A writer and teacher living in China interviews a female tattoo artist
A taxi swerves and cats scatter as I pass by sellers hawking flowers, their fragrance cloying in June’s humid air. Up ahead, Rita waits near the walking bridge that looms over four lanes of traffic and a median on Huanghe Lu in Dalian, China. Rita’s given name is Shuhan but chooses, like most of my university students, to be called by her self-chosen English name. So, here stands Rita like a sunflower: strong, sturdy, bursting with seeds of intelligence. She will be my interpreter today when I interview a female tattoo artist.
Rita and I confab briefly about the hot weather and then walk alongside Huanghe Lu toward our destination, Gold Wire Tattoo, picking our way among the sidewalk bricks that seem to swell in the heat. Sweat forms a river source between my shoulder blades and runs down my spine where my jeans’ waistband soaks it up. I feel the sunscreen I put on earlier slide off my face as we pass by a side street that my colleagues and I call Eat Street. Crowded vendors line either side selling a farrago of steaming Chinese fare from chăofàn (stir-fried rice) to chòu dòufu (stinky tofu – a well-earned moniker).
As we walk down the street, Rita observes that people stare at me. I remark this occurs often, but I have learned to ignore it. This is the truth, mostly. As an introvert, the attention leaves me weary, particularly from people who literally stop and gawk at the foreign-ness in front of them. Some take my picture with or without my permission and others want to be in the picture with me. I wonder if I live up to their expectations of what the West represents to them.
Rita, still as fresh as we began, and me, one pound lighter through sweat loss, arrive at the corner of Huanghe Lu and Xinan Lu, an intersection and overpass revealing the congeries of Chinese travel: farmers’ trucks hauling vegetables bumble awkwardly behind sleek, luxury private cars; buses displaying a mishmash of faces, limbs and packages pressed against glass compete with taxis carrying two, three and sometimes even four fares; and lumbering down the outer lane of Huanghe Lu is the trusty 101 trolleybus, its arm-like pantograph clasping the guiding rope of overhead wires as the driver honks at scurrying pedestrians who don’t heed traffic lights. The biting scent of diesel and plumes of black smoke fuel the pandemonium.
To the left stands Gold Wire Tattoo housed in an unassuming block similar to other blocks crammed throughout Dalian. The shop is painted black with red and white Chinese characters, along with Latin letters and phone and QQ (instant message) numbers painted in white. Rita and I walk over to the shop and cross the threshold where I expect to enter a cooler atmosphere but instead I am met with more humidity. My sweat glands go into overdrive.
Mengmeng, the 27-year-old pseudonymous tattoo artist and owner, greets us. She looks at me under her diagonally cut bangs as Rita introduces us. Mengmeng and I shake hands — she with her hand slightly bent at the knuckles, so I’m only clasping four slim fingers and me with my firm, full-fisted USA handshake. A Chinese handshake regardless of gender surprises me every time, reminding me of other ways, subtle ways, to greet people. Although Mengmeng’s handshake fits in with the stereotype that all Chinese people are quiet and demure, many are anything but, especially in northern China. People smack their food, talk loudly in restaurants and don’t lie down easily when wronged. A case in point is my friend whose cell phone was stolen at the market. A vegetable seller alerted her that the young man running down the street had just lifted her cell. She took off after him, and after she had caught up with him, she grabbed him by the sleeve, spun him around and punched him in the throat. As he stood there stunned, she yanked her phone out of his hand and walked back to the market.
In the tattoo shop, I notice a man obscured partially behind a bamboo blind smoking a cigarette, so I inquire about him. Mengmeng offers that he’s a friend and beckons him to join us. The friend emerges from his cocoon, shirtless and sporting ink. I ask to take pictures of his tattoos by pointing to my phone and then to his tattoos while Rita interprets my request. He bobs his head in approval — a small smile on his lips — and turns around to display a full black and grey back piece of the Hindu deity Ganesha complete with a lotus flower and embellishments. Deep red rings from a recent cupping pock his tattoo imbuing the deity with a rubicund glow. After I take pictures and thank him, the man gives a quick nod and along with his cigarette, vanishes back behind the blind.
Although this is Mengmeng’s business, her friend might be in charge of it. In China, female status is comparably lower than female status in the United States, so I would not be surprised if this man pockets most of Mengmeng’s earnings. One of my experiences of my female status in China was when my male friend visited me. Whenever I paid for taxis and dinners, the change was always given to him.
Rita and I settle on a vinyl couch while Mengmeng sits on a doctor’s stool and shares her humble entry into the tattoo world. Her story echoes that of other tattoo artists’ — art major at university, drifted toward tattooing much to the chagrin of her parents, apprenticed (unlike other tattoo artists, solely on human skin and not fruit) and then opened her own shop. Presently, she also mentors aspiring tattoo artists. She began tattooing at age 20 before she got her first tattoo at 21. Pushing up the sleeve of her left arm, she shows me a lotus flower outlined in black that she had tattooed on the inside of her wrist.
When I ask about her influences, Mengmeng cites Bao Luo and NY Ink. She also studies videos of Kat Von D tattooing to improve her skills. I ask if she’s heard of Ting, a well-known tattoo artist working in Shanghai, but she hasn’t. This surprises me because I thought Ting’s presence would be stronger in China than elsewhere. For now, Ting’s popularity might just be in Shanghai, with expats in China and in the tattoo community outside of China.
Sensing an ebb in Mengmeng’s nervousness, I ask if I may take pictures of her shop. With her approval, I frame a corner of the small shop opposite to where Rita and I sit. Crammed shelves hold, among other sundries, bottles of colored ink, a red and white Chinese fan, a blue electric clip fan, a large pink box, notebooks, binders and a toy pony. The workstation consists of a laptop with a drawing pad propped behind it, and in one corner, a symbol of good fortune, stands a vase containing several lucky Bamboos from which dangles a Chinese knot, a red square-shaped looped pattern with a red tassel. As I look through the viewfinder, I notice a seeming disorder of tattoo supplies in a cramped space, a contrasting image of Koré’s well-organized tattoo shop in Minneapolis. Where is the spotless counter with organized drawers containing gloves, ink and pre-sterilized needles? Where are the sink, antibacterial soap, and paper towels? The comfy, hygienically clean chair for the client? The autoclave to clean the tattoo machine? I try not to judge what appears to be a lack of sanitary conditions brought to the fore by Mengmeng’s friend’s burning a cigarette that periodically appears and disappears from its ashtray, just visible under the bamboo blind.
Decorating the wall are Mengmeng’s drawings of Asian people with traditional Asian tattoos. A deeply shaded pink Koi fish swims, twists and splashes its way through blue water; lighter shade pink peonies with green leaves bloom and arc their slender stems; and a stately, vibrant blue peacock spreads its feathers like an elegant Chinese fan. All of these images invoke a glimpse into the bygone era of dynasties and myths that vanishes abruptly when I pan my camera over to a utilitarian red plastic stand.
Now we’re at the other corner of the shop where I spot what looks like a machine under a white, factory-lace cloth. After dabbing sweat off my face with my sleeve, I ask what it is. Could this be the autoclave? When Rita interprets my curiosity about this mysterious object, Mengmeng frowns and lowers her head. I’m confused by her reaction. I encourage Rita to ask again, but Mengmeng demurs. Despite my concern that I might be seen as the pushy American, I put Rita in the uncomfortable position of asking Mengmeng once more about what lies beneath the lace cloth. Mengmeng relents and discloses the machine’s purpose: tattoo removal. “Many people come in to get their tattoos removed,” she says, “for a variety of reasons.” Sensing her discomfort, I decide not to ask.
As if on cue to break the awkward moment, a Pekingese, a common sight at many shops, emerges from the back and waddles across the floor. It languorously lies by the entrance where the sounds of the streets permeate the little shop. Maybe this doggy will nab a customer while I’m here.
While traveling around Dalian, I noticed that the few tattoos I’ve seen were black and gray or black and dark blue, so I mention this to Mengmeng. “Yellow skin,” she claims, “is not good for colors because colors might darken. I seldom use color.” I can’t help but think of the politics of skin color in China where bleach is mixed into lotions, creams and facemasks as naturally as coco butter and aloe into other beauty products. Upon my first week in Dalian, my colleague warned me that when shopping for face cream to avoid products containing bleach unless I want my “lips to disappear.” I also consider the bleached faces of some of my female students and the ghostly middle-aged women standing at bus stops weighed down by grocery bags or the young, pale upper class women floating through the shiny aisles of a high-end department stores. Skin lightening, rooted in Asian culture before Western colonization, mixes powerfully with the Western beauty ideal, as suggested by Li, Hyun, Belk, Junko, and Bahl in ‘Skin Lightening and Beauty in Four Asian Cultures.’ In essence, the authors assert, Asian white skin increases desirability. 
Is this recent increase in tattooing a type of postcolonial skin bleaching, or a chop stamp on a cultural practice, which predates the existence of my country? Marti notes that the Li females of the traditional Hainan not only were tattooed but also did the tattooing. These tattooists were either part of the family of the young female being tattooed or known within the community for their skill. They tattooed young females in stages and the final one signaled to the community that these girls had now entered womanhood, which was cause for a celebration. However, under communism, tattooing became taboo and to ensure Li females abstained from this practice, the government also told them that the real purpose for the tattoos was to make them “ugly,” so they wouldn’t be kidnapped. 
Maybe the rise in tattooing is a confluence of both a type of postcolonial skin bleaching and a cultural practice as the young Chinese negotiate Western influences and wander through a once forbidden cultural landscape. A negotiation that involves saving face in a global world where the Chinese government plays a frenzied game of catch-up to restore their country’s former position as the “most powerful country in the world,” a sentiment some of my students have informed me about China’s past and its future.
I show Mengmeng a colorful peony tattoo on the inside of my left forearm. She bends her head over my arm, and I sense her artist’s eye assessing the work. She comments on the “vibrant” colors and how “alive” the peony looks. I ask her what colors are traditionally Chinese. “Dark blue and black.” Are any of the designs that you or your clients create considered traditionally Chinese? “Not usually. Japanese or Indian [Buddhist] culture is common or when clients go abroad they want tattoos from that culture.” Her comment reminds me of the academic arguments on appropriating aspects of another’s culture through tattoos back at the university in the US where I had previously taught. While this argument has some merit when viewed through a postcolonial lens, tattoos can be an expression of what we’re drawn to. A former white male colleague identifies with Buddhism and wants to express his spirituality through a tattoo. A woman I know gets a tattoo wherever she visits, for this is her memento. My peony tattoo, which was tattooed before I left for China, was to represent my forthcoming experiences in China, although for the Chinese the peony represents wealth. Many cautionary tales abound when one ventures into another culture via ink, as with NBA players and their Chinese character tattoos. The players think the characters mean one thing, but they mean another or in some cases, nonsense.
Mengmeng says that women, the majority of her clients, typically want English or French words tattooed on their shoulders, the back of their necks or ankles whereas men desire fish, dragons, and eagles on their arms and backs. Mengmeng mentions NY Ink once more, preferring US tattoos because of their abstract and colorful designs. She points out that tattoo technology in the States allows for better results because the needles don’t penetrate deep into the skin (ink absorbs better at the proper depth), adding that she orders her ink from the States and uses current technology.
Although tattooing and tattoos are not new in China, the younger generation’s burgeoning expression of individuality through ink is. So, it’s not surprising that the typical client age ranges from 20-30 years old, although Mengmeng once tattooed a mother who liked her son’s tattoo. She sees between 4-5 clients on a “busy day” and zero on a “slow day.” I ask Rita to relay to Mengmeng that I had read an article about nail salons and eyebrow studios offering tattoo services and to ask if she’s heard about this. “Yes, but they use different equipment,” says Mengmeng.
The Chinese government doesn’t regulate the tattoo industry, but it is forbidden for those under 18 to be tattooed without their parents’ permission. I ask about sanitary conditions. “I wear gloves,” Mengmeng says. Needles are one-time use, like Chinese chopsticks, and the back of her business card delineates aftercare instructions. She doesn’t mention an autoclave, and I decide not to ask for fear of embarrassing her further, like I did with regard to the tattoo removal machine. Mengmeng adds that she won’t tattoo intoxicated people.
When I ask about her most memorable tattooing experience, she laughs and recalls a man who fainted while she was tattooing him because he feared needles. As for payment, she says her rates are reasonable, and if clients don’t have the funds, they may leave their cell phones in her possession until they do. So far, every one of these clients have made good on their promise.
Ruff! Ruff! The Pekingese alerts us that a client has been snagged and in walks a young man. Rita, never having witnessed a tattooing session, perks up at the impending scene. Having been seated for the better part of the interview, I am snapping pictures after a quick “duì” [yes] from the client. My movements in the stifled heat cause a renewal of the river source between my shoulder blades.
The young man, already a veteran of tattoos, received his first at the age of 16 without his parents’ permission. However, he added, his parents eventually approved of the inky addition on their son. Since then, he has acquired more tattoos, and today he desires two on his lower right leg: peonies and 义. According to Rita, 义, Li in pinyin, means loyalty to friends. When I ask what had inspired him to get a tattoo when he was 16, he replies that tattoos interested him. I gather though from his insouciant attitude and the casual drags off his cigarette (yes, clients may smoke while getting a tattoo) that tattoos have a cool factor attached to them, along with a whiff of rebelliousness.
Mengmeng directs the client to sit in a chair as she crouches next to him and preps his leg by first spraying it with a cleanser and then shaving the area with a disposable razor. Using a reference found on the Internet, Mengmeng commences drawing the flowers with a pen directly onto the leg, glancing now and then to the reference. Her expert eye and skillful hand produce an astonishing facsimile of this possibly or not possibly copyright-free image. As someone who can’t draw her way out of a paper bag, I sit in awe. After the client approves of the pen drawing, the character Li apparently saved for later, Mengmeng pulls the doctor’s stool over to her and sits on it. With gloves and a tattoo machine outfitted with a new needle, she begins outlining. The client’s stoic face belies the occasional squint. My eyes follow the cigarette smoke waft above the workstation and across Mengmeng’s drawings. My ears tune into the tattoo machine’s zzzr, zzzr, zzzr.
I’m suddenly taken back to the mid-90s, where I sat bare of tattoos in Tatus by Koré in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The owner, Koré, a 5’3” athletic woman with a spiritual aura, initiates me into the world she characterizes as “soul-surfacing skin designs.” An inverted leafy spiral inspired by a page border in a magazine, personalized through my artist friend and further through Koré, would soon surface on my upper left arm.
After spending my early and mid-twenties ranting petulantly about the world’s injustices while groping toward an identity, I felt an emerging confidence about myself as I entered my late 20s. I wanted to express this newfound confidence by getting a tattoo on my left arm to represent growth and change. The tattoo also represented strength in being left-handed in a right-handed world. Months before I had walked into Koré’s shop, I told my friends about my desire to have a tattoo. Most of them balked at the idea, citing limitations on my wardrobe choices (i.e. strapless dresses), a tattoo’s fate on old and saggy skin, regret and my role as a mother.
If anyone dared to trample on my reproductive rights, they would have gotten an angry diatribe complete with marches, chants, posters and all, but I caved under my friends’ influence. Only the depraved or the military tattooed themselves, so I couldn’t figure out where I fitted in, but I knew getting a tattoo felt right to me. However, not as an expression of anti-anything but pro-me, and the pro-me finally decided not to listen to my dissenters: my body, my choice.
Also, I chose to teach overseas when my last child went to college. I had always wanted to travel and work in other countries, to submerge myself in another culture and to find new ways of thinking and seeing the world. My friends questioned this decision too, but this time, I didn’t become defensive because I understood that their concerns were a reflection of their own doubts and fears, not mine. A tattoo of a colorful, mystic bird surrounded by stars on my back left shoulder symbolizes my first excursion overseas to Turkey and as mentioned before, the peony, to China. These tattoos not only represent physical journeys to these countries but also evolving notions about the people who live there and their cultures in addition to evolving notions about myself living and working overseas. My other tattoos encompass inward journeys, such as cherishing the rare but felt presence of my mother’s kindness and turning a physical and emotional scar into a beautiful image. My tattoos are acknowledgments of milestones in my life as I make my way through a perplexing, contradictory world.
Over 15 tattoos later and all by Koré, I sit in Gold Wire Tattoo witnessing the surfacing of this young client’s design that reflects a larger cultural shift happening in China where the young yearn to access the greater world despite a government unwilling to yield fully to this yearning. Where the young feel the palpable rise in power of 1.3 billion Chinese and its country’s economic impact on the world’s economy. Where the young risk the evolution of self in a culture where the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Tangentially, this last thought connects me to this young man and to Mengmeng. Despite America’s fanatical individualism, tattooing and tattoos remain, to a certain extent, taboo. The cautionary slogan “If you want to remain employable, don’t get tattooed from the neck up” is reminiscent of the 60’s “Cut your hair and get a job,” which are cultural prescriptions intended to homogenize people — no nails sticking out.
However, a cultural shift is happening in the US, too, allowing for not merely tolerance, but acceptance of people who have tattoos. As noted by many tattoo artists, the soccer mom now has ink. This shift can probably be attributed to tattoo shows educating the public about the process of tattooing, who’s doing the tattooing and who’s getting them. In China, tattoo shows might also pop up on TV as those who have tattoos move into media. Mengmeng might be a featured artist on one such show and the likes of Kat Von D and Ami James might be studying her videos. As of now, Mengmeng has her shop, her clients and her friend behind the bamboo blind. And the little Pekinese. The young man lights another cigarette and squints his eyes as he takes a slow drag. Mengmeng’s hair acts as a curtain around her work, a wizard who will soon present magic to dazzle the audience. Unfortunately, I cannot stay to see this magic trick. I nudge Rita, still enrapt, and indicate that it’s time to go. I depart regretfully, issuing many heavily accented xie xies (thank you) mingled with Rita’s native Chinese. Mengmeng thanks us, too, nodding her head, tattoo machine lifted mid-air.
As Rita and I exit Gold Wire Tattoo and merge anonymously into the pedestrian traffic and evening humidity, Rita talks excitedly about the shop. I’m feeling wistful, though, for I’ll be leaving Dalian soon now that the school year is over. I look down at my wrist that has the peony flower tattoo — a tattoo now infused with my experiences in China. What better way to punctuate the end of my stay than to visit a tattoo shop witnessing, to recall Koré’s description of tattoos, soul-surfacing skin designs? I look back at Rita, happy that she’s happy, happy that my experiences here with other people bind me to them in a way like a tattoo binds a milestone to its bearer.
Jill Boyles’ work has appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Ilanot Review, and Calliope Magazine, among other publications. She holds an MFA and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. She’s currently working on a novel.