The Rise Of Body Art In China

Tattoos And Taboos in Shanghai

Shanghai is welcoming two international tattoo shows over the coming months, the Shanghai International Tattoo Extreme & Body Art Expo, from 11 September to 13 September, and the Shanghai International Tattoo Festival, from 1 October to 5 October. Both shows will bring big names from the tattoo world to town, as well as showcase local talent. In honour of this occasion, we decided to take a deeper look at tattoos and taboos in Shanghai.

Tattoos are nothing new to the Middle Kingdom; in fact, they have had a long and varied history in China. In ancient Chinese literature, there are references to bandits and warriors with their entire bodies covered by tattoos. Furthermore, some Chinese ethnic minorities, such as the Li and Dai, traditionally would tattoo their faces and bodies to portray strength and beauty, or as a right of passage. These tribal tattoos would be rudimentary dots and lines, drawn over a period of time on the face, arms and legs. However, nowadays, as these minority cultures have assimilated with the modern world, it is quite uncommon to find minority people who still display the markings, save for a few old women back in their villages. In more recent history, tattoos were associated with triads and organised crime, as many gang members would be tattooed with a mark signifying their allegiance to one group.
Nevertheless, even with these recent negative connotations, the trend for body art in China seems to be growing faster than ever, as youngsters, and the older generation alike, look for ways to differentiate and represent themselves in a country that is rapidly developing and becoming ever more materialistic. These new waves of patrons don’t appear to show any concern for the negative associations once linked with the art form. Instead, Chinese customers not only look to places like the West and other parts of Asia for body art inspiration, but they are also looking inwards, at Chinese art and culture, for design ideas. Shanghai resident and tattoo enthusiast, Huiyi Zhu, told Talk, “I like the idea of my body being a canvas, my tattoos all tell a story and are part of my life experiences and cultural heritage.”
The first international tattoo show to be hitting Shanghai in September is Shanghai International Tattoo Extreme & Body Art Expo, organised by Tattoo Extreme Magazine from Taiwan. They are bringing with them a wide variety of authentic, as well as up-and-coming tattoo artists, and will be working with local talent in the form of Zheng Jin from Zhencang Tattoo, Jacky Huang from Yu Tattoo and Tao from Tattoo Family. The International Tattoo Festival, on the other hand, will be hitting the city in October and bringing with them a wealth of famous international talent such as, Hailin Fu, from Liehuo Tattoo, USA, Paul Booth, from Last Rites Tattoo, USA, Richie Lucero, from Black Cat Tatto, USA and Andrea Afferni from Andrea Afferni, Italy.
We talked to Hailin Fu, an internationally famous Chinese tattoo master, and host of The International Tattoo Festival in Shanghai. He has taught over 300 students the art of tattooing and has the unique ability of being able to tattoo without the use of a stencil. Fu believes that the Chinese tattoo industry is developing at a faster pace as spending power in the country increases. Fu also credits a rise in the number of professional art school graduates, who find it hard to get glamorous work in the art industry and therefore choosing to become body artists, as a reason why the scene in China is developing so rapidly. It seems that this sector offers burgeoning art talent the freedom to express themselves, with the added benefit of a decent wage, and that is helping to keep it competitive and creative. Fu believes that there is still a lot of money to be made if you are a tattoo storeowner in China. 
One such tattoo storeowner, Dylan Byrne, co-owner of Shanghai Tattoo, told us that tattoos have completely shaken off their negative connotations in China. He believes that thanks to young Chinese talent, who cover all genres and styles, Chinese people are able to create their own identity with tattoos, in the same way the country now creates its own identity with movies, music and other forms of pop culture. Byrne told us that it is not even just young people looking to get tattoos done, middle aged customers also go to the shop and get portraits of their wives or children drawn on their skin, and he thinks it is possibly because things aren't as tough and as masculine as they once were. In that case, maybe the negative stereotype in China has been shaken off thanks to this new surge of talented tattoo artists and styles.
If you are looking for tattoo inspiration, to one day remind you of your life in China, Byrne tells us that there are a few stylistic routes to go down. In China, old-school traditional designs refer to the oldfashioned intricate drawings of dragons and koi carp, whilst neotraditional designs aim to jazz up these old-school designs by using new motifs, such as modern animals. Increasingly popular, however, are the new Chinese inspired styles, such as designs taking their cue from Chinese watercolour paintings and folk artwork.
Body art in China is on the rise, with young innovative artists turning towards the tattoo gun in search of artistic freedom and money, Chinese consumers looking to differentiate themselves in the face of rapid development in the country and the apparent lack of negative association for the art form. Tattoos are no longer taboo in China, and it seems that the international industry has finally recognised the insatiable appetite and demand for tattoos in Shanghai and the rest of the country.
Where To Get Tatted Up In Shanghai: Shanghai Tattoo
This tattoo shop has been open for over eight years, and is arguably the most wellknown, and professional, in town. Book in for consultation in English or in Mandarin and feel safe in the knowledge that you are in good hands. Look out for Shanghai Tattoo’s eight year and eight month celebrations in October for special events and discounts.
Shanghai Tattoo. 4/F, 1 Maoming Lu, near Yan’an Lu. Tel: 135 8594 4558. Web:

Show Information
Shanghai International Tattoo Extreme & Body Art Expo
11 September to 13 September. Expo I-Pavilion. Web:
Shanghai International Tattoo Festival
1 October to 5 October. Shanghai Everbright Convention and Exhibition Center. Web: