A Prickly Past, A Bright Future, Women in China’s Tattoo Culture is as Thick as Ink
Updated: Jun 26
In this second feature for China Temper, we dive into China's tattoo culture, its history, and women's role within this subculture.
See the China Temper posting here.
All photos used for this posting provided by the tattoo artists Shaoer (勺儿), Xiao Hong(小红) and Wenwen (文文). Other photos used in promotional visuals on social media and in the China Temper posting were taken by Elsbeth van Paridon (China Temper’s editor-in-chief) at BabyBoom Bar's Tattoo Studio (Beijing, China).
We’ve all been there: young, with a rebel yell and contemplating what we want inked on our bodies to boldly show the world that we have at least one wild streak.
From tribal armbands to wearing that “rebel” heart on your sleeve, tattoos are as much a means of cultural expression and a badge of group inclusion as a visual representation of our personal temperaments.
From Chen Jie’s traditional-Chinese-water-color-inspired technique to China’s “First Lady of Tattoo,” Zhuo Dan Ting, the relationship between women and tattooing in China is a lot more ingrained than some would assume.
Pretty in Print
From classical literature and legends to even philosophical schools of thought, tattooing has been a part of Chinese culture since the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1046-256 B.C.) according to various sources such as China Global Television Network (CGTN). Across China’s historic swirl and twirl, the art of modifying the body with dye has been called various things. Today, the most commonly used words for tattooing are either 纹／文身 (wénshēn) or 刺青 (cìqīng), with the latter’s 青(qīng) being speculated by one netizen to be an evolved alternative of the character 黥 (qíng) meaning “to tattoo criminals on the face or forehead.” Starting in the Song Dynasty (918 -1279), tattooing became a form of punishment for anyone who had committed a criminal act.
On an Unsolicited Educational Note
Tattooing in ancient China before the Western Han Dynasty was one of the Five Punishments(五刑| wǔ xíng). According to ChinaKnowledge.de, the other four punishments were castration (宮| gōng), nose dismemberment (劓| yì), amputation of the feet (刖| yuè) and execution (大辟| dà pì).
On A Double Whammy of Unsolicited Educational Notes Filial piety (孝| xiào) and the art of tattooing. In Ancient China, Confucian concepts became the general, political creed of society during Wu Di’s reign (141–87 B.C.) during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 24 A.D.). One of the major principles in this school of thought is filial piety. Filial piety in simple terms is loyalty to family and heritage. Because tattooing alters your birthday suit, Confucianism condemns it as an insult to ancestry. As is stated in the Classic of Filial Piety (孝经) our bodies are provided to us by our parents, and, as such, must be preserved in their original states (身体发肤，受之父母，不敢毁伤).
So, the first question beckons…
When, where and how do the women make their way into China’s historical tattoo narrative?
Women would get tattooed to indicate that they were prostitutes, someone’s (aka a man’s) property, or for disfiguration purposes. As a previous Temper Tantrum on tattooing in China’s history tells it, the story goes that landlords’ wives would tattoo female slaves to make them undesirable to their husbands. Talk about commitment paranoia.
Besides being a mark of criminal activity, servitude or sex work, a handful of minority groups such as傣 (dǎi), 夷 (yí) and 黎(lí) also have tattooing traditions for both men and women.
In these traditions, women get inked either as a sign of coming into their womanhood or matrimony.
The most notable of these customs is the face tattoos (纹面; wén miàn) of the Dulong (独龙| Dúlóng) women. Located in an isolated area of northwestern Yunnan, the Dulong women would get their faces tattooed as a coming of age ritual. However, this custom’s beginnings were based more on function than fashion: it was a male repellent. The origin of the Dulong facial tattoos was to protect the women from being abducted and raped by men lurking around the corner, i.e. men from other communities.
Yes, you read that correctly.
According to ChinaCulture.org and a CGTN recorded live-stream video, the Dulong women once had to disfigure their faces, and thus diminish their natural beauty, to dissuade men from abducting them and raping them.
On Another Unsolicited Educational Note Tattooing throughout history hasn’t just been used as a heinous penalty or as cultural customs, but also as a therapeutic practice. In a Q&A that Smithsonian Magazine did in 2007 with Joann Fletcher, a British archeologist, many ancient cultures around the world used tattooing not just as a part of rites and rituals but also for its medicinal properties. The first known evidence of someone with tattoos was the Iceman. Living over 5000 years ago on the border of modern-day Italy and Austria, the Iceman’s tattoos are theorized to not be for show but instead “to alleviate joint pain.” His tattoos are on his lower body and were not put there with no rhyme or reason. They are uncannily positioned near areas where “strain-induced degeneration” was detected. Like the Iceman’s ink, the Li men of Hainan Island tattoo a trio of blue rings on their wrists for therapeutic reasons.
Tattoo’s stigmatized association is not just because of how it was used in millennia past to brand fugitives and slaves. The negative representation of tattoos in Chinese society that linger on today is also because of the role tattoos have played in mafia culture. “At a time when using force to intimidate works better than using the voice of reason, tattoos in any culture can be used as a symbol of power,” He Tao (核桃), a tattoo artist who has been in the trade for five years and currently works at Beijing’s BabyBoom Bar (BBB), states.
In China, these emblems of power within the criminal underworld range from animals, both real and mystical, to heroic figures roaming China’s elaborate history. Among the younger generations and the New Youth of the Middle Kingdom, the concept of tattoo art is known mostly through the Hong Kong cinema industry’s depiction of gangsters, rather than firsthand experience.
“Early Hong Kong films definitely had a profound impact on Chinese tattoo culture,” says Wenwen (文文), a tattoo artist in Nanchang who discovered her passion for tattoo culture during her college years. Shaoer (勺儿), a tattoo artist of six years, concurs, affirming that the 1992 movie Young and Dangerous (《古惑仔》) probably had some influence on how tattoo culture was perceived in mainstream society. “Early on, the film Young and Dangerous probably had some influence,” she elaborates, “People would take tattoos and deem it the ‘bad guy’ stamp.”
In conventional Chinese society, the stigmas surrounding tattooing and tattoo culture have been passed down from generation to generation. Until recently, having tattoos was still seen as taboo and a sign of hooliganism. “Before, most people who saw [people with] tattoos thought [that] they were people involved in ‘mixed society,’” Xiao Hong (小红), a Beijing tattoo artist of six years, tells Temper, “Nevertheless, now that society is becoming more inclusive, there are fewer [gang] associations.”
Innocent, but Sexy
This tattoos = bad mentality is slowly being eradicated by the youth of China who are embracing a more progressive outlook on life and a more individualistic one of the Self. “It [tattoo culture] is not so much more popular as it’s more accepted.” Wenwen agrees, “it is accepted because the development of the times and young people [are paying] more attention to themselves.”
The popularity or acceptance of tattooing can’t be completely credited to the youth flying their freak flags high, it is also because of a progression in the public’s perspective towards appreciating tattooing itself for what is it, an art form. “[The reason] it is becoming more and more popular is because people are coming to accept that tattooing is an art style,” states Shaoer, “and [they] are figuring out that it is simply a personal thing.”
But it doesn’t end there… Another presumed influential X-factor on the pivot of tattoo culture’s rise in acceptance is the economic one.
“Now more and more young women in China are slowly becoming independent in their lives,” answers Wenwen, when asked if more women are getting more tatts, “So why can’t they get something that makes themselves beautiful or expresses themselves?” Other tattoo artists agreed, but also emphasized that they don’t think the upsurge of tattooing in modern China has a connection to gender. “I don’t think tattoos have anything to do with gender,” declares Xiao Hong.
However, don’t put up the party balloons and confetti yet, this swing in acceptance is not common throughout all of China. In fact, the old prejudices are still prevalent across China. “More open [progressive] provinces and regions have generally accepted tattoos, and even the overall aesthetic is improving,” He Tao tells Temper, “Yet the more conservative, more closed-off economic traffic areas still [associate] tattoos [with] gangs, crime and other labels…such as my hometown of Shandong.”
Another question thus arises… What about the public perception of tattooed women?
Rock Star – Well, Idol
According to the tattoo artists who were interviewed for this Temper Tantrum who would all be categorized as either millennials or Generation Z, when it comes to women with tattoos the public isn’t sexist. “China is not special, the people are not special, women are not special,” declares Shaoer, “I don’t think there is any need to think about differences. The answer is… Some people like, some people don’t. It has nothing to do with men versus women.”
Well then, that’s that.
With the gradual rise in the broader acceptance of tattoo culture in China, is the art of tattooing a temporary trend or something more long-lasting? A means of self-expression or artificial beauty mark?
With people’s various understandings of what fashion entails and what self-expression means, tattooing’s connection with fashion and embedded deeper meaning is still under dispute.
“For me, fashion is an idea, not just a way to dress, [it’s] also to think and be aware of yourself,” says Wenwen, “[…] with more people accepting tattoos, and the admiration of public figures [with tattoos], it is bound to become fashionable.”
From silver screen celebrities to ultimate rock star status idols, China’s pop culture superstars have embraced tattoo culture with open arms, and this will inevitably lead to a rise in their fans getting tattoos. From a tattooist’s point of view, that’s not exactly a bad thing. “Maybe someone will get a tattoo because of pursuing fashion and idol worship,” admits He Tao, “of course, there is nothing wrong with that, as long as they like it…”
“I think it’s more important to find your own style and path than to pursue fashion in the general sense. It’s not fashionable for people to live the way others do,” He Tao continues when asked for his two-cents on what is fashion. “A good tattoo is the result of the tattooist’s communication with the guest, which fully rests on the tattooist and the guest’s self-expression and cognition,” states He Tao who has a zoomorphic mask (饕餮纹| tāotiè wén) wrapped around his right forearm, “Tattoos are a good medium for self-expression.”
But not everyone wants to go and pigeonhole tattoo culture as a platform to profoundly express individualism. “[Tattoos] are for beauty,” asserts Xiao Hong whose personal tattoos have no deeper meanings, “My tattoos…express my sense of beauty.” In other words, tattoos can express someone’s individual aesthetic.
On A Final Unsolicited Educational Note Because the prejudice against tatts is so imprinted into public psychology, everyone from musicians, celebrities and even the average John or Jane Wang must cover up their full sleeves and neck tatts, sometimes by force, or deal with blatant intolerance. The author of this piece has heard countless stories from Chinese musicians about being required by show organizers to conceal any part of their bodies that is inked or be denied stage time. One such story ended with an underground rock band’s vocalist almost collapsing while playing in the sweltering heat covered head to toe. P.S.: This also applies to South Korean and its K-Pop culture. Sleeves, band-aids, blurred focal lenses, you name it… Jay Park, rapper| Media Mogul (AOMG), just throwing in the first name that springs to mind when talking about South Korea and tatts, shall have tattoos no more. On camera.
This Time, It’s Personal
What do we gather from all these different voices? That getting a tattoo in today’s China is rooted in various reasons and it’s a highly individual thing. That it’s personal. From using your physical body to be an expressive tapestry of your inner self to getting body art just for the sake of having something pretty, people’s motives for getting inked roar across the board.
Even with an array of reasons for going under the needle, some of the tattoo artists who were contacted for this piece have noticed gender-specific preferences when it comes to their clientele. “Women more prefer small and clean, [but] in fact I think the distinction with design isn’t big,” states Shaoer, “The difference in location [on the body] is relatively big. Women like [to get tattooed on] the collarbone, ankles, chest, ears and other areas that can enhance the natural charms of femininity.”
From being a mark of working in the world’s oldest profession and the Dulong women’s protective facial ink to the abundance of women tattoo artists and clients, women have surely been an intricate part of China’s tattoo culture throughout the ages. With the growing acceptance of this skin-deep art form by China’s youth and progressive urbanites, more and more people are using their bodies as a canvas for meaningful imagery or picturesque beauty.
Is tattooing in modern China a skin-tight fast fashion fad or a permanent staple?
The verdict is still out on that one. Either way, getting inked is a very personal, individual decision.
“Don’t ask your friends so much for advice,” Shaoer reminds us all. You do you and let that wild streak shine!