Tattooing has been a celebrated art form throughout Asia for thousands of years. In fact, one of the earliest physical records of tattoo art comes from Japan, in the form of clay figurines from around 3,000 B.C. that have etched and painted tattoo designs on their faces. Today, Asian-inspired tattoos abound, crossing and uniting people of different cultures, races and sexes.
How has the art of tattooing progressed through Asian culture over time? Which Asian countries adopted the art form first? Who's who in the Asian tattoo community today? What do you need to know before you get a tattoo in an Asian country? We answer these questions and more in this third installment of our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series.
A Brief History of Tattoos in Asia
When you think of Asia, you probably think primarily of countries like Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, and North and South Korea. However, there are actually 50 countries that make up Asia, including areas you may not have realized were Asian at all–countries like Afghanistan, Cambodia, Georgia, India, the Philippines, and even Russia! For purposes of this brief history of tattoo art in Asia, though, we'll focus on the key players of Japan and China, which each appear more than once in our full History of Tattoos. To learn more about tattoo art in Middle Eastern countries like Iran and Iraq, check out our Tattoo Culture in the Middle East blog post. You can learn more about tattoo art in European countries that are also Asian countries, like Russia, in our European Tattoo Culture blog post.
Around 3,000 B.C., it was common for the Japanese to place clay figurines with painted or engraved facial tattoos in the tombs of their departed, either for magical or religious purposes. The figurines provide some of the earliest physical evidence of tattoo art, but there's no solid proof that people in Japan were actually getting tattoos at that time. It took roughly another thousand years for the people of Southeast Asia to fully embrace the art form of tattooing, which some say was carried from Egypt to Japan and other parts of Asia by the Ainu, who were Western Asian nomads.
The oldest Asian mummies with tattoos that scientists have uncovered were found in Xinjian, Western China, and on the Ukok Plateau. The "Tarim Mummies" from Xinjian appear to be of mixed Western Asian and European heritage, while the Pazyryk mummies found on the Ukok Plateau were of Russian descent. Together, these Asian mummies prove that the art form of tattooing was alive and thriving in Asia by 2,000 B.C., if not earlier.
Tattooing was a common practice among the Pazyryk culture for many years after the time that the first tattooed Pazyryks lived. Tattooed Russian mummies found in Siberian mountain tombs called 'kurgans" can be dated back to 385 B.C. Some of the tattoos found on the Pazyryk mummies were indicators of social status, but they were also tattooed with animals, monsters and mythical creatures that were ornamental and possibly had magical significance, too. Their tattoos are some of the earliest on record that are believed to have been inked more for decorative purposes than for religious, healing or commemorative purposes.
Fast forward to 297 A.D., and you'll find that a Chinese dynastic history compiled at that time includes the first written reference to tattoos in Japan. The document talks about how the Japanese used tattoos for self-adornment rather than for spiritual or magical purposes, which had been major motivators for earlier Asians to get tattooed. The Chinese dynastic history also discusses Horis, or Japanese master tattoo artists, who incorporated never-before-seen colors, designs and perspective into their tattoos. Many Japanese people who got tattooed at that time would get full body suits–a trend that later became an identifying mark of membership in the Yakuza, or Japanese mafia, between 1603 and 1868.
To this day, Japanese tattoo art often tells a cohesive story on the skin. The director of Skin Stories, Emiko Omori, described the Japanese style of tattooing as being "integrated and usually figurative. There could be dragons or warriors and there is usually a myth behind the images. So the Japanese style is pictoral…" Omori also said that it has historically been common for "working people" in Japan, like fishermen and firemen, to have tattoos as talismans to protect them in their dangerous occupations. He said, "I think a lot of people see tattoos as having this kind of protection power and that is why the tattoos themselves can be ferocious looking. They are like the lions at the temple gate to ward off evil and hostility." (Asiasociety.org)
The Chinese must have taken great inspiration from Japanese tattoo art in the early A.D. years–enough to not only make mention of it in their history books, but to encourage the art form in their own culture. Between 1254 and 1324 A.D., Marco Polo visited Quanzhou, China, and reported finding many adept tattoo artists there. He said people traveled all the way from India and beyond to get tattooed by talented Chinese artists in Quanzhou. Marco Polo's report is one of the earliest records of "Chi Shen" (or "Wen Shen") in China, which translates roughly to "puncture the body".
Despite Marco Polo's comments about the talented tattooists of Quanzhou, tattooing has largely been an uncommon practice in China. Many Chinese people believe tattooing defames the body, which may stem from the way that tattoos were used to mark criminals and slaves during early Chinese history. During the Great Qing/Manchu Dynasty (1644-1912), it was common for prisoners to have the character 囚 tattooed on their faces so that everyone could see at a glance that they were convicts. At various points in time, slaves were tattooed with marks of ownership, too.
There are positive stories of tattooing in China, like that of the Chinese general Yueh Fei, whose mother tattooed the characters "jin zhong bao guo" on his back. Loosely translated, the phrase means "serve his country with ultimate loyalty." However, tattoos have more often been associated with criminal activity in China, except among a few minority groups like the Dai and Dulong tribes. During the Ming Dynasty (~350 years ago), Dulong women tattooed their faces to make themselves less desirable to attacking neighbors in hopes of avoiding getting enslaved and raped. The tradition of tattooing women's faces remains strong among Dulong women to this day, even though the threat that originally motivated the activity has since passed. Among the Dai tribe, tattoos have long been considered a mark of beauty for women and a sign of strength and virility for men.
The Japanese style of tattooing first infiltrated western culture in the late 1800s. Technical advances and greater exposure to other cultures lead to a Japanese tattoo craze that spread rapidly among the American upper class. At that time, it was also common for sailors who had traveled to Asia to come back with Japanese and Chinese tattoos. Today, Japanese- and Chinese-inspired tattoos consisting of beautiful symbols and elaborate, culturally-influenced designs are even more popular in western culture and other parts of the world than they are in their own home countries.
The Modern Day Tattoo Culture in China and Japan
Just over 15 years ago, tattoos were still fairly taboo in China. Dong Dong, a 30-year-old Chinese tattoo artist interviewed by the New York Times, said that he found it difficult to make a living as a tattoo artist when he started in 1999. Not only were few Chinese people getting tattoos, but many viewed them as unseemly. Dong said that people would see his tattoos and move away from him when he used the Chinese public transportation system.
In the past 10 years, the Chinese tattoo scene has changed dramatically. Tattoo parlors are opening up all over major cities like Beijing, and tattoos are crossing and connecting geography and subcultures like in many other parts of the world today. To the Chinese, what matters is placement, size, and just having a tattoo at all. What you see is what you get, and the purpose of tattoo art for many Chinese people is simply to display a tattoo to the world rather than to express rebellion, strength or individuality. Since there often isn't deep meaning behind Chinese tattoo designs, flash art is much more common in China than the custom tattoo designs now so prevalent in the western world.
Despite the surge in interest in tattoo art among young people in China, the Chinese government has been slow to regulate the tattoo industry. Since the government isn't enforcing safety, Chinese tattooists can get away with things that are absolutely forbidden in the US and Europe, like reusing tattoo needles. The Chinese government's lack of interest in setting tattooing standards isn't stopping the tattoo community from stepping up to fill the gap, though. To improve the Chinese tattoo industry's reputation and make it safer for people to get tattooed in China, the China Association of Tattoo Artists (CATA) has implemented hygiene codes and is working to positively publicize the industry. The organization has grown from 100 tattoo artists and enthusiasts in 2002 to over 3,000 members today.
The President of CATA, Wang Qingyuan, is quoted as saying, "Tattoos are a way for people to express their frustrations and hopes about life." He encourages Chinese people to carefully consider cultural tattoo designs and avoid making the mistake of getting meaningless symbols tattooed on themselves the way that so many westerners do when requesting Chinese character tattoos. Qingyuan also offers a simple theory as to why black tattoos will probably always be more popular than color tattoos among the Chinese: "Black looks better on yellow skin, and color looks better on pink."
Interestingly, tattoos may hold a more negative connotation in Japan today than they do in modern-day China. That may surprise you, considering how popular Japanese tattoo art is in western culture. In Japan, the most stunningly-beautiful tattoos are still apt to draw negative attention. In fact, there are many public places that you can't enter if you're visibly tattooed, like gyms, pools and hot springs. If you manage to sneak in, you may find yourself thrown out as soon as an employee notices your body art–even if you're a tourist! You likely won't have a problem finding a restaurant where you can eat or a shop that's willing to take your money, but the same rules apply to Japanese citizens and tourists alike in most public establishments. It's not uncommon to see "no tattoos allowed" signs at the entrances to public places like swimming pools and hot springs.
Unfortunately, many Japanese people still strongly associate tattoos with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and criminal activities. World-renowned Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshi III (a former criminal himself) hopes that someday his beautiful full-body suits will inspire Japanese people to develop a more positive perception of tattoo art, but that day has yet to come. Attitudes towards tattoos in Japan are so widely negative that in 2012, an Osaka mayor started a campaign to force government employees to document their tattoos or else risk pay cuts or even termination. The mayor's goal was to improve people's perception of local government by hiding tattooed employees from the public, including everyone from garbage collectors to government office personnel.
How is it that the first culture to create ornate tattoos strictly for decorative purposes now looks down on tattoos so strongly? Tattoos were fashionable in Japan for a period of time, in between the 17th century, when criminals' foreheads were often tattooed with the symbol for "dog" as shameful punishment, and the early 19th century. However, they were banned during the mid- to late-19th century as Japan began focusing on expanding cultural relations and modernizing. The Japanese government was concerned that foreigners would consider their tattoos primitive or mock them, so tattooing was outlawed until just after the end of World War II. Even since the ban has been lifted, though, negative perceptions about tattoos have persisted. Many Japanese people still strongly associate tattoos with criminal activity and/or an undesirable working class status.
Who's Who Among Asian Tattooists Today
With modern technology what it is, finding a talented tattoo artist while you're traveling in Asia isn't hard, but you may have to make a trek to get to the artist you choose. Search for "top tattoo artists" plus the location you're visiting, and you'll instantly find names, portfolios, client reviews, and more. Alternatively, you can plan ahead and schedule your trip around a tattoo session with one of the hottest modern-day tattoo artists in Japan, China and other parts of Asia. For a few ideas, check out the Asian artists highlighted in Complex.com's 2015 50 Tattoo Artists You You Need to Know:
- Rob Kelly of Hong Kong (shown to right) mixes traditional, solid line work with new-school color to create a wide variety of tattoo designs.
Nao Takamura of Fukuoka, Japan, offers a contemporary spin on traditional Japanese tattoo art. Complex.com calls his style "one part Japan, one part SoCal."
Horishow of Fukuoka, Japan, tattoos traditional Japanese designs in bright, bold colors.
Goethe of Hong Kong is known for bold, black-and-white Mayan and Aztec tattoos.
Getting & Having Tattoos in Asia
Where you're traveling in Asia will play a large role in how your existing tattoos are perceived. Some Chinese people may steer clear of you if they notice your tattoos, but you'll have less of an issue being a tattooed tourist there than you would in Japan. As mentioned earlier, visible tattoos aren't allowed in many public Japanese establishments, so your tattoos may inhibit the activities you can participate in there. Generally speaking, though, tattooed tourists visiting most parts of Asia are treated less harshly than tattooed locals. If you're worried about your tattoos causing a problem while you're traveling, do your best to cover them up with clothing and/or makeup.
Oddly enough, it may be easier to get a tattoo souvenir in China and Japan than to be a tattooed traveler. You'll find a plethora of tattoo shops in most major cities, as well as some more rural areas. However, it's important to keep in mind that tattooing safety regulations aren't enforced by many Asian governments, so you should choose a tattoo shop and artist carefully. You don't want to bring home an infection along with your new tattoo, so make sure the shop you choose follows these key guidelines:
- Proper Sterilization of Reusable Tools – Does the shop have an autoclave? If not, do they use chemical baths to clean their tools or another method? Don't get tattooed in a shop that uses a pressure cooker to "sterilize" tools.
- Use of Protective Gear – Anything that isn't pre-sterilized or autoclavable should be covered up with protective gear. Are the artists bagging their tattoo machines and electrical cables? Are they wearing medical gloves? Don't settle for a shop where hands and/or equipment are naked.
- Use of Sterile Disposables – Tattoo needles, disposable tattoo tubes and other single-use tattoo supplies should all be taken out of sterile packaging in front of you. Don't let an artist near you if they're reusing tattoo needles in particular.
Finally, take your time deciding on a cultural symbol to have permanently inked on your body. If you want a Chinese or Japanese character or phrase tattoo, do your homework and make sure you fully understand its meaning. It would be unfortunate to find out later that the definition of your tattoo was muddled in translation, and it actually says "F**k You" instead of "Kung Fu".
For more tips on choosing a tattoo shop and artist, check out our How to Choose a Tattoo Artist and Choosing the Most Sanitary Tattoo & Piercing Shop articles. Also, tune in later for the next installment of our Tattoo Culture Abroad Series.
History of Tattoos Article on PainfulPleasures.com
The History of the Tattoo Article on AsiaSociety.org
A History of Chinese Tattoos and Chinese Tattooing Traditions Article on Traditions.Cultural-China.com
To Remember Beijing, Indelibly Article on NYTimes.com
What Do Tattoos Mean in Modern Chinese Society? Article on laowaiink.weebly.com
The View of Tattoos in Japanese Society Article on JapanDailyPress.com
Why Is There a Tattoo Stigma in Japan? Article on Kotaku.com
50 Tattoo Artists You Need to Know Article on Complex.com