Tattoos are getting more popular — even in China, where they are traditionally frowned upon in all but one instance — and some of the more daring among you might be tempted to venture out into the darkened hutongs of whatever city you teach English in and find someone to stick needles into your skin. I can help with that. I should note that I’m no particular expert on the subject, I just have some experience and it occurred to me recently that perhaps some of you do need the advice.
Finding an Artist
Assuming that you know exactly what you want and where you want it (and if you don’t just stop right now), it’s time to find your artist. Don’t take this lightly. Ask around to find out who is the best, and if you don’t speak Chinese, find someone to ask around for you. Otherwise you could end up with something like this.
If you hear back from a number of sources that one particular shop in town is best, head there. If not, keep looking or consider heading to a bigger or more “Westernized” city. Yes, it’s a pain, but we’re talking about something you’re going to have tattooed on yourself forever.
Once you’ve found a place that’s trustworthy, go there and meet the artist. (Bring a Chinese friend if you don’t speak Chinese, some places may have English but don’t count on any). Have a look at his work, and find out what he’s good at/capable of. Keep in mind that just because the artist is Chinese doesn’t mean they can write characters any better than you can. If you want characters tattooed on yourself, make sure your artist is trained in calligraphy and have them write out the passage in several different styles. If possible, bring a Chinese friend to confirm that the calligraphy is good or get a sample to show to people before you get the actual tattoo. It should go without saying, too, that any phrase you want to get tattooed on yourself you should triple check with native speakers you trust, even if you speak Chinese.
It may also help ease your mind to find an artist who participates in the international tattoo artists’ community, as someone with constant international contact is more likely to be aware of the latest and safest in tattooing technology. Find out if your artist has participated in any conferences, competitions, and what, if anything, they do to develop their skills and stay up-to-date in their field.
Keep in mind also that if your tattoo is going to be publicly visible, it’s going to attract a lot of attention in China, a good deal of it negative.
Getting the Tattoo
I’ve never gotten a tattoo outside China but I imagine the process is much the same. Be sure they’re using clean needles, check beforehand to be absolutely sure the artwork is what you want and is placed correctly, etc.
If you haven’t already negotiated a price, you’ll surely have to before the needle touches your skin. It’s probably possible to bargain and get things done very cheaply, but given the tattoo is something you will carry for the rest of your life, now is probably not the time to be a cheapskate and save that extra 50 RMB. Whatever the price is, it’s cheaper than it would be in the West, so suck it up and pay it, or, if it really seems like you’re getting fleeced, find a new artist.
There’s much debate about specific ways to care for a fresh tattoo, so go with whatever your artist says, or do your own research online if you want to compare their ideas to Western standards (not that there’s any difference from my experience). The most important thing is to keep it clean and healthy, which for most of you is going to mean keeping Chinese tapwater the hell away from it for the first few days. Bottled water is cheap. Buy a bunch of the good stuff, and wash with that. Again, this is slightly more expensive than washing with tapwater, but it’s only for a few days and it beats the hell out of having an infected tattoo.
Also be prepared for the following three questions, which you will be asked by nearly every Chinese person who sees your tattoo for the rest of your life (always in this order):
- “So, it washes off, right?”
- “Oh, so when does it fade off then?”
- “Why the hell would you want to do that?”
If you’re not ready to handle that but you still want to be stabbed by a Chinese person with needles, consider acupuncture. Happy hunting!