SHANGHAI, China (AFP) – Once the mark of criminals or sex workers, for centuries tattoos have been stigmatised in China, but the growing influence of celebrity culture is changing all that – particularly for women.
Nowhere is the trend more evident than in Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city and recently dubbed “China’s tattoo mecca” by the country’s state media.
Body art for women has long been frowned upon in socially conservative China, but studios are mushrooming throughout the city of 24 million.
Zhuo Danting, widely considered one of China’s top tattoo artists, has witnessed first-hand how the industry has exploded.
The 35-year-old has 70 percent of her body tattooed and has been operating her own Shanghai studio for 11 years.
Inspired by celebrities and sports stars, unprecedented numbers of mostly younger Chinese are getting inked, Zhuo said at her shop, Shanghai Tattoo.
“At the beginning, of course, they just give you a weird look, they’re freaking out,” Zhuo, who also has multiple piercings and dyed green hair, said of the reaction she gets on the street.
“But now there are a lot of people getting tattoos, it’s getting more and more popular. People see them everywhere so they don’t see it as a big deal,” she added.
Zhuo, who had her first tattoo at 16 and has inked both her parents, is originally from Harbin, a city in China’s far north.
There is a growing body art scene there too, she said. “There is a lot of change. Before, not many people get tattoos. They thought that people with tattoos, that person must have been in jail or you are a bad person.
“Now it’s a cool thing, to represent yourself as different.”
In imperial times, convicts were sometimes tattooed as a lifelong reminder of their crimes, and tattoos later were used by Chinese triads to signify gang loyalties.
“Before, when you saw a woman with a tattoo, it was usually just a small one,” she explained, adding: “But now you can see everywhere that they are having full sleeves, or chest, or full back.”
Wang Qi, a web designer, is about to have Zhuo tattoo her already heavily inked right leg.
The 29-year-old has several body designs, including an hourglass to remind her of the preciousness of time, and a sailboat and lighthouse inspired by her love of the sea, as well as tattoos of a snake’s head and a crocodile’s eye.
Her latest inking: the Chinese characters for her grandmother’s name on the inside of her thigh.
“Ten years ago, only 10 percent of people could accept women doing this. But now at least 60 to 70 percent of people can,” Wang said, while adding that quality can vary widely.
The trend has spawned extreme examples, including a couple in northeastern China who covered themselves in patriotic artwork, including a Chinese flag on the man’s face.
Reliable figures are elusive, but Hu Deliang, the former head of the China Association of Tattoo Artists, estimates there are about 200,000 such artists in the country.
The Shanghai tattooist said women now account for at least 60 percent of his customers.