I Tattooed and So Can You

Back home I come from a fairly liberal family in terms of body art and expression, all but one of my siblings has at least one tattoo and all the girls have multiple piercings. More often than not I have accompanied my siblings to the different tattoo parlors to get their respective work done, I myself am no stranger to visiting the tattoo shops for a few different piercings. I’ve always been interested in and wanted to have my own tattoo. Meaning behind the art, placement, and choice of color have all been ideas that I have often pondered upon when noticing others’ tattoos. So, it made sense to me to explore the tattoo culture of Beijing for my research here.

From the first email response I received from Mr. Wu, the owner of Shuangquan  Tattoo Shop (双权纹身店) I knew that I would like him. He replied almost immediately and just said that he didn’t mind when I showed up, I could come whenever I felt like; this is my kind of person: relaxed and easy-going. On my first visit I felt extremely comfortable and welcomed in his store, he poured my friends and I tea and explained his personal philosophy which he displays on his wall as a decorative art piece (see below for picture). His motto is very reassuring for a customer who walks in because has the meaning of following the right path to tattooing and implies a respect for the art.

"刺文承道 "(ci wen cheng dao) Basically this motto has the meaning of passing on to his students and others the right and truthful way of tattooing. It implies a respect for the art of tattooing and the weightiness of this art.

“刺文承道 “(ci wen cheng dao) Basically this motto has the meaning of passing on to his students and others the right and truthful way of tattooing. It implies a respect for the art of tattooing and the weightiness of this art.

Every visit after the initial one was also enjoyable. I was always greeted with a smile and an offer to look at whatever work was getting tattooed on any customer. The welcoming attitude, the warm vibe of the shop (red walls, couch, tea set, etc.) and the easy-going personalities of the artists made the decision to get my tattoo at this shop a no-brainer.

Talking with the shop keeper Mr. Wu and my artist Xiao Wen about my tattoo was an enjoyable and enlightening experience. I wanted a sizable phoenix on my back, from my right shoulder to the bottom left of my back. Both of these guys helped me decide on a beautiful, perfect painting to get tattooed on my body. A Chinese phoenix or a 凤凰 (fenghuang). I learned there are two different translations of phoenix into Chinese, and that fire in China is too masculine for a “pretty girl” like me. I really appreciated the artists’ input and help picking out a wonderful image to be permanently marked on my back.

It was comforting that they took so much time in the beginning to make sure I got exactly what I wanted: we spent almost two hours discussing the exact design. It reinforced to me that he stuck to his motto’s implication of respecting the tattoo and taking the right and open path with his customers.

Finally the day of the actual work came up and I went to the shop prepared to study for my exams the next day for the whole  three to four hours that I would be there getting the outline of my new tattoo. Now, I have accompanied my siblings most of the time to their tattoo sessions, but most of theirs have taken an hour or less to complete, and while I had prepared myself for a nine hour journey, a sort of rite of passage to being able to be accepted into the tattoo culture, I drastically underestimated the pain of this process. Three and half hours, a half bottle of baijiu (白酒,a type of Chinese liquor),  a thousand curse words, and no studying time later I was finished with the outline for the night.

 

You can see a video of part of the process by clicking:  here.

 

 

After suffering through over three hours of intense pain, I was hesitant to return the next day(way too early to start another tattoo session) to finish, but I had only one week left and would not be able to finish the tattoo on this trip if I didn’t go back.

The finished product! After over 8 hours of tattooing in less than 24 hours the entire piece was completed.

The finished product! After over 8 hours of tattooing in less than 24 hours the entire piece was completed.

 

Although it was many hours of intense pain, I am very pleased with the final result. As you can see in the picture on the right, it’s color came out beautifully and was worth the hours of pain (I did opt for the numbing medication one day two when my back was extra tender, so some might say I didn’t officially go through the entire rite of passage, but it was too early for me to be there and the pain was intense).

From the design process was better than my highest expectations, the needles were new and clean, and everything was as stated on the shop’s website: http://shuangquanwenshen.com/ . It was sterile, professional, and artistically done.

Now I feel as though I have really entered into the tattoo cultural world since I sport my own piece. Although for some parts of society, I believe that I will be looked down upon because of  the views surrounding tattoos and tattoo culture.

 

The Research & Process

Before coming to Beijing, I knew that I wanted to research tattoos and the culture surrounding it. I knew a little about the history of the Western tattoo culture, but I was not as knowledgeable on the history of the Chinese tattoo and its culture. Beginning the process was exciting and I easily found a place close to my living area in which to conduct observations. Mr. Wu’s SQ Tattoo shop seemed perfect from his website because he’s not only an artist, but also a teacher, so he has apprentices also in his shop. His website has a section about dedication to cleanliness and professionalism. The artists’ profiles on the site included helpful information about length in the field and style of art they do, which is a lot of Chinese traditional style. From his website I found that he had two different shops, which seems to indicate that he was had enough business (was popular enough) that he was financially able to open a second store. I needed a place that would be frequented by customers, one that would allow me to go there, and one that might incorporate the Chinese tattoo culture (one that has artists who practice Chinese traditional style, and one where many Chinese people go to as opposed to a store that seems to cater more to foreigners like Mummy Tattoo http://www.mummy-tattoo.com/). SQ Tattoo from the website seemed like the exact site that I was looking for.

I was lucky that the first potential site for my fieldwork responded positively to my observations. On my first visit it also seemed to meet all of the requirements for a good field site. The store has three different rooms for working and a small bathroom, as one can see by looking at the map below.

Replica of SQ Tattoo Shop layout.

Replica of SQ Tattoo Shop layout.

The first room that guests enter upon arrival at the shop is the long room on the left of the image. Here is the reception/work desk; it acts as a waiting room for customers and friends of customers; it is a tattoo work space in the far left corner; it is the main room where most of the activity in the building occurs. There is a tea set in front of the sofa and a work-out bench next to a large display case. All of these work together to give the room a very welcoming feel. The red color of the walls of the whole shop also adds to the homey vibe that one feels when he enters. For a short video tour of this room look here

For the most part I stayed in this main room and the small room on the bottom right of the map, to conduct my research. This smaller room (call it #3 for simplicity) is where most of the tattoos where done. Above the cabinets on the right side of the room is a long mirror for customers to see their finished work. Plastered on the rest of the walls are the artists sketches of previous tattoos done and different traditional decorations (like fertility dolls and Buddhist images). This is the room where I spent almost 9 hours getting tattooed, and where I recorded a few clients getting tattooed.

The third room directly above #3, was rarely used. I saw an apprentice taking a nap on the bed in there once, and only one customer getting a piercing in this room during my visits there. Most of the time the light was kept off, and the artists only went in to get to the bathroom. One of the artists informed me that it was a room used for women who wanted a more private area in which to get work done.

With my handy field journal I observed for 7 weeks at SQ Tattoo shop. From my notebook shown below, one can see there were more than just personal notes taken, I used it to get bus directions and describe different piercings with some of the artists at SQ Tattoo.

field notes option one

My journal served are more than a means to take notes, it also helped ease communications between myself and the artists at the shop. Only one of the artists was able to try to communicate in English even a little, and it was very elementary English, so the notebook became a way to draw and write down words to communicate more effectively and breach the language barrier.

Between my journal and my iPod’s camera, I had everything I needed to communicate with the artists with my limited Chinese ability. With the help of the Chinese-English dictionary on my iPod and a good friend, I was able to translate some of an interview of Mr. Wu that was published in a a book that is available in both English and Chinese called Oriental Tattoo Art: Contemporary Chinese and Japanese Masters  or 东方 利青 艺术 (dongfang li qing yishu).  Below is a translated excerpt from the book, it is  talks about how Mr. Wu got into the tattoo business:

                 In 1999, Wu Shuangquan started as a hairstylist and this was his first time to experience a tattoo. He got a butterfly tattoo on his arm, and since then he has been interested in tattoos. Consequently, he changed his career to become a tattoo artist. He believes that creating a tattoo is like creating life. Every time he finishes a tattoo for a client he feels a sense of pleasure. Because each piece of work came from his art, he established SQ tattoo parlor (Oriental Tattoo Art: Contemporary Chinese and Japanese Masters).

He’s an incredibly interesting guy, who left his old career to become involved in the tattoo business and culture. From talking to other artists at SQ Tattoo, this is not a weird phenomenon. Other artists also dropped their previous careers to join Mr. Wu in his shop to tattoo and to be tattooed. This could indicate that once in the tattoo culture it’s hard to also be part of the mainstream culture. According to one artist that I interviewed, Xiao Wen, when I asked why he switched jobs, why did he quit his old one to become part of this different tattoo world, he only said that his old job working with computers was “really boring, I just sat at a desk all day”.  The fact that more than one artist, at this one shop, left a previous career to begin one in tattooing seems to imply that mainstream society and this tattoo culture are not compatible. Two artists at this shop left their previous careers to pursue a career (maybe it’s a calling?) in tattooing.

Based on the clothing styles of the artists and the clients that came in SQ, in appearance the people involved in this subculture are very different from the normal Beijinger. As one can see from the pictures of some of the artists, students, and clients below they have a different style than the popular loose-fitting blouses that are very fashionable now for women or a dress shirt that one would find a typical white-collar man in.

artist working  photo (1)  me and wu

If one looks closely, he can see the jeans, the over-sized jewelry, and the plain t-shirts on all of the people pictured above (excluding myself in the third picture posing with Mr. Wu). Most of the artists also have sleeve tattoos, which make quite a statement when out in regular society. It’s not a tattoo that is easily hidden, especially in the summer, and definitely marks the wearer as someone who is not part of normal society. It raises questions and often is seen as a sign of someone who is dangerous  because of questions that come to mind such as: is this person in a gang? Why does he/she have a this tattoo displayed visibly? What kind of work do this person do, because he/she cannot work in a professional setting while displaying this kind of artwork? etc.

This look contrasts greatly with the rest of society in Beijing and in other parts of the world. It causes people in this subculture to be ostracized sometimes because they have modified their body to look different than normal society. This begs the question: why do people with tattoos want to stand out? Historically, sometimes tattoos have been used to designate violent persons (war, marked as criminals/slaves) and so have  forced tattooed persons to stand out for negative reasons.

Historical Background & Conclusions 

Tattoos have a long and stigmatized history; especially in China which dates back to early in the first millennium AD. In Chinese the word tattoo has a few translations, but is commonly referred to as 纹身(wenshen). According to the article Tattoo in Early China by Carrie E. Reed the main reasons for tattooing in historical China were violent in nature (except one group that existed outside of the main society of the time, which used it for decorative purposes), she states that “the types of tattoo that are most often mentioned in early Chinese sources are: tattoo as one defining characteristic of a  people different from the majority population, tattoo as punishment, tattoo of slaves, tattoo as facial adornment, tattoo in the military, and figurative and textual tattoo” (Reed, 361).

It is important to know the culture of the past in order to understand the current culture surrounding the tattoo today. Because the tattoo was never part of mainstream culture and as Reed mentions in her article that the terms used to describe a person in China with a tattoo used to be “uncivilized” or “barbaric”, this causes one to wonder whether these views have carried over into today’s society. Previously tattoos have been associated with peoples of lower class standing: criminals, slaves, outsiders (“barbarians”), etc. Some of these associations still exist today, prison tattoos for example are huge deal in many prisons today. In Western Society violent gangs often distinguish themselves by a tattoo or branding, and tattoos can be an identifying mark for the type of person you claim to be (tear drop for murder, cross for thief, etc.).

While it is obvious that not everyone who gets a tattoo is a gang member, criminal, or general violent person, the culture around “getting ink” has developed and thrived in the criminal world, where your first tattoo can be considered a rite of passage, to go through pain to become initiated into a group. The Chinese history of the tattoo as described in this article contains some mention of tattooing as means to achieve beauty in small tribes, but it mainly focuses on how mainstream society still rejected this idea because of tattoos association with violence in war, punishment for criminals, and as a mark for people of a lower social class (slaves and “outsiders”).

In terms of today’s views on society, while there are more positive aspects of tattoo culture in mainstream society, this old negative association of tattoos being on violent or ostracized people still exists. Since this culture has such a long history of being looked down upon by the norm and only thriving outside the realm of normal society that it is difficult for many people today to overcome this negative perspective on tattoos. In my experience, in Beijing I have not seen someone with a tattoo that would mix into the mainstream culture of Beijing and into the tattoo culture. Usually, having a tattoo makes one stand out, but even so, it’s not just the tattoo that makes most of the people with tattoos that I have seen here different from other members in the society; it’s also the way they dress, the way they carry themselves, and the different places that I have seen a person display his/her tattoo(s).

There still exists a divide between tattoo and mainstream culture, although there are a few exceptions such as celebrities show-casing special tattoos and a few members of society who have smaller tattoos or less visible tattoos that do not completely alter their appearance (such as a sleeve or face tattoo might do). This second group is less visible and doesn’t fit with the other tattooed persons in the culture. This could be for the better though, it could mean that a new sub-group that has tattoos, is emerging. Perhaps tattoos will one day become more accepted if an accepted member in normal society can wear a small butterfly on her wrist. While the old stigma of the tattoo, in some cases, still exists, in the future we might see tattoo culture become incorporated more into mainstream society; or at least see society carrying a more neutral view towards tattoos, waiting to pass judgment until it decides if the tattoo is a criminal tattoo or a decorative piece.

 

Bibliography

Reed, Carrie. “Tattoo in Early China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society. 120.3 (2000): 360-376. Web. 31 Jul. 2013. <http://www.jstor.org.proxy.wm.edu/stable/606008>.

Ying, Du, and Shan Shan. Oriental Tattoo Art: Contemporary Chinese and Japanese Tattoo Masters. Gingko: Gingko Pres, 2011. Print.