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Current Location: Homepage » Basic Chinese » Practical Chinese Reader » Main Body

Human canvas

Profile:Human canvas

Liu Shichuan, 28, got drunk with a friend who's a tattoo artist and woke up with mahjong tiles tattooed on his forearm five days ago. Baijiu clouded Liu's memory, but his girlfriend recalled that he spent four hours at his friend's tattoo shop near Yonghegong and paid about 4,000 yuan ($633) for a new stamp on his skin. Luckily, Liu's friend is skilled with the needle and Liu isn't a tattoo neophyte. He made his ink debut getting clouds inspired by Monkey King on his ankles 10 years ago. "once you overcome the fear and pain of the first tattoo, you tend to want more," said Liu.


For Maria Schlemil, each tattoo is a sober decision after she had a phoenix printed on her lower back upon her arrival in China four years ago. "I mark meaningful events on my skin as if I was writing my own history book," said the 30-year-old, who has Buddha, her name in Japanese and Shakespeare's words printed on her skin at the rate of one tattoo per year.


Now more ink lovers in Beijing are turning an ancient ritual into a badge of individuality, without caring whether or not tattoos are still a negative blot.


The skin I live in


Tattoo studios are settled in every corner of Beijing's trendiest neighborhoods. Business is flourishing and tattoo artists have their hands full, whether they stamp skin in a small joint in Sanlitun or print art at a studio nestled in Guomao.


The sound of buzzing needles is less threatening at Creation Tattoo in Jianwai Soho, a sophisticated space. "Nicholas Cage [the famous American actor] was here two weeks ago to get two tattoos," recalled Zhang Xin, manager of the studio. Apparently Cage paid 20,000 yuan to get a rattlesnake and a horse's head on his skin. "People do it for passion, to signal a period of their lives or merely because they're bored," noted Zhang.


"A man had a washing machine printed on his chest, another one tattooed dollar bills on his back and a girl asked for a gun on her groin," recalled Zhang. The oddest requests include having a loved one's name tattooed inside the lower lip or marking the genitals. "David Beckham's guardian angel and Angelina Jolie's snake are popular symbols. But most people prefer to have a custom-made tattoo," explained 32-year-old Zhang, who has a background in painting and is a tattoo artist herself. Zhang has a ghost print on her arm and a Chinese dragon over her neck.


Working from home since he left a studio in Sihui, Jiuji has 30 percent of his body covered. "Word tattoos in Thai, Sanskrit or Egyptian are popular now, especially thanks to Angelina Jolie and because more people are looking for a tattoo that can bless or give them luck," said the iconic Beijing artist. "Foreigners prefer Asian and Chinese symbols such as the dragon, the phoenix and other lucky features, wheras Chinese people who want quotes usually prefer English words merely because they think it looks better," noted Zhang.


Soft violence


Photographer Geng Yi was buying vegetables at the local market when he peeked inside a tattoo shop. Geng noticed a shirtless young man who had the two characters of The Peach Blossom Fan (opera by Kong Shangren) tattooed on his back. "I thought it was an ingenious and amazing new way to engrave traditional Chinese culture," said Geng, 39.


For almost two years, Geng followed 13 people who were heavily tattooed to document how the body art ritual reveals social and cultural values of a generation of self-conscious youth in contemporary China. "Tattoos no longer translate as a criminal record or religious belief. Tattoos constitute a type of soft violence motivated by individual expression and standards of beauty in contemporary society," explained the professional photographer. "Tattoo enthusiasts found a way to challenge the existing social values, they want to be noticed, copied, admired," the photographer added. Geng's photo series, entitled Embroidery, was displayed at the Caochangdi PhotoSpring festival in Beijing this May.


An enforced rite in the past, tattoos also evolved to become a personal emblem and a preference for an occasional mix of pleasure and pain. "People feel both happy and fearful when getting a tattoo," noted Geng, who has none but has designed a symbol that he's considering for himself.


Jiuji estimated that eight out of 10 people might get addicted to tattoos. "Life is a routine; people get bored easily and feel the urge for excitement. Tattoos are one of the ways that allow people to express feelings and record their lives while having a blood rush," he added.


Tainted love


Tattoo artists agree that more people are developing a soft spot for the tattoo ritual in China, with Beijing and Shanghai spearheading the trend. Yet despite the thoughtfulness and eloquence of some tattoos, suspicions remain about the art of emblazoning one's skin.


Tattoo artist Jiuji is used to attracting incredulous looks for one. "I'd say about 60 percent of people look down on tattoos. In Western countries the stereotype isn't so strong, but China isn't at the bottom either. Until recently, you couldn't even get a tattoo in Korea and in Japan tattoos are still strongly associated with gangs," noted Jiuji. "Despite the openness of the society, tattoos will always inspire a certain feeling of discomfort and distrust," he predicted.


"Most tattoo devotees that I met were freelance workers and artists, they were not gang members or outcasts," said Geng, whose most impressive experience was photographing a Sichuan farmer, who had his face heavily tattooed to fulfill a dream of becoming famous. "Still, people who have tattoos can't join the army and those who have visible ones won't get a job as a government official," confirmed Geng.


Zhang also told us that white collar customers at her studio prefer inconspicuous stamps on their wrists, ankles and lower part of their neck or back. "Older generations still look down on tattoos and are suspicious of people who show off too many of them," said Zhang.


Chinese you need:


Tattoo刺青 (cì qīng)

Stamp印记 (yìn jì)

Neophyte新手 (xīn shǒu)

Skin皮肤 (pí fū)

Sophisticated成熟的 (chéng shú de)

Custom-made定制的 (dìng zhì de)

Bless保佑 (bǎo yòu)

Ingenious巧妙的 (qiǎo miào de)

document记录 (jì lù)

Ritual仪式 (yí shì)

Soft violence软暴力 (ruǎn bào lì)

Spearhead打先锋 (dǎ xiān fēng)

Suspicion迷信 (mí xìn)

Incredulous不相信的 (bù xiāng xìn de)

Gang罪犯帮派 (zuì fàn bāng pài)


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