I first moved to Kunshan in September and it was obviously still warm enough outside for me to wear shorts at any given opportunity. I was getting used to the stares from locals, but I quickly learned one thing that will earn you more stares than being a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman is a very large, and very visible, tattoo. Exposed during informal occasions in warmer weather, my thigh sleeve managed to draw more attention to me than the fact that I’m a Westerner (there are several tattoos on my thigh, but considering that they cover the majority of skin, it’s easier to consider it a single piece). I wasn’t exactly surprised by this – Americans also tend to stare at vibrantly colored tattoos – but it was incredibly interesting to see how these stares and the reactions in China were different than those in the States.
To really understand how to interpret reactions, you need at least a basic understanding of a culture’s history with tattoos. Like in the West, tattooing in China was long associated with criminals. In fact, it was only a little over one hundred years ago that China stopped using tattoos as a punishment for crimes. So, knowing that, I was expecting a few suspicious glances aimed in my direction, especially from the older Chinese. While there were a very small number of people who gave me strange looks, my tattoos were often received in quite the opposite manner. There were many times I found myself surrounded by elderly men and women looking at my leg and asking about the tattoo and if it was actually real – a question I’m often asked back in the States thanks to my pale skin’s ability to hold ink and make it seem as if the images are only painted on.
Such straightforward attention was new for me, but it didn’t take me long to realize that was simply a cultural difference. Once I knew it was completely normal for some stranger to come up to me whether my tattoo was exposed or not, I was able to better interpret how people were reacting. As I already mentioned, there were a few curious elders, but for the majority of people, the tattoo just seemed to be another novelty included with a Westerner walking down the street. Granted, this treatment could have been because I am a Westerner, and it might have been an entirely different situation if I were a Chinese woman. Still, it was honestly surprising for me because I often face openly disapproving looks when I am in the U.S. Even if someone in the West doesn’t scorn me for the images on my skin, he or she often only pays attention to the tattoo, never making eye contact with me or acknowledging me in any fashion. I have yet to experience that here in China – if someone admires, or even disdainfully scans my leg, I’m acknowledged as a person. While that might seem like a small issue, it’s something I am incredibly appreciative of.
Curious as to why the Chinese did respond a little differently than Westerners, I asked a few (younger) Chinese people how tattoos are viewed here now. From what I learned, the popularity of tattoos is on the rise, but they are still a novelty and large tattoos are relatively uncommon. It’s become a trend in recent years for young men and women to get small tattoos – on the ankle or wrist for the women and the shoulder or bicep for the men – and so while large tattoos like mine are rare, the Chinese are growing more accustomed to seeing body art, even though there are some citizens who don’t see tattoos in a favorable light. This growth in tattoo popularity explains why some of the world’s most renown artist are located in China. For example, Zhuo Dan Ting, the “queen of tattooing in China”, has a shop located in Shanghai (for more information visit shanghaitattoo.com).
While it was interesting to hear about the surge in popularity of body modification here in China, that didn’t exactly provide any insight as to why open disdain toward me was rare, even though tattoos were traditionally associated with criminals. Thinking over the issue, and knowing there were few academic resources available on the subject, I began to think about the history in China since the last criminals received their tattoos compared to Western history. For a while, tattoos in the West became increasingly associated with soldiers and blue-collar men and women. Yes, there were exceptions to this, but attitudes toward tattoos entwined with issues of class in the West, and the effects of that societal view are still evident today – tattoos are often seen as “low class” and undesirable. In China, the introduction of Communism prevented these issues of class and, therefore, might have prevented the increasing popularity of tattoos from being seen with as much contempt as they have in the West. If classicism does have an effect, while the Chinese people still have to grow accustomed them, tattoos don’t face as many obstacles as they do in the West to be accepted. Based on how mine have been received, the Chinese are well on their way to seeing tattoos as a form of art.