The same holds true with tattoos. Around the world, tattoos are usually equated with gangsters, convicts, and rock stars, but in the West it is becoming increasingly common to see people with tattoos, and even numerous tattoos, in places and positions you wouldn't expect. A meek librarian might have a large backpiece, a CPA might have an intricate tribal shoulder design. In films, someone with heavy tattoos is usually a thug or prison inmate, and someone with one or two is usually a tough guy or girl, though they could be either good or bad depending on the film. Yet in every day life, tattoos are trickling into all corners of Western society.
Not so in China. Chinese people often get a tattoo for the purpose of displaying it to the world, not as a personal memento or commemoration. In fact, you will rarely see a Chinese tattoo that has been exclusively designed for that person. Nearly all tattoos are chosen from flash books, and this illustrates a key difference between Chinese and Western thinking about tattoos: in the West, a tattoo is meant to express rebellion, individuality, or strength, and the more unique and personal the tattoo is, the better. In China, there is usually little or no meaning behind the actual design; what is important is the size, placement, and the fact that this person actually has a tattoo. Tattoos are usually viewed negatively, so the wearer will receive some form of judgement and/or condemnation, regardless of the design.
Chinese people often get tattooed for a handful of reasons, which I will try and explain. Of course I know that these labels don't apply to everyone, and I'm not trying to condescend or anything, but anyone who knows China knows that when it comes to people's appearance, what you see is usually what you get.
First, let's start with the dudes. If a Chinese guy has:
-A large amount of intricate, traditional Chinese designs, such as dragons, tigers, or warriors- he's probably got a lot of money, and he's probably involved in criminal enterprise. If he has a crew cut or shaved head, and is going out of his way to display his tattoos in public, such as rolling up his shirt or wearing black wifebeaters even if it's a little chilly, these tattoos are a statement that this guy is not to be messed with, because he has unfriendly friends.
-a small feminine design on her ankle or upper arm- it means she's confident in her beauty and style, and wants people to know that she is liberated and independent, and she knows she's hotter than you so screw what you think.
People are often surprised when they find out that I've been a teacher for five years, and that I'm not a playboy, and that I don't play in a rock band. Of course I would also get labeled in America, but the shock is much greater in China. I'm a bit of a curiosity at the university where I teach but I take my job seriously and I think this helps people around me rethink their perceptions of tattooed people. After all, it's just pictures on skin.
And for the record, a Chinese girl with a tattoo--magnifique!