Once the province of gangsters, sailors and criminals, the tattoo has become a fashion accessory. Xu Wei reports on the trends and controversy surrounding Shanghai's latest fad.
A lithe panther leaps with every twitch of a muscle. An eagle in flight, spread across a chest. A serpentine dragon, writhing down a forearm. Welcome to the world of tattoo.
Tattoo studios, once the province of Popeye and the seamy underworld, has gone mainstream. But is this body art just another fashion fad? Yilong Tattoo, on Xiangyang Road S., receives 50-plus clients a month, with those in the 18 to 25 years old making up the majority of its clientele. Owner Yang Haibin, 30, says that it's been a promising, profitable business since it opened eight years ago. With summer on the horizon, he's expecting a flood of new business, as well. "With more of the skin uncovered with summer's skin-baring clothes, I expect more customers this season," says Yang. "An exquisite, eye-catching tattoo design is a mark that distinguishes them."
Although the process is somewhat painful and even bloody, tattoo lovers don't complain: no pain, no gain in the pursuit of fashion and beauty. Tattoos can be used for cosmetic reasons, to cover up the scars from surgery or even a birthmark. Yang says that he has many clients who want to mask the scars from Caesarean surgery and appendicitis operations. "These clients usually have lower requirements for the designs," Yang adds. "But when it comes to the young, hip and trendy, they need more unique designs to reflect their personality." Rainbow Zhu, 22, considers tattooing a miraculous thing.
"My affinity with tattoo is hard to express in words," Zhu smiles. "This decorative art form not only helps me distinguish myself from others, but also records my feelings and moods at a certain period in my life. It's so amazing." Some tattoo their beloved's name, wreathed in hearts and roses, symbolizing undying love. "We have put our wish that this relationship will endure for good into this identical tattoo -- two lovely carps," says Echo Huang, a 20-plus human resources staff. "It's a propitious symbol to mark our love. These days, the tattoo is a method to beautify our body, just like hair dying and dressing. But since it has its origins in ancient tribal totem adoration, to me, the tattoo is an article of faith that offers me courage and power when I'm low." Yang agrees, calling it an art worthy of a lifelong passion.
"What attracts me is the strong artistry of tattooing. Painting on the skin with needles is definitely different from drawing on paper," Yang says. "As each design represents what inspired me at that specific time, it is unique and can never be recreated. I also believe that my next piece is always the best." But the tattoo doesn't have such positive connotations for everyone. For Huang Yonghui, a 20-something IT employee, they are emblematic of a seedy underworld.
"I never conceal my disgust for tattoo," Huang frowns.
"You know, it looks terrible and dirty, and in my opinion, only gang leaders need something like this to frighten others. It seems to me that this is completely unnecessary painful self-torture!" Huang is backed up by traditional Chinese beliefs: Tattoo, in Chinese, is called "wen shen" or "ci qing," literally meaning "puncturing the body."
Chinese tradition dictates that one's body is a precious gift from one's parents and should never be abused or defaced. Thus, although it has been known and practiced in China for many years, the tattoo has never been considered artistic, desirable or even acceptable. Quite the contrary. During the Qin (221-206 BC) and Han (206 BC-220 AD) dynasties, a person found guilty of a severe crime would be tattooed on his face, permanently marking him as a criminal. "Since I know what tattoos have meant historically, it's hard for me to accept and understand it if my son wants one," Xu Ziyan, a 50-plus retired teacher notes. "I don't think it's decent."
It is a permanent mark on the body, and since young people are so capricious, they may not want the tattoo that they thought they loved at 18. Tattoo removal, as far as I know, is quite expensive and doesn't totally eliminate the scarring or color variations.'' There are also health concerns associated with tattooing, particularly in the transmission of viruses via the blood, such as tuberculosis, HIV and hepatitis B and C. "This may occur if needles or tubes are reused without sterilizing," says Shi Weimin, a dermatologist with the Shanghai Tongji Hospital.
"Other risks include skin damage for those who are allergic to tattoo pigments. People who are susceptible to infection would be advised to be cautious before getting a tattoo."