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.

Afterwards

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!

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About Charlie

An ESL teacher in Harbin, China's "ice city", Charlie has chosen to blog because it keeps his hands close to the warm, warm computer during the freezing nights. He also makes rap music, the intelligent kind, if you're into that sort of thing. His other blog is currently banned in China.

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Discussion

29
  1. I’d be worried about a couple of issues. Firstly would be cleanliness of needles: Needles should be sterile. Secondly how can you guarantee that the inks used are safe and do not use any base metals? These base metals, if you get back home and do an MRI, will be pulled out of your skin, causing severe burning and pain. It’ll also destroy your tat.

  2. Great post Charlie.

    As a foreigner with a number of tattoos, none of which have been got in China, I’d like to echo Don Tai’s warnings.

    The Western tattoo industry has come a long, LONG way in the last decade or two and you can pretty much be sure that many, if not most, tattoo parlours/artists follow best practices with needle sterilization/sanitation and ink quality.

    China, as she so consistently proves, is a ways away from earning that great quality seal of approval in any industry – let alone an industry more often reserved for hookers and hoodlums.

    This isn’t to say good tattoo artists or businesses don’t exist – just be very, very mindful. There are a lot more permanent things than just ink you can get from a bad tattoo.

  3. @ Don Tai, good point about the metal-based inks and MRI machines. Did you perchance learn that from watching House? (I did, which is why I ask). Anyway, that shouldn’t be a problem at higher end places. One thing that might also be a good idea (and I’ll add this to the post) is to see if your artist is part of the international tattoo artist community. Someone who regularly visits and communicates with other artists around the world is much more likely to be updated with the latest, safest materials.

  4. I’ve gotten inked by almost a dozen artists in half a dozen tattoo shops in China, all with varying degrees of quality and cleanliness, but all of them were very careful about the newness and sterilization of their needles and machines. As far as the inks go, some faded fairly quickly but most were decent quality and I never got any rashes or negative reactions. My newest (and now my exclusive) artist is part of several nation and international associations. His work is the priciest that I’ve gotten but also the best. I’m always a little nervous every time I go get the required yearly medical check for foreigners, but so far so good :-P.

  5. Mark – I was really hoping you’d chime in here as you certainly are the authority on foreigners getting tats in China.

  6. I think Ryan has a really good point. It’s so important to check if the tattoo artist or business has delivered good work earlier. After the tattoo is placed, it won’t be easy to get rid of it.

    Also be very careful with what you choose as a tattoo. You may like something, but it won’t alway be appreciated by other people. And also, you might change your mind about what you got earlier. Maybe something small or neutral to begin with??

  7. Hey guys,

    I am a Canadian expat living in Daqing, not too far from Haerbin. I am looking for a great tattoo shop in Haerbin. Maybe even with an English speaking artist? I won’t hold my breath on that one but you never know! Any recommendations for me?

    Thanks!

    Love, Tina

  8. I’m living in Harbin for work and am considering getting a tattoo. I see that your an ESL teacher in Harbin and I’m assuming you’ve probably gotten one of your Chinese tattoos somewhere in the area. Do you have any places that you would recommend I go to?

  9. @ David: I don’t live in Harbin anymore, but the place I went was on Guogeli Dajie, and the street number was very low (something like 4). The place had a fish tank and the guy gave me a card that said DJ Tattoo on it, but again, this was years ago so it may have changed/he may not still be there.

  10. Loving the information here! I am looking to expand on my tattoo experiences once I move to teach English in Shenyang at the end of this month; so are my colleagues. Any knowledge of reputable shops/artists? Also, what is the general response of the Chinese to tattoos and/or body piercings? I am thinking more about a colleague of mine with a visible hand & arm tat with parents. Albeit, he is a middle-aged man – I wonder what message this sends when you obviously wouldn’t wear a glove like MJ. The tats I have were purposely placed in less visible areas for business purposes, yet I do have a very small nostril piercing that I wear with a nearly invisible crystal stud. If anything, I get compliments on it from those one would think would abhor it. Thanks for your time! Looking forward to your responses.

    • Profile photo of

      Hi Phoenixgurl,

      I doubt your crystal stud will attract much negative attention — though depending on the company you’re in, you might get a few students who just gape and point at the spot where your piercing is (or such was the case when I taught English sporting my labret). Your colleague’s ink likely will get much more attention. How much it will matter though is questionable. I mean, most parents are likely to think either (a) crazy foreigner and their weird ways, or (b) he’s a criminal (as apart from a rather minor showing from the youth culture, tattoos are still very much a triad/criminal thing to have). It’s pretty easy for him to make sure he’s more in column (a) than column (b) though with a winning smile and progressive tattoo themed lesson plan ๐Ÿ™‚

      End of the day, it’s Shenyang… fringe second-tier cities generally take what they can get for ESL teachers, inked and pierced or not! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  11. Wow, loads of helpful information! ๐Ÿ™‚

    But I’ve got a question about acceptable tattoo designs.

    I’m a sinology student intending to live and work in China at some point, so I’m not too sure anymore if getting a tattoo of Sun Wukong is such a good idea.. Especially because it would be all over my left arm and very difficult to cover up in the summertime..

    I’ve always loved the Monkey King and I’ve always wanted a Chinese-themed tattoo, but Chinese mythological imagery might be associated with gangs, and thus, be very offensive..
    Now, obviously, that’s the last thing I want. The tattoo is intended to express my love and admiration for Chinese culture- but unfortunately it might be taken the wrong way and could even get me into trouble.. well, that’s what I heard anyway.

    Long story short: am I being overly careful here, or could I actually get away with it? Would it be safe for me to walk about Hong Kong with Sun Wukong tattooed all over my arm? o_O

    • The main response you’ll get is probably stifled laughter, as Sun Wukong is perceived to be a cartoon character. You might as well get a Mickey Mouse tattoo.

      • Phew.
        Nothing wrong with a cartoon character tattoo. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I suppose he was/is quite popular outside of Asia as well, thanks to (as you say) TV series and such like. So, I could get away with it.
        ^-^

        Thank you! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Profile photo of

      I’m really no authority, but I’m decently sure there aren’t any gang associations with the Monkey King — Chinese mafia tats I’ve seen all tend to be a bit more dragon-like in nature. Now Zhu Bajie is another story entirely…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  12. Thanks for your help guys. ๐Ÿ™‚
    I don’t think many people would want a tattoo of Zhu Bajie..! ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Although, I was thinking of maybe getting some of the other main characters tattooed in the background, to make it more dynamic and add some detail.. You know, make it look like an actual scene from the story.
    But I guess it’s better to just keep it simple..

  13. I’m thinking about getting a tattoo of V13 which is my dads birthdate, and am wondering if it might be offensive or gang related as it will be in roman numerals. VXIII. And I am currently in Kunming, does anyone know any good places or artists?

  14. Hiya, Hearing about Japan and the earthquick. Concerned if this will deminish all the research they were doing into acupuncture.

  15. For those who loves Chinese Arts, I highly recommend Dong-Dong from Mummy Tattoo at Beijing. His background was Chinese Art painter, and turned into a tattoo artists for more than a decade. Visit his place and you will amazed with his works. The only thing you might need to consider is the price, it is very expensive, even more expensive than average artists in western country. The rest such as hygienes, professionalism, results, quality of inks, those you can rest assure. However, it is not easy to get the appointment there, he often fully booked… Personally, I think it is expensive but his works are awesome. I got a big one from him, it is half way done ๐Ÿ™‚

  16. I’m a Kiwi currently living in China.

    I’ve wanted a pair of arm sleeves done for ages but have been waiting for the right timing and of course the right artist.

    I’m a big fan of Chinese/Japanese style so I suppose my location is a bonus ๐Ÿ™‚ But, unfortunately finding a talented tattoo artist over here is not as easy as you might think.

    As a result it took me a very, (Very) long time to thoroughly research those considered the “best” artists that China has to offer.

    Dong Dong as mentioned in the previous post is definitely up there but I settled on Xinlong Cheng as he is based in the Shenyang – Liaoning province which is convenient for me.

    He specialises in Neo Asian work and is active on the international circuit, for those who care he has many international awards. But most importantly (to me at least) he is an incredibly talented artist in the truest sense.

    But hey don’t take my word for it, if you are looking for an authentic Chinese tattoo from a genuine artist then check this guys work out for yourself…

    http://www.wenmingtianxia.com/web/homepage.asp

    PS – With guys at this level hygiene practices are world class folks so no worries there…

  17. I travel to Hunan province in China almost every month, next trip I would like to get some Chinese Ink. Would be my 4th but 1st from China. Does anyone know if there is an Artist in Xiangtan, Hunan or maybe Changsha?

  18. Great information!
    I am doing some research for talking points here in health department in a U.S city about sterile ink and needles and would like some more information from those of you who have experience living in china.

    Is there any regulations for sterile needles in china? a link to this information would be best.
    Thank you!

  19. Hello! I’m visiting Beijing in june for the first time and I was thinking about getting a tattoo there. I googled and came across your post. I was wondering if you happen to know someone in Beijing who tattoos with the “original” technique, eg. using a stick and some ink free hand?? Thank you in advance!

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