the workspace, where all the magic happens. Blood-red paint on the ceiling states cheekily: "Yes, tattoos hurt!"

The fear of pain, however, hasn't deterred a growing number of young Chinese adults from partaking in Shanghai's rapidly flourishing tattoo culture. Over the past few years, the number of people getting inked, along with the number of professional tattooists, has soared to unprecedented numbers.

Of course, tattooing has been around in Shanghai for decades, but usually in the cosmetic sense. It is not uncommon to see local ladies with their eyebrows tattooed, or even with permanent eyeliner on their lids. However, people rarely associate this kind of tattooing with the full-sleeve, oriental dragon type.

"Especially in the last two years, it kind of just exploded. Before you wouldn't really see tattooed people on the street, but now you basically see them every day, even some with huge tattoos. It's just getting bigger and bigger," Zhuo told the Global Times.

Zhuo's clientele is split evenly between foreigners and locals. She's hardly surprised when a Chinese customer comes in and asks for a large tattoo that stretches across their entire arm or back, a request that was once unheard of here.

The growing acceptance and popularity of tattoos can be attributed to many factors. As a cosmopolitan city with Western influence, Shanghai is the perfect breeding ground for those who want to get a tattoo or set up a studio.

The dominance of social media and the Internet has also encouraged Chinese to look beyond the scope of their own immediate culture and pick up on trends from across the globe. Zhuo believes that celebrities may have also paved the way for body art becoming more mainstream.

"A lot of Chinese superstars or sport stars like football and basketball players all have tattoos," she said, using Lin Dan, a local badminton legend who stirred controversy with his various arm tattoos, as the most prominent example.

Shanghai tattoo artist Zhuo Danting works on a client's design. Photos: Global Times

Unsavory associations

However there still exists an undercurrent of stigma, especially with older generations, toward those who dare vandalize their own bodies. For much of China's history, tattoos have been intimately linked with criminality, low-status and prisoners.

These associations were cemented by the long-standing imperial practice of tattooing criminals' faces to mark them as pariahs or exiles. A man with a tattoo on his face incited fear in those who crossed paths with him.

The fact that members of organized "triad" crime syndicates, especially in the south of China, often don tattoos hasn't helped ease this fear. A tattooist at Utopia Tattoo with 13 years of experience, Xiao Wu is no stranger to this stigma.

"Ever since I was young, I've always found tattoos to be very mysterious and cool," he told the Global Times with gusto as he recalled his humble beginnings. "However, because of family pressure, I chose a more traditional occupation instead."

Despite his parents' negative attitude toward tattoos, Xiao Wu knew he eventually had to pursue his passion. He later went behind their backs, quitting his job and secretly training as a tattoo artist.

"I couldn't spend forever worrying about my parents' cold stares from the sidelines. It's been challenging of course, but my love for my career hasn't wavered."

Scenes from Shanghai tattoo artist Zhuo Danting's studio

Hiding the truth

As for Zhuo, she handles the stigma and the strange looks on the street like a pro. "Some old locals still judge me and stare at me. I grew up with that kind of judgment, but I don't really care. You can't care. If you care too much, you can't really live your life."

Getting inked is an experience unique to each person who takes a seat in the studio chair. Youngsters often see tattoos as a way of marking their personal story or motivating themselves, usually with a phrase or symbol that means something special to them.

Others focus less on semantics, simply seeing tattoos as an art form and their bodies as the canvas. Keith Yeo, a graduate from an international school in Shanghai, got his first tattoo when he was only 16.

"It was this stupid little bird, a logo from this pop punk band. It was my favorite band at the time and I mistakenly thought they would be forever," he laughs, recalling how he hid the truth from his dad for an entire year by telling him that it was just a pen drawing.

Both of Yeo's arms are now completely covered in ink, with designs ranging from a fierce-looking eagle to a dinosaur wielding a sword. His favorite is a tiny Tsingtao Beer bottle on his arm, a witty homage to his secret night life as an international student in Shanghai.

Yeo became so passionate about tattoos that he finally decided to attend a two-year tattoo apprenticeship. He now works at a studio in Singapore.

Jonathan Xiang's tattoos

A bright future

Jonathan Xiang, a local Shanghainese who works in media, has four tattoos: a Metallica symbol, a small star, a spider web and the logo from a body art gallery.

"I was lucky enough to not face any discrimination when looking for jobs. I guess that's because media is a more open-minded and creative field," he told the Global Times, though he acknowledges that it can still be a struggle to get employed in China if you have noticeable tattoos. Xiang has high hopes that job discrimination against those with ink will slowly dissipate over time. "I believe that when people of our generation become CEOs or hiring managers, it won't be as big of an issue."

In 2015, it was estimated that there were over 2,000 tattoo artists in Shanghai, a sure sign of the city's nascent tattoo culture.

As more and more Chinese people actively stray from the established cookie-cutter lifestyle, they are gaining a greater appreciation for alternative art. Xiao Wu has similar sentiments. In his eyes, the future of tattoo art in China is as bright as the flash art lining the walls of his studio.

"Because customers' standards for tattoos are increasing, the talent and the industry itself is also developing. In the future we'll see a lot of different Chinese artists with unique styles."

This article was written by Maya Zhou

An inking gun


An employee at Zhuo's store

Newspaper headline: Ink slingers


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