Drawn together by their art

SUN JOURNAL

Tattoos: Body art is beginning to gain popularity in China, but a recent exhibition in Beijing shows how far it still has to go.

October 15, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Everything in the darkened bar hinted underground, from the incoherent English graffiti and portraits of naked women on the wall to the man with the mohawk haircut and the women in fake leather milling about.

This is the new unofficial headquarters of Beijing's budding tattoo industry, which is trying to gain broad acceptance from the government and the Chinese public. The fact that this group of artists and enthusiasts ended up here recently, in an out-of-the-way bar on one of the city's narrow side streets, was a sign that it hasn't made it yet.

Organizers wanted to gather two weeks ago at a popular shopping mall for an exhibition of tattoo artistry from Taiwan's masters of the trade. But the police shut them down, organizers say. China was celebrating its 53rd anniversary of Communist rule Oct. 1, and the government didn't want a bunch of tattoo artists in one of Beijing's finer malls during such an important official holiday.

Tattoos - engraved on prisoners' foreheads in imperial China and later considered the unofficial province of gangsters and thieves - have begun to occupy the same social space they've held for years in much of the Western world: expressions of youth, identity and social rebellion.

But in this still-conservative society, it's a bumpy transition.

"It's still not an officially permitted business by the government, so it's sensitive," said Wang Qingyuan, a 40-year-old tattoo artist who ended up as host of the exhibition in his bar just north of downtown Beijing. "And it wasn't the right day [to hold a public exhibition]. It's National Day; it's especially sensitive. We understand."

Rebellion in any form is not exactly a concept government officials in China would rush to embrace, maybe even less so after stepping inside Wang's bar on this day.

Young men's and women's backs, shoulders, ankles, forearms and who knows what else are adorned with images of ghost eaters, flaming skulls and menacing dragons, along with more tame fare, such as non-flaming skulls and not-so-menacing dragons.

Near one corner, a young Beijing tattoo artist with a mop of red hair is having a representation of hell drawn on his back by a Taiwanese artist who has a dirty-blond mohawk, a nose ring and an earlobe stretched to the limit by a hoop ring. Against another wall, another Taiwanese artist is inscribing a half-moon joined with a half-sun, with long fangs bared, on Xu Zhenming, 23.

Xu is, like many in the room, a self-taught tattoo artist. He says he's "not that good" and that tattooing isn't yet an established form of alternative expression in China.

"The traditional conception in China is that tattoos are for gangsters, for black society. Most don't take it as art," Xu said. "I believe tattooing is art. Art in China is perceived by different people differently. As the old saying goes, `Some people love radish. Some people love cabbage.'"

Jing Wang, a professor of Chinese cultural studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says popular attitudes are still hardened against tattoos.

"People with tattoos are considered to be of lower social stratum and dubious moral character," she said. "An old Confucian saying offers a partial answer: `Your hair and skin [a metaphor for body] was a gift given to you by your parents. You cannot damage it.'"

Other tattoo artists understand this point well, including Yang Peng, 29. Dressed unremarkably in slacks and a collared shirt, with nary an earring, tattoo or mohawk, Yang looks less like a member of the underground than like a typical businessman - in part because he is a businessman, a manufacturer of soy milk.

Although he believes tattoos are gaining popularity, Yang doesn't plan to get one himself.

"It's not that I don't accept tattoos. It's just I'm afraid other people won't accept it," said Yang, a former government worker, as he stood at the doorway of Wang's bar. "I may go back to work for the government, and I don't want somebody looking at me in a strange way."

Inside the bar are most of the city's tattoo artists, plus several who have traveled from nearby provinces. The Chinese artists in the bar number 20 at most, and the majority started within the past few years. Five years ago, there were only a few artists in town, like Yang and Wang, and they had few customers.

The artists say they hope to establish safety standards so that they can convince the government to accept them and regulate them. They say they've noticed a marked change in public attitudes in just the past few years.

"Now, the customers I get, 80 percent of them are comparatively well-educated, white-collar workers," Wang said. "I even have customers with master's degrees. They take it as a fashion."

Yang says that since he started advertising on the Internet, a steady stream of well-educated customers has come into his shop. Some are businessmen looking for tattoos signifying luck, including a design of fish. Other customers include young couples who each ask for a bird to be inscribed on one finger - "love birds."

And more new, young customers are on the way - if they have the will to go under the needle.

Zhou Xiao Xiao, 22, watches with fascination as another young woman gets tattooed. A graduate of a top Beijing university, Zhou sings in a punk rock band and says she was born a rebel, and it has little to do with the six earrings in one ear.

"This is only superficial stuff. The real rebellion is in my heart, in my music, how I talk, the novels I write," Zhou said. She may not be ready, though, for a tattoo.

"I want to," she says, "but I'm not brave enough."

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