Just a few years ago, a tattoo expo in Shanghai would have been a niche event at best－assuming the organisers would even have been able to get a license to hold it. But over Sept 1-3, tens of thousands crammed into the Shanghai International Fashion Centre to attend the Tattoo Extreme & Body Art Expo.
When Taiwan-based Tattoo Extreme magazine organised its first expo in Shanghai in 2015, it attracted around 5,000 visitors. This year, more than double that number came just on Sept 2, according to Chen Hsiao-yung, the magazine’s events officer.
Despite the event’s “extreme” pretensions, this was far from a hard-core crowd, the curious students and couples clutching Starbucks cups far outnumbering the goths and punks in the hall. Such a sight is all the more surprising when you consider that tattoos were banned in China as late as the 1970s, and that the People’s Liberation Army only started accepting tattooed recruits in 2011.
But as the expo showed, social norms are changing fast in China. In the past, most Chinese parents assumed that a tattoo would seriously harm their child’s career prospects due to the connotations with delinquency and criminality. Yet on Sept 3, many people had even brought their children along to the expo.
Zuo Hong, a real estate manager, happily discussed his ambitions to send his son, Christian, to study in the United Kingdom while the 8-year-old practiced drawing a crucifix design in the expo’s tattoo school. “When he grows up, he can choose his own lifestyle,” says Zuo.
Spancer Zhang, a 26-year-old tattoo artist at the Tien Tattoo studio in Tianjin, says that her parents had been similarly relaxed when she told them about her new career 18 months ago. “They’ve been very supportive,” she says.
Zhuo Danting, owner of the renowned Shanghai Tattoo studio, says that she had noticed a huge shift in her customers’ attitudes since she began her career.
“Fifteen years ago, when people were getting tattoos, moms would say, ‘I want to get a tattoo, but I’m afraid that when my kids grow up, they’ll see my tattoo and think that’s weird,'” says Zhuo. “But right now, not so much. Sometimes they bring their kids to the shop and say, ‘wait for me!'”
These changes have led to a huge spike in demand for tattoos. When Zhuo founded Shanghai Tattoo in 2006, there were fewer than 10 studios in the city. Today, there are 125 listed on online directory Dianping alone.
As tattoos become increasingly common, it is also leading to a number of awkward encounters, according to Zhuo.
“Sometimes some things happen that are really funny. Like people come to the shop and say, ‘I’m really worried that my boss will kick me out (if they find out that I’m getting a tattoo),'” says Zhuo, laughing.
“But actually, when they’re getting the tattoo, they find that their boss is getting a tattoo here, too! That happens a lot.”