Many people might think of China as quite a conservative country, more-so even than their neighbors in Japan and South Korea. And on some topics, you’d be right. While tattoos are still fairly taboo in Japan and Korea, though also becoming more popular, China as a whole really doesn’t care if you’re tattooed or not. Sure you’ll get more looks while traveling or living there if you’re visibly tattooed, but these stares are more out of curiosity than any kind of animosity towards you.
In my opinion, there are really three parts of China that you will see if you visit. And in all three you will see tattoos, but you will also notice how different they are.
First, the vibrant, bustling, metropolis’ that never seem to sleep. Tier one cities they’re called: Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. These cities are some of the largest in the world, and like any big city, they’ve all got thriving art and tattoo scenes. Out of these four cities, Shanghai is by far the most culturally diverse and open. It is also, therefore, the city where seeing a heavily tattooed twenty-something, Starbucks in hand, air pods on full, on their way to their brightly lit and welcoming tattoo shop, unsurprising.
Shanghai is a city full of history and culture, but it’s also been exposed to other cultures more than any other city in China. British fashion reigns supreme in Shanghai, authentic French foods can be found in the French Concession, and of course, Chinese history can be found around every corner. If you’re wanting a tattoo in a more Chinese or traditionally Asian style, you can, of course, find this in these bigger cities. But more often you’ll see American Traditional at the forefront.
I visited Sick Rose Tattoo in Shanghai where I was tattooed by Kai, who tattoos in American Traditional style. The shop lives down an inconspicuous street. A simple sign reading “Sick Rose Tattoo” tells you where you are. Inside, the shop was full of young people getting bright, mainly American Traditional style tattoos. While I got my ribs tattooed, the girl next to me was having her face done. She appeared to be around 20-23 years old and didn’t have any other visible tattoos that I could see from the t-shirt and shorts she was wearing. This is one major difference in tattooing in China I noticed. While in Canada and America it’s more common to only tattoo your hands, neck, or head after you’ve got some serious coverage, in China I saw a large number of people with these more visible body parts tattooed, and no other visible tattoos on them.
I was also tattooed at Diauan Tattoo in Shenzhen, by Hori Mayi, who tattoos in an Asian style, taking a lot of influence from Japanese and Taiwanese art. This shop is interesting because it is also a tattoo school. China is well-known for mass producing everything, and this includes tattoos and tattoo artists. The day I was tattooed there happened to be a class in session. I wasn’t allowed to step in and observe but through the glass, I could see about 10 fairly young artists all painting and drawing at their desks, like any art class, with their teacher and mentor at the front showing them examples of typical Japanese backgrounds such as clouds and waves.
The second part of China that you’ll see when visiting are the working class cities. Smokestacks high in the sky, still bustling, but missing so many of the bright lights commonly seen in cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen. These are the tier two or three cities. If you’re traveling to these cities as a more tattooed individual such as myself, this is where you’ll get more looks. But again, these are not unhappy looks. While in Hohhot a man dressed as a pig leading a group of female dancers stopped and made a pose with them for pictures, in a friendly way, and he specifically wanted pictures of my tattoos. Another man, a security guard at my hotel in Northern China grabbed my arm as I was leaving and pointed to my tattoos before giving me a big smile and a thumbs up. I also noticed the tattoos on others, still many on hands and necks, were no longer American Traditional with the occasional Neo-Traditional or Asian style thrown in. Now I was seeing almost entirely Blackwork pieces, and almost entirely tattoos from the Zodiac signs. Surprisingly, not the Chinese Zodiac signs either. If I had 100 Chinese yuan for every Zodiac tattoo I saw in China I would be one rich laowai, which means rich foreigner!
Lastly, more rural areas, or small towns and villages, will be another major part of China you may visit. These beautiful parts of the country will take your breath away with their scenery. In these smaller parts of China, it’s rare to see many tattoos, unless they are on other travelers. But if you look closely, at the old man smoking a pipe down by the river, at the wrinkles lining that woman’s arms as she makes your baozi, steamed buns, for you, you’ll see them, like dark lines in simple geometric patterns.
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If you want to see one of the oldest traceable tattoo cultures in the world you can still do so in Hainan province, China. Tattoos specifically in Hainan can be traced back around 3000 years, and the Li people of Hainan are famous for their tattooed women, specifically face tattoos. One reason women may have tattooed their faces such a long time ago is so they could be recognized in the afterlife. But a more practical reason is that these women needed protection from invading forces. Early on in history, these tattoos were seen as making the women less attractive and desirable, thus protecting them from abduction and worse. As time went on, though, the culture changed and these tattoos became a thing of beauty. When a girl turned 13 to 14 years old, an older woman, often a family member, would tattoo the nape of her neck, followed by her throat and face over the course of 5 to 7 days. Then throughout the next 3 years, she would continue to be tattooed along her arms and legs. When she eventually married, her hands would also be tattooed.
If you’re getting tattooed in China you’re going to see tattoo shops that are very different from ones in North America or the UK. Hygiene should always be a priority when seeking out a shop to be tattooed at, but in China, you have to take hygiene with a grain of salt. That goes for restaurants, hotels, and even hospitals as well.
My advice is to make sure that you go to a shop that is using new needles, wrapping their equipment, and wearing gloves, but maybe let the fact that the shop has a cat slip or the fact that despite their apparent best efforts to avoid smoke indoors, there is still someone smoking directly outside the open window and more or less blowing smoke into the building while they watch you getting poked. If you’re able to find out where the shop gets their inks that can also make your tattoo experience in China safer. The two shops I was tattooed at got their ink imported from Taiwan and Germany, respectively.
The more popular and well-known shops in China will feel like your standard tattoo shop. Lots of art on the walls, chairs both for waiting and being tattooed in, and the buzzing sound of tattoo machines accompanied by the smell of that green soap so unique to tattoo shops. But you might also see some literal hole in the wall shops, tucked away in bustling underground shopping centers like ones found in Dongmen pedestrian shopping street in Shenzhen. Exiting the metro near here you can walk directly into a cramped and overcrowded underground shopping area that has everything from squid and scorpions on a stick, to spa’s and tattoo “shops” side by side and across from those knock-off Nike’s you’ve always wanted. While these are fun to look at, and maybe poke your head inside, everything about them screams: do not get tattooed here!
It doesn’t take long to find a reputable shop, especially in the first tier cities. If you speak Mandarin or have friends there who do that is, of course, an added bonus. One of the artists who tattooed me couldn’t speak any English and I speak very limited Mandarin, but we communicated first through a friend who helped me and then through WeChat and the app’s handy translate feature. Some shops will have an Instagram account but most don’t since the app is blocked and you need a VPN to access it. Though, as an alternative, you can download the Tattoodo App and search for artists or studios in the city or province you will be going to and someone can point you in the right direction.