Ever since seeing Beijing’s punk poster-boys Reflector at Xining’s Material Life Music Bar, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about tattoos. This Material Life Music Bar was full of inked Chinese and foreigners; it was the highest volume of tattoos I’d seen in a while and the inspiration for the following rant.
There are two topics I’ve been thinking about: i) Having Tattoos in China and ii) Getting Tattoos in Foreign Languages (especially Chinese or Tibetan).
Tattoos in China
Even though in recent times tattoos have become slightly more acceptable in the Chinese mainstream, tattoos still carry a social stigma. This article from China Daily showcases the growing trend of tattoos among China’s young people, but also hints at the slow-changing tattoo-wariness shared by the traditionally minded.
The wariness is easy to understand given the sordid history of tattoos in China. In his article “Street Scenes of Subalternity,” Michael R. Dutton explains some philosophical and historical background about why tattoos remain subversive in Chinese culture:
The body, it is commonly said, is a temple. In traditional China, it was thought to be an unmarkable altar to family and lineage descent. To mark the body was to mark the family out. Employing this taboo for their own ends, successive dynastic governments used the “ink punishment” (moxing) to stigmatize both criminal and family. It was a punishment that transcended life itself for, in the afterlife, even one’s ancestors may have difficulty recognizing a body that was marked. To mark the body, therefore, was a serious social transgression.
Dutton continues by describing how gangs of criminals adopted tattooing as a way to forge group identity and to “mark [themselves] outside the society.”
To sum up, tattoos have traditionally been the mark of outcasts and organized criminals. I’ve also heard it said that prostitutes also favor having tattoos, possibly as group identifiers or, more innocuously, as preferred ways for covering up unsightly scars.
That being said, here are the two most important tips for the newly inked or the new-in-China-and-previously-inked:
- You’ll receive your fair share of unwanted (or wanted) attention if you’re visibly foreign. Visible tattoos will only make local people stare more.
- Greater China is not a Reflector show or a Tattoo Convention. Most Chinese probably still associate tattoos with seedy underground activities. Be aware of what image you might be projecting.
Tattoos in Chinese/Tibetan: Not Just Stupid, Also Potentially Offensive
Our friends at hanzismatter have done an admirable job documenting the woes of getting tattoos of Chinese characters. Besides the obvious blemishes of getting an incorrect tattoo or not being able to pronounce your own tattoo, people really need to consider the ramifications of getting a tattoo inspired from somebody else’s culture.
I don’t have the time or energy for a full rant about the commodification of culture inherent in a non-Chinese person getting the character for “strength” tattooed on their bicep. But I will sum up with an argument that I first heard on the student film “Yellow Apparel: When the Coolie Becomes Cool”:
If you are a Westerner with a Chinese tattoo you are not only wearing a Chinese cultural symbol as a fashion statement, you are also wearing the evidence of a long-existing (though potentially changing) un-equal power dynamic. This is troublesome because you are adopting this cultural symbol without acknowledging this power dynamic or, and this is crucial, the racial discrimination present in your home country that is directed at people of Chinese descent. You get to cover up your tattoo or laser it off when it suits you. Chinese Americans (or Europeans or Australians) cannot cover up their Chinese-ness, change their phenotypes, or erase the legacy of anti-Chinese sentiment or legislation that they’ve been dealt. Think about it.
Besides being swayed by this argument, I’ve also been kind of shocked at how mindlessly people tattoo themselves with potentially offensive or politically charged tattoos. If you MUST get a tattoo in Chinese or Tibetan or Mongolian or whatever, please consider the political message you might be advertising. You might think “om mani padme hom” looks sweet in Tibetan script, but people who see your Tibetan tattoo might mistake you for a separatist sympathizer or agitator, regardless of your political leanings.
Lastly, do some research about the appropriateness of your tattoo choice. I have a good friend who tattooed the above Tibetan Buddhist mantra on his shin, only to move to a Tibetan area of China and realize that Tibetans think it’s insulting to mark holy words on the lower half of your body. Whoops!
Parting Shot: I think people have the right to tattoo whatever the heck they want to on their own bodies, but just because you can or “it looks cool” or “it has deep personal significance” doesn’t mean you should.
Full disclosure: Ligaya has one tattoo from a culture that is not her own. She’s glad it’s pretty much unrecognizable, even to those from said culture, but she wishes she had thought more about it before she went to the needle.