DG Ink: Time of the Tattoo



Jarry, on of Dongguan’s upper echelon tattoo artists, posses with his wife and shows of his work. He gave himself the tattoo on his forearm.

Tattoo artists are following the trends of a blossoming Chinese Counter Culture, and their human canvases have never been so plentiful. Covering The renaissance of ink, HERE! Dongguan talks to some of the leaders of The local scene.

Many years ago, in a land as old as any, and in a civilization that’s witnessed more than most, lived a man known to be so strong that huge stones lifted under his slightest effort. His muscles and hardiness earned the peasant a colloquial title, San Wangzi or third prince. A man this mighty would be noticeable enough among his peers, but historic records remember him also as being sentenced, somewhat unjustly, to the death penalty many times over.

His fame, preserved in the writings of the capital’s commissioner for something other than his feats of strength and blasphemies of state, becomes evident during a quotation from the commissioner’s penal decision. After escaping his fate on numerous occasions by taking shelter within the army, the official’s deviousness caught up to him. “He tattooed his four limbs, and he called himself ‘Prince.’ What need is there to examine it judicially? It is a matter of course that he is guilty.” Beginning in early times, China has had an aversion to the tattooed members of its society. They considered being an outcast, or isolated, as the greatest of punishments, so law enforcers marked the criminal and the shifty with facial tattoos or other unmistakable markings. Confucius himself put the sentiment into State philosophy by exclaiming that, to keep protected from injury the skin, hair and body given by one’s parents is of the utmost importance to the discipline of civilized society.

China today is a very different place than it was those 500 years ago, when the painted prince was being perse- cuted for his skin, which was said to be covered with so many pictures that “not one piece of skin was left intact on his body’s frame.” Today, rather than Confucius, it is pop stars that lead as idols, and tattoos are as in style as the ink and needle are in the skin of a fresh tattoo. The question remaining now is whether the trend can survive. While the popularity of “tats” in China has undergone the influence of the West and its celebrities, the beaches of California and the villas of Europe are also undergoing the spell of the orient. Chinese calligraphy makes for a poetic and mysterious permanent marking, but without being careful, the fad in the West can be a laughing matter, especially considering that the Chinese in the tattoo parlor is equivalent to the English on MG Club’s coat check warning sign that reads: “band pets” (the combined spelling error and literal translation tease that the crossed out cat on the sign is the evening’s entertainment). Not being fully studied in Chinese culture has not stopped Westerners from displaying their coolness or stating their open- ness to world cultures, but it has shown the lack of foresight some place in life decisions.

“There are both kinds of establishments in Dongguan, the places educated to keep high levels of hygiene and those that, well, aren’t.”

Fortunately for those that want to get ink in Dongguan, others have gone before them venturing through the alleys where many would dare not eat, but some would brave disposable needles. “When I walk in to any tattoo shop, I watch every single move they make. Is this guy qualified or not?” said Phillip Ho Fung, a Chinese born Canadian with two tattoo parlors in Toronto, Canada. After many years as proprietor and artist, Phillip, with a business plan that targeted high end districts and clientele, says he was recruited to assist in the training of Canadian Health Board inspectors. When asked if he would be hesitant to get a tattoo in China due to its reputation for less than satisfactory standards of sanitation he said, “I wouldn’t say that. This is their business.” But he went on to express the old adage of safety first even though the first thought for many when get- ting a tattoo is too make sure that the portrait of their dearest child doesn’t become J.R.R Tolkien’s famously ghoulish character, Golem. “First of all, check the environment — the atmosphere — because sometimes it’s too dusty,” Phillip said. “It’s good to have respect for your tattoo—basically when you get a tat- too, you have an injury.” The advice seems to be common sense, but you would be surprised at the mistakes that can be made by first timers.

Upon entering a potential shop look at everything. Most importantly, are the needles disposable and does the tattooer wrap the equipment properly, wires and all, with plastic to protect it from any undue contamination? A quick give away to the hygiene of the shop, Phillip said, is the tidiness of the trash bin. Are there days’ worth of paper or disposable tips? “Be careful how the artist puts the ink in the cap too,” he said. “For example, they are very sloppy if they pour [the ink] in too close, and then the ink from the cap is dirty with blood and bounces back and the whole bottle is contaminated.” Wandering among Dongguan’s dozens of tattoo shops, some located under staircases or small corner stalls in Dongcheng’s Zhushan Market and others in more standard shopping centers, it is often easy to recognize irregularities in quality. There are both kinds of establishments in Dongguan, the places educated to keep high levels of hygiene and those that, well, aren’t.

“A good tattoo, from the shallow sense, it will improve one’s confidence. Cover your scar, you will become more confident. Have a bad tattoo, get it covered. You will like to show them. This is the change of confidence. “

Jarry estimates that 90 percent of Dongguan’s parlors are undertrained and rely on the Internet for designs, which they trace onto clients’ skin. And he says this mentality could ruin the industry in the area. While he does admit that he is quite arrogant, he has some stories to back up his feelings that the industry is full of profiteers. “In 2001, I attended a tattoo competition in Guangzhou for the first time and won an award for my effort. But later I found out everyone could buy it for RMB 500.”

Li WOmen's STret

Li Gang sits in his flagship store located on Guangcheng’s Women’s Street. (Credit Adam Crase)

But go to other tattoo artists in the city and there is a much lower feeling of despair toward Dongguan artists. “[Dongguan] should be the same as the national level,” said Li un Gang, owner-operator of the Zhenhun Iha Tattoo shop in Guancheng’s famous Women’s Street. “There is good and bad in every place. The tools should be the same. And the artists’ skill should be close with the world level. It’s just every artist has their own style.”

While Li doesn’t think the level in the city is as low as Jarry does, he does rate himself along with Mr. Long at Nancheng Walking Street’s Juzuntang Tattoo and Jarry as the most well known and talented in the city. “And the skills are similar, there’s no one’s skill is another level over us,” he said. The key, Jarry said, to being a skillful tattoo artist is the attitude of the artist. “Only the work I’m satisfied with, my customers will be satisfied with. It’s totally wrong to be money- driven.” To be good at this type of work takes more than a simple desire to make money and to be a motivated entrepreneur, whether it is Mr. Long who spent time studying under Du Zewu of Shanghai’s famous Tian Zun Tang Tattoo, Jarry’s education in marketing and design or Li’s lifetime of tutelage under his family’s business.

For the talent pool in Dongguan’s tattoo shops to grow, deeper incentives must become ample as well. “For those who have more artistic talent, they would probably prefer to work in advertisement or become a designer which brings them a larger income.” As interest grows, so do profits.

And the industry is now in a confident up turn. The military lifted a ban on tattoos near the end of 2011 allowing recruits with facial or neck tattoos (no bigger than two centimeters wide) to be approved for combat. The move was made to broaden its appeal to millennials with better education, basically an official nod from the Chinese government that tattoos are more prevalent in their society than ever.

“In the beginning, like 17 years ago, most Chinese didn’t accept tattoo, especially elderly,” said Jarry. “As time went by, people’s mind changed. Part of the reasons is from celebrities and movie stars.” But it happened, as Jarry tells it, in phases starting with Chinese women’s desires to be perfect by hiding caesarean scars and stretch marks. “Now, even you do tattoo without this purpose, it’s still ok,” he said.

“The move was made to broaden its appeal To millennials with better education, basically an official nod from The Chinese government that tattoos are more prevalent in their society than ever.”

The improbable result of a couple of decades of Western influenced TV and counter culture skin art, is a more confident population wearing the stripes of self awareness. “I give tattoo in China a different definition. It can change one’s fate,” said Jarry. “A good tattoo, from the shallow sense, it will improve one’s confidence. Cover your scar, you will become more confident. Have a bad tattoo, get it covered. You will like to show them. This is the change of confidence.” Some things haven’t changed, while others will never be the same. It is likely that there is only one person that is truly responsible enough to assure that each individual gets the right tattoo, one that matches the quality and significance desired—the individual. But it is good to know that in Dongguan and around China, skills are increasing, acceptance is growing and there are artists capable of sharing their wisdom. “When I feel it’s done, it’s done. Sometimes you do too much it’s tacky,” said Phillip.

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