Inside China’s Crackdown on Tattoo Culture

Written by Mengchen Zhang, CNNBeijing, China

“My behavior has impinged on the physical and mental health of minors,” read a court-ordered apology issued by a tattoo artist in China’s Shaanxi province in September. “I am deeply aware of my mistakes,” he added.

The man, who admitted to tattooing 43 minors, became one of the first people charged under a new age restriction law which came into force in June. But while many countries enforce similar rules prohibiting young people from getting tattoos, Chinese media coverage has suggested protecting minors is as much about ideology as it is about medical well-being.

At the time, the Global Times tabloid claimed that tattoos “steer minors away from the establishment of basic socialist values” because they can convey “harmful ideas” such as “feudal superstition”, the “culture of gangs” and “overseas culture”. An editorial in the Beijing Youth Daily meanwhile said that the tattoo subculture is “colliding” with the mainstream.

The legislation, which prohibits people from encouraging even those under 18 to get tattoos, is just the latest step in a growing crackdown on body art in China.

With the ruling Communist Party’s nationalist agenda shaping everything from movies to architecture, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the country’s authorities are increasingly associating tattoos with immorality and corruption. western influence.
People pose with designs by Beijing-based tattoo artist Chen Jie, whose work is also pictured at the top.

People pose with designs by Beijing-based tattoo artist Chen Jie, whose work is also pictured at the top. Credit: Courtesy of Chen Jie

In 2017, the State Cyberspace Administration banned showing tattoos during live streaming or in videos posted on social media. The following year, China’s media regulator ruled that TV stations “should not feature actors with tattoos of (or portray) hip-hop culture, subculture and unethical culture”, according to state media. ‘State. More recently, football players representing China were banned from getting new tattoos, with sports authorities ordering those who already had body art to remove or cover it up to set a “good example to society.” “.

Many public sector organizations have explicitly stated in job descriptions that people with tattoos are ineligible for certain roles, including police officers, firefighters, and even highway toll collectors. In 2020, officials in the northwest city of Lanzhou ordered taxi drivers to remove “large tattoos” on the grounds that they “could cause psychological discomfort to women, children and other passengers”.

Because there is no official licensing system for tattoo artists in China, the industry exists in a legal gray area.

Because there is no official licensing system for tattoo artists in China, the industry exists in a legal gray area. Credit: Courtesy of Justin Robertson

The stereotypes surrounding tattoos are partly rooted in historical associations with crime. In ancient China, branding offenders’ faces with permanent ink was considered one of the “five punishments” alongside execution and amputation.

Gareth Davey, a visiting professor at Yunnan Normal University in China who studies the country’s tattoo culture, explained that the stigma also stems from Confucian values.

“In Confucianism, the preservation of skin and body inherited from parents was an example of filial piety and deemed necessary for a civilized society,” he said in an email interview, “while tattooing meant uncivilized practice and neglect of family duties.”

He added that tattooing is more stigmatized in China than in the West because “people enjoy doing what is best for society and fulfilling their obligations in social relationships.”

A form of self-expression

Despite official scorn, more young people are getting inked today than ever before, according to Chen Jie, who opened her own tattoo studio in Beijing in 2005. While her clientele was once predominantly male, she now sees a growing number of Chinese women – for whom social stigmas are often much stricter – at his studio in the capital’s bustling Sanlitun district.

“(Chinese society) is becoming more open, with so much new information now available through the internet,” she said in a phone interview. “People used to associate tattoos with thugs and gangs, but now it’s become a culture associated with being cool.”

Tattoo artist Chen Jie, who opened her studio in Beijing in 2005.

Tattoo artist Chen Jie, who opened her studio in Beijing in 2005. Credit: Courtesy of Chen Jie

Chen is considered a pioneer of the “watercolor” style of tattooing, which is inspired by traditional ink brush paintings. Using subtle coloring and gradual shading, she often depicts scenes from nature, such as bamboo, cranes, and “shan shui” (literally “mountain, water”) landscapes historically found in Chinese art. .

One of Chen's landscape-inspired tattoo designs.

One of Chen’s landscape-inspired tattoo designs. Credit: Courtesy of Chen Jie

Others opt for a more realistic aesthetic, like Victoria Lee, who became a tattoo artist shortly after graduating from the famed Academy of Arts and Design at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. His photorealistic style allows him to ink detailed portraits ranging from clients’ parents and pets to pop stars and historical figures.

“I wanted to tattoo the portrait of an important member of my family but I couldn’t find anyone who shared my artistic values,” she said in a telephone interview, recounting how she started in the industry. “I always thought tattoos were really cool and I was like, ‘Why not try it myself?'”

A photorealistic tattoo of Victoria Lee.

A photorealistic tattoo of Victoria Lee. Credit: Courtesy 01 Victoria Lee

Zhao Xiang, a postdoctoral researcher at Sweden’s Örebro University who has studied Chinese tattoo culture in depth, said young people today are more likely to get tattoos as a form of self-expression. “People today want to see more diversity and individuality,” he said over the phone. “They like the spirit of individualism rather than a collective spirit.”

Legal uncertainty

There is no official licensing system for tattoo artists in China. As such, the industry exists in a legal gray area where studios operate without oversight or inspection of their safety, hygiene or tracking practices.

“It’s still kind of a ‘half-underground’ situation,” said Song Jiayin, owner of an all-female tattoo studio in Beijing.

Tattoo artist Song Jiayin often uses a chain design, a reference to a Chinese mother of eight who was found chained up in a rural village.

Tattoo artist Song Jiayin often uses a chain design, a reference to a Chinese mother of eight who was found chained up in a rural village. Credit: Courtesy of Song Jiayin

When Song opened her studio in 2016, she found that over 70% of her clients were women. She started a project called “1,000 Girls”, which aims to tell the stories of 1,000 female clients and their tattoos. The project saw her create a variety of tattoos alluding to their experiences, including a tattoo in the shape of a womb for the daughter of a woman who had to have her womb surgically removed for medical reasons. Song herself has a chain tattoo on her wrist that pays homage to a Chinese mother of eight who was found in a rural village with a chain around her neck, sparking outrage in China last year over the womens rights.

With Chinese feminists and other activists being targeted by government repression in recent years, Song said she faced hostility from authorities, including at events where she sold merchandise bearing her design. chain.

“(Authorities) don’t regulate the tattoo industry because they don’t want to recognize tattoos to begin with,” she said. “It’s their way of expressing their dislike.”

A portrait of tattoo artist Victoria Lee.

A portrait of tattoo artist Victoria Lee. Credit: Courtesy of Justin Robertson

Lee working in his studio.

Lee working in his studio. Credit: Courtesy of Justin Robertson

Body artists face similar legal uncertainties in South Korea — and, until a 2020 Supreme Court ruling, in Japan — where it’s technically illegal for anyone other than a medical professional to perform. tattoos. Yet China’s National Health Commission said in 2009 that tattooing should not be listed as a medical cosmetic procedure, while the country’s Ministry of Commerce also said that invasive skin operations are not considered part of it. of the beauty industry.

“No one is clear whether (tattooing) falls under the legal provisions of the beauty industry or the medical industry,” said Zhao of Örebro University, adding that this ambiguity also extends to clients. . “If you look carefully at the laws and regulations, you may not dare to get a tattoo because if you end up in a legal dispute, you simply have no place to go to defend your rights.”

In the months since the ban on inking minors went into effect, several “public interest” cases have been filed by state prosecutors, resulting in fines for tattoo artists. In December, for example, a court in Shanghai fined a person 5,000 yuan ($739) for inking a 17-year-old, while a court in Lhasa, Tibet ordered another artist to pay 10,000 yuan ($1,477) to a tattooed minor for “damage.”

The seemingly wide range of government agencies involved in enforcing the ban has only added to the confusion, Zhao said, and the latest restrictions are unlikely to be the last.

“There are only campaign-like bans that follow one another,” he added.

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