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Tattoos return to Chinese fashion
(City Weekend)
Updated: 2004-05-30 10:41

Once the ignoble realm of criminals and mafia, tattoos are now in vogue with China's hip twenty-something's.

"People across the world get tattoos for the same reason," says 25-year-old punk rocker Tian Jianhua. "Fashion. It's bad-ass for young people." Tian, who plays bass and guitar for his bands Reflector and 1979, sports three tattoos. He did the green gecko lizard on his calf by himself, but the communist star and Transformers cartoon on his forearm are professional. China's silver-haired generation, however, doesn't share Tian's enthusiasm.

"I'm not interested in this kind of thing," says retired factory worker Wang Xiaoli. "Most old people share this opinion." During the Mao era, tattoos were off limits. And in imperial times, they were used to mark the faces of murders and rapists.

"Actually, for most of China's history, tattoos have not been considered respectable," says artist Fu Yan, who runs a Zen-like tattoo parlor out of his courtyard home. "During the Shui Hu period, only gangsters and thieves had tattoos," he explains. Shui Hu, which translates as "the Tale of the Water Margin," refers to China's Robin Hood classic where a tattooed band of 108 ruffians fight corrupt officials. "So, old people think that anyone with a tattoo is a criminal."

Moreover, Chinese soldiers, unlike Western ones, have always been forbidden to etch martial symbols on their bodies. Southern Song Dynasty General Yue Fei is the only notable exception. When his war commander switched sides, Yu returned home in shame. There his mother was so upset with his failure that she tattooed the words jing (ultimate) zhong (loyalty) bao (serve) guo (country) on his back. Legend has it that Yu Fei then went on to successfully defend his nation. The household expression "yue mu ci zi" still reminds people of this patriotic story. But today, tattoos aren't always synonymous with shame and infamy.

For Chinese youth, they're just cool. "Tattoos are a type of art," raves personal trainer Ma Jiao, "they're attractive and I really like them."

Like millions of other Chinese, Ma watches NBA games regularly on TV; he can't help but notice how popular tattoos are among athletes -- some 35 per cent of players have them and many are Mandarin characters. Marcus Camby (of the NBA's Denver Nuggets) has "to strive" and "family" written on his right arm, while Allen Iverson's (NBA's Philadelphia 76ers) neck reads "loyalty."

But before you run off to the parlor, think twice. "Selecting a tattoo deserves careful study and attention," says promoter and jazz musician Yang Zi. "It should have less to do with style and more to do with your character, work, and values. It's permanent, so it's a pretty important decision in your life." He motions to the Greek comedy and tragedy masks penned on his leg. "Like this," he smiles, "it means theater and I love to perform."

The pain and length of the process also should also give pause. "For the first few hours, I could talk and smoke cigarettes," says stylist Cocozk about the dragon and fish water loop on her shoulder, "but after that it was excruciating."

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