By Lizzie Chen
In a small dark room on the second floor of 119 Di’anmenwai Street, the most distinctive sound is the buzzing of a tattoo gun as it touches flesh. Twenty-eight-year-old tattoo artist Wang Lei retouches the colors on a coworker’s arm. The small compound, blasting American Top 40 songs, is filled with young Chinese guys and girls donning dreads, piercings and tattoos.
Over the past decade, tattoos have become more accepted in mainstream Chinese youth culture, but for older generations, the art of tattoo remains taboo. Traditionally, Chinese society frowned upon tattoos, which were associated with foreigners, prisoners and gamblers.
Despite its age-old unpopularity, artists claim the practice is historically significant in China. According to Lei’s coworker, Lui Bo, tattooing dates back to the Song Dynasty in the 12th century, when field marshal Yue Fei left war to return home to care for his mother.
Yue Fei’s mother criticized him for leaving the front, saying that a soldier’s first loyalty is to his country. To ensure this would not be forgotten, she tattooed the characters “Utmost,” “Loyalty,” “Serve” and “Nation,” on Yue Fui. This anecdote, as retold by Lui, is fundamentally associated with tattooing in China.
Both Lui and Wang believe that as today’s younger generation comes of age, tattoos will gradually gain widespread acceptance. “I am lucky because my parents are strong supporters of my passion for tattoo and fully accept my career as a tattoo artist,” Wang said.
With a rising middle class, the Chinese have more disposable income than ever, Wang said, giving them the ability to spend more on leisure and personal expenditures such as body art.
The simplest of tattoos start off at 500 RMB ($77), making the trade lucrative and allowing tattoo artists such as Wang to live a comfortable middle class life. Before taxes, rent, and business costs, Wang’s shop revenue per year is between 700,000 – 800,000 RMB (roughly $107,000 – $123,000).
Although the tattoo industry is experiencing growing popularity, it still exists as a small niche culture in China. There are no regulations to ensure hygiene or sanitary working conditions, Wang said, and it is difficult for authorities to monitor conditions because tattoo shops can open and close with frequency.
Despite the current industry flux, Wang said he believes that a growing economy and Western influence on Chinese culture will drive more people into tattoo shops.
“As the younger generation replaces the older generation, we will change society and the future,” Wang said. “Then, tattoos will be fully accepted.”