International Ink: Searching for Rebellion in China

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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.

KettiWilhelm China Tattoos 8 ©KettiWilhelm2015.jpg

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.
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.