China is a country of deep-rooted tradition and superstition that has survived a near century of Civil War, occupation and communism—a combination that doesn’t leave much room for a well-established Western symbol of rebellion: body art. So, when I took a road trip through industrial, inland China with a carful of strangers and the promise of a free tattoo, I wasn’t exactly surprised when things didn’t work out as planned.
On the morning of the big day, I’m squished in the back of a shabby, silver probably fake-Buick minivan with three Chinese couples, two babies and innumerable tattooed body parts. We’re headed for landlocked and old-fashioned Henan, China’s smoggiest province, which is best known for coalmines and poverty. This is the second tattoo competition here in as many years, an event where artists from all over China will present their work, some of it done right before my eyes, to see who can claim to have mastered this evolving art form. I’m imagining a busy, modern, expo center, something professional and well lit, yet edgy.
The event’s English title, while grandiose in a uniquely Chinese way, is fitting: “2015 ‘Fight for Territory in Ancient Central China’ Chinese Tattoo Art Fair.” Modern tattoo culture, along with Western culture in general and the English language, is coming alive in China, slowly but surely.
Once in Henan’s capital Zhengzhou, we drive through a sea of shopping malls, until we finally find what we’re looking for in a dull, gray, jumbo convention center with an ambiance that’s common in this kind of mid-tier Chinese city: somewhere between not quite finished and already partially abandoned.
After pushing through the inexplicable, gawking crowd at the front door (I’m a foreigner in China, so I’m used to the stares, but this crowd was at least as interested in my tattooed friends as they were in me), we enter an uncomfortably high-ceilinged yet dusty bazaar filled with health and beauty stalls, and about 30 competing tattoo artists crammed into a back corner, much the way tattoo culture as a whole remains in most of China—not quite officially sanctioned, small-time and undeniably fringe.
The air—a stale combination of sweat and cigarette smoke layered on a canvas of Chinese smog—pulses with the frantic vibrations of dozens of tattoo guns in a way that is neither glamorous nor pleasant.
I’m here as a guest of Ji ZhanHua, a 29-year-old husband and father to a baby girl, a friendly Buddhist whom strangers are often afraid of because of his full-sleeve tattoo and long hair.
He opened his business, a two-room tattoo studio up a steep set of stairs in Jinan—the conservative capital of northeastern China’s Shandong Province—in 2009. That was before a small cohort of Chinese people started admiring the tattoo culture and innovations coming from the U.S., back when everyone saw tattoos as symbols of criminality.
The man’s craft and the name of his shop—???, which translates simply to “Buddha and Demon Hall”—are testaments to his place in the counterculture. Tattoos and religion are banned in the Chinese Communist Party, so he’ll never be mainstream as long as China is a one-party system where tradition and The Party rule.
“In the minds of Chinese people, tattoos are only for those people who are bad elements of society—criminals or misfits,” ZhanHua says.
Even though he’s frustrated by the event’s disorganization—the schedule keeps changing and the space is so small artists are working on top of each other—ZhanHua says a day like this is a kind of homecoming for him. In China, tattoo culture is infinitely further from the mainstream than it is in other countries, and this is one of the few places he gets to blend in.
“When I first started, [getting tattoos], it bothered me,” he says of the constant negative attention his tattoos attract. “But it’s my own thoughts, my own process so—whatever.”
In our corner of this hazy football field of ink, makeup, tame lingerie and massage gadgets, everyone has the uncommon luxury of being exactly who they want to be.