Some people see them as a form of art or self-expression.
For others they are marker of lower socio-economic status or even criminality.
The Chinese government is unquivocal where it sits in this debate: tattoos are ‘unhealthy’, a ‘Western import’, ‘unfilial’ and potentially ‘subversive’.
Thus, even as China produces some of the world’s most innovative tattoo artists, celebrities and athletes are being told to cover up their inkings in compliance with strict social “positivity” rules
The latest example of the campaign against tattoos comes from the city of Lanzhou in northwestern Gansu province, where taxi drivers with visible inkings have been ordered to get them removed or risk losing their jobs.
“Large tattoos may cause psychological discomfort for women and children and are not suitable for taxi operators,” the Lanzhou government’s order explained.
The drivers were advised to cover up offending skin in the short-term, and opt for tattoo removal as a long-term solution.
In March 2018, Chinese football players were ordered to cover up their body art with flesh colored bandages or risk being benched.
Around the same time China’s film and TV regulator issued a notice banning the booking of actors and musicians with body art.
Yet even as various authorities wage war on skin ink, the popularity of tattoos seems to be growing in China – especially among the under 35s, and particularly among urban women. The country is also home to an estimated 200,000 tattoo artists, some of the best of whom originally trained as calligraphers and inkwash painters at China’s finest art schools.
Their creations are light, fluid and distinctively Chinese. And while the government tries to portray tattooing as a Western import, the Chinese do have an indigenous tradition of inking going back centuries. In the Song Dynasty people used to have verse from classical poetry tattooed on their bodies and the military general Yue Fei was said to have had the words “serve the country with the utmost loyalty” inscribed on his back by his mother, for example.
The idea that tattoos equate with criminality stems from the practice of branding criminals in imperial China. Additionally, underworld gangs like the triads and Japan’s yakuza have traditionally used tattooing to signal membership.
On a cultural level some Chinese see tattooing as unfilial because it implies harming the skin ‘given’ by your parents. And although surveys suggest that local attitudes to tattoos have changed dramatically in the last 10 years – hence the rise in middle-class women getting discreet inkings – many still distrust men with larger tattoo designs.
In a poll by China News Service, 33% of respondents said they would not take a taxi if the driver was displaying visible body art. Perhaps the Gansu government has a point…
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