International Ink: Searching for Rebellion in China

Travel Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Ketti Wilhelm China tattoos3 ©KettiWilhelm2015.jpg
It’s not unusual to lose a job if your Chinese boss finds out you have a tattoo, whether it shows at work or not. Even professional soccer players have been sacked for getting inked. This is partly born of Confucius and his legacy of filial piety, which says you should leave your body as your mama made it. More than a millennium ago, the ruling Han Chinese ethnic majority saw tattoos on the Japanese and several ethnical minority groups and considered them barbaric, then the Han began using facial tats to label criminals with their delinquencies. (China is still 92 percent Han, but home to at least 56 total ethnic groups.) When the Communists came to power in 1949, tattoos were banned altogether in an effort to smudge out the surviving minority cultures, a few of which had continued their tattoo traditions despite the mainstream association with lawlessness.

Now, some Chinese take advantage of the lasting negative perception and get tattoos for intimidation, but not ZhanHua. “What I want to do is tell the world that having tattoos does not demonstrate a person’s character,” ZhanHua says. “You can’t see a person with tattoos and know what type of person they are, if they are good or bad.”

Today, ZhanHua will complete a design he has spent more than 30 hours burying into flesh: A massive, richly colored scene depicting two dragons battling on my friend and translator Ken’s right thigh. It’s an example of traditional Chinese art on an anti-traditional canvas. He had also planned to give me a small, black and gray design above my knee and put me in the competition, as well.

I wait for my turn and wander the messy aisles over and over again, checking back frequently at ZhanHua’s stall, listening to him anxiously report a new schedule change each time. On my final lap, he’s frustrated—more so than I would want an artist to be before marking me for life—and tells me the final judging has been bumped up an entire day because turn-out is so low and he won’t have time for my tattoo before the main event. After I spot one of the few women who will take the stage, perusing the stalls wearing her chosen competition ensemble—a clingy, white dress with a back that scoops down to mid-thigh, revealing a matching, jeweled G-string and a tattoo that descends over her butt cheeks—I decide I don’t mind.

The competition itself is brief and a bit awkward, with maybe 100 spectators watching the tedious judging of live art, and the music turned up loud enough to obscure the scene’s banality. Ken’s dragons place fourth in their category and ZhanHua is happy with that, he says he doesn’t know any of the judges so he wasn’t expecting much better. The Chinese take having connections very, very seriously.

The tattoo scene in most of China in still in its infancy, but he sees it growing—he’s already had four apprentices leave his shop and open new ones in other cities. As the scene grows and the art form becomes more accepted, he hopes Chinese Buddhist and Taoist designs will become more common motifs for those who want to celebrate the Far East. He also looks forward to a day when the more professional events that occasionally bring China’s tattoo community together in the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai will replace the awkwardly shoddy, haphazard ones like this.

Ketti Wilhelm is a writer and journalist who moved to China indiscriminately, and is happy she did.

Recently in Travel