Tattooed and proud: Chinese women remove the stigma

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SHANGHAI – December 26, 2017: Once the hallmark of criminals or sex workers, tattoos have been stigmatized for centuries in China, but the growing influence of celebrity culture is changing all that, especially for women.

Nowhere is the trend more evident than in Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city and recently dubbed “China’s tattoo mecca” by the country’s state media.

Body art for women has long been frowned upon in socially conservative China, but studios are springing up in this city of 24 million.

Zhuo Danting, widely regarded as one of China’s top tattoo artists, has witnessed the industry boom firsthand.

The 35-year-old has 70% of her body tattooed and has run her own studio in Shanghai for 11 years.

Inspired by celebrities and sports stars, an unprecedented number of mostly younger Chinese people are getting tattoos, Zhuo said at his shop, Shanghai Tattoo.

“At first, of course, they just give you a weird look, they freak out,” Zhuo, who also has multiple piercings and dyed green hair, said of her reaction on the street.

“But now there are a lot of people getting tattoos, it’s getting more and more popular. People see them everywhere so they don’t see it as a big deal,” she added.

Zhuo, who got his first tattoo at 16 and tattooed both of his parents, is from Harbin, a city in far northern China.

There’s also a growing body art scene, she says.

– A nice thing –

“There are a lot of changes. Before, not many people got tattoos. They thought people with tattoos, that person must have been in jail or you were a bad person.

“Now it’s a cool thing, to come across as different.”

In Imperial times, convicts were sometimes tattooed as a permanent reminder of their crimes, and tattoos were later used by Chinese triads to signify gang loyalty.

But Zhuo said attitudes towards tattooed women had changed rapidly over the past three years and Chinese people were increasingly experimenting with their body art.

“Before, when you saw a woman with a tattoo, it was usually just a little,” she explained, adding, “But now you can see everywhere that they have full sleeves, or chests, or full back.”

– ‘Pretty and artistic’ –

Wang Qi, a web designer, is about to have Zhuo tattoo his already heavily inked right leg.

The 29-year-old has several body designs, including an hourglass to remind her of the preciousness of time, and a sailboat and lighthouse inspired by her love of the sea, as well as tattoos of a snake head and a crocodile eye.

His latest inking: the Chinese characters of his grandmother’s name on the inside of his thigh.

“Ten years ago, only 10 percent of people could accept women doing this. But now at least 60 to 70 percent of people can,” Wang said, adding that the quality can vary widely.

The trend has spawned some extreme examples, including a couple from northeast China who covered themselves in patriotic artwork, including a Chinese flag on the man’s face.

Reliable numbers are elusive, but Hu Deliang, former head of the China Association of Tattoo Artists, estimates there are around 200,000 such artists in the country.

The Shanghai tattoo artist said women now make up at least 60% of his clients.

“In 2002, only about 20 percent were women, and most of them worked as escorts in nightclubs or that kind of industry,” Hu said.

China’s growing prosperity, meanwhile, means more women can now afford tattoos, which can cost thousands of yuan (hundreds of dollars) and would previously have been considered unwarranted splurge.

Peng Lin, who has the Italian phrase “La vita e bella” (Life is beautiful) among her three tattoos, is one of the few women in her circle of friends to have a tattoo, but many are considering getting it, she said.

“Before, people might think women getting tattoos was some kind of out-of-this-world behavior, but now they all appreciate it when they find out that tattoos can be beautiful and artistic,” said Peng, 31, who works in advertising in Shanghai.

– Retouching –

However, tattoos are still frowned upon in government positions and in many businesses, while some women complain that their husbands or partners object to them.

“Even now people are judging, they don’t think people should have big tattoos, especially women,” said Zhuo, who has tattoos on both sides of his scalp.

“Yet people think it’s more acceptable for men to get tattoos than for women and some make them smaller to hide it from older family members or at work.”

Zhuo said the lack of official oversight makes it “too easy” to open a salon. She often sees clients asking her to fix sloppy work done elsewhere.

“Sometimes I can see good work, but not a lot. The percentage of good tattoos is pretty low right now,” she said.

“Tattooing is still a new thing in China. A lot of new people are becoming tattoo artists quite quickly, but there’s still a lot to learn.”

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