For Tianjin native Jeanne Sun, like many other young Chinese, it was exposure to Western culture that gave her a permanent impression about tattoos. Soon she was using her mother’s eyebrow tattoo tools and practicing on her friends.
“We watched some music videos from Europe and the UnitedStates. All the band members had tattoos and we said, ‘We need a tattoo’,” said Sun, who played piano in a goth band when she was 16.
The 32-year-old’s petite frame is now a collage. The artwork flows across her back, over her left shoulder, down her arm and across her leg.
At age 18, she opened her hometown’s first tattoo shop and now owns Jeanne Tattoo Studio in Beijing’s Gulou district.
Her trajectory mirrors the growing popularity for body art in China and the culture and industry that surrounds it.
Wang “Kisen” Qing Yuan, the director of the China Association of Tattoo Artists, said there were 200 known tattoo artists in the country in 2002. Now he estimates there are around2,000 tattoo parlors and 400,000 tattoo artists in China.
According to Wang, tattoo culture is developing fast and fighting against a history tainted with negative stereotypes.
Tattoos, which go back thousands of years in China, were once affiliated with criminals and seedy segments of society. These days, Western culture and tattoo-covered celebrities have pushed trendy youngsters to turn to the art form, but China’s older generation still turn up their noses.
Li Muzi, a 30-year-old marketing employee, said his parents didn’t approve when they found out he was getting his first tattoo.
“As they learned more about tattoos, they learned to accept it,” Li said.
Li’s artist of choice was Jeanne Sun, who went about creating a tattoo that combines his love for lizards with an abstract image complete with claws, teeth and blood. The tattoo sleeve on his right arm remains a work-in-progress.
Sun said some young Chinese get tattoos to be rebellious or replicate celebrities, but for her it’s about showing personality.
“Just getting a tattoo is easy but you can regret what you choose so quickly. A good tattoo, for me, is something unique,” saidSun, who flies to an artist in Switzerland when she needs to get inked.
“It represents yourself and everything you like.”
Sun Yejie, an independent producer, is exploring China’s place in tattoo culture through a series of short online documentaries. The 10-minute episodes explore tattoos in the Middle Kingdom and their origins.
He said the explosion of social media in China exposed more people to tattoos and allowed people like him to share the art form with a broader audience.
“People have more say in their lives then before so I think now is a good time to talk about tattoos,” Sun Yejie said.
Wang, the tattoo association director, said although social media is certainly a catalyst,tattoos are embedded in Chinese culture and can be traced back to the Song Dynasty 3,000years ago.
“Tattoos are an ancient tradition and the resurgence of tattoos in modern society is an interesting phenomenon,” said Wang, “Why tattoos are so appealing is a topic that’s worth examining.”
Sun Yejie’s show interviews tattoo artists, such as Jeanne Sun,about their craft and customers on why they get tattoos. So far the show, “Words Tattoo Artists Say” has released five episode son YouKu, a Chinese website similar to YouTube.
Sun Yejie, 32, said intends to educate Chinese audiences on the emerging tattoo industry and where to go to ensure safe and quality tattoos.
The tattoo industry in China isn’t heavily regulated. Wang said that’s why the Ministry of Human Resources and HumanSecurity official’s decision to certify around 80 artists in 2013was seen as a victory. For him, it’s a sign that tattoo art is slowly becoming a “legitimate career in China.”
He said the association continues to work to establish professional training for artists.
Jeanne Sun, who spent 10 years in France learning proper tattoo technique and hygiene, said she doesn’t think enough tattoo customers in China know what to look for in a tattoo artist and their studio. Sun hopes the online program will enlighten them.
Li said he picked Jeanne Tattoo Studio for its cleanliness and respect for clients. He was unimpressed with some other shops he visited.
There are no catalogs on coffee tables in Jeanne Sun’s shop and said she’s not there to replicate other artists’ works. Shemeets with customers several times and gets to know thembefore creating a personalized “piece of art” for their body.
Although China is opening up to tattoos, she said not everyoneon the streets of Beijing appreciate her art.
“People will always judge you for having a tattoo,” she said,taking a drag from a cigarette.
“That’s why it’s important to do something interesting, something that reflects who you are and shows your personality.”