Tattoos, Life and Change in Today’s China
By Mike McCabe
Young people in Beijing are being simultaneously pulled in several different directions- Their parents demand a traditional sense of attachment to family, the government demands a sense of dedication to a political ideal, the cause and effect of history demands a sense of respect about time and their own bodies and minds explore a new sense of personal awakening in an evolving global context…
Tattoos have become a vocabulary that articulates the connection between these competing elements of a young Chinese person’s life. The designs and the indelible process of marking the body with them represent a novel idea in a communist state: the exploration of a vast territory known as the self.
Wang Qing Yuan or Kisen as he is known by his English name first organized the Chinese Artists Tattoo Association in 2002. He invited Paul Booth to the first ever Beijing tattoo convention in 2004 and the event attracted several hundred people and sparked curiosity about the art form.
This year the 2011 Beijing convention was packed daily with more than 5000 people that included artists, merchants and devoted tattoo fans. “In 2002 I did not assume anything,” Kisen said recently. “Life was very different in China at that time. But in a city like Beijing, I felt a different process was unfolding.
There was the beginning of a new sense of possibility among the young. Now, young Beijingers are using tattoo as a way to personally challenge the legacy of their past.
“It might not be fully realized,” Kisen continued. “Among the trendiness is a bit of mystery and it flows in its own way. Young Chinese might not be making conscious statements with their tattoos or hair or clothing styles. They might like it all because its Art or they might see these kinds of things as a way to experience some kind of independence.”
Throughout its five-thousand year history China has always been characterized by its stubborn self-imposed isolation. Today, young urban Chinese live in the shadow of this legacy but they openly challenge its mandate with internationally inspired stylistic options they see on the Internet or western movies.
The Chinese government continues to forbid YouTube and Face book but cannot begin to filter everything out. Electronic access to tattoo Web sites, western pop music, global celebrities and video information has reframed the rules of a young person’s thinking in China.
“China is changing so quickly,” Kisen continued. “Particularly for the young. They have no experience with the values of capitalism and I am sure they feel adrift at times. I think that tattoos are used as markers by young people everywhere but particularly in a place like China. They remind the young about the way to go. Young urban Chinese are caught between the tremendous weight of their past and the open opportunity of their future.”
Kisen’s assistant Miku is twenty-three years old and has a wide reputation among young people in China as the lead singer of her band, School Sex Shop. “Young people have their own mind now in China,” Miku said.
The world today is different from the world of their parents. Young people are experimenting with degrees of fluency and interaction with the outside world. Concepts of freshness and newness are powerful values for young people everywhere but particularly in a place like China. Only a few years ago people were required by the government to wear green colored army style clothing and the exact same haircuts.
Today the world of tattoo and fashion provide a new platform to operate outside the structure of school, exams and traditional achievement based values. Tattoos and the lifestyle that has grown up around them will continue to shape new options for people in China.
(Michael McCabe is a tattoo artist, author, historian and blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine. Mr. McCabe lives in New York City and can be found here: Michael McCabe’s Facebook page.)