Photo courtesy of MSNBC

I've never had a reason to seriously regret getting tattooed.  On the bus the other day, I heard a kid ask his dad if I was a killer, but these small incidents make me feel self-conscious rather than ashamed, and generally my ink receives positive reactions (when I walk through the crowd at my university, I hear a chorus of "Wahh...so cool!" in my wake).  I never wear T-shirts to class, but other than this, I don't go out of my way to either hide or flaunt my tattoos.

Bryon Widner has a different story.  Once a prominent skinhead, now a husband and father seeking a life of normalcy, he realized that his abundant and hateful racist tattoos were a barrier to his future.  You can read an amazing article about his transformation here.

Just reinforces the cardinal rule: THINK BEFORE YOU INK.
Today is the 6th anniversary of the day I first set foot in China.  Those six years have been a lifetime for me.

Here is the tattoo I got done a couple of weeks ago.  It's kind of maze-like but if you look closely, you'll see in the middle of the design, there is a snake winding itself around my arm.  And if you look even more closely, you'll see that the snake's head is broken.  This comes from a passage in Genesis where God tells Eve that her seed with crush the serpent's head (meaning Jesus will conquer Satan).  The design encircles my left elbow.  The tattoo quality isn't the greatest, and I'll have to get it touched up sometime, but I like the pattern, and I think it fits well with the tribal/circles-and-triangles theme of my left arm.
Tina also got her third tattoo on the same day.  It's a little "Z" on her ankle in honor of our little Z.  I personally think ankle tattoos are very sexy and I applaud Tina's bravery for choosing to go under the needle for a third time (she really really dislikes the pain of tattoos).
I don't really have the small town blues- it just sounded cool for the post title.  Actually what I wanted to talk about are the frequency of tattoos in my new area of residence.  When I lived inside Xiamen city limits, I spotted tattoos every once in a while but not too often.  However, now that I live outside the city in a smaller, commercial/industrial suburb, I'm surprised how often I see tattoos.

There is a large population of youngsters in their late-teens/early-20s who work in the local factories/warehouses/supermarkets/clothes shops/etc.  For reasons that I don't completely understand, I see them sporting tattoos in great numbers.  For the guys, if you see a group walking around in sleeveless shirts/no shirts, at least one of them will be inked.  For the girls, colorful ankle and shoulder tattoos are also common.  There is a large number of hookers and massage girls in our area, and more often than not, it's girls heading to work in the early evening all heavily made-up that are tattooed.  I imagine that people might suspect the same thing of my wife if they didn't see her pushing a baby stroller or walking around with me.

I'm not looking down my nose at my neighbors- if anything some might look down on me, since I'm inked up like a prison convict.  I just wonder where the inspiration to get tattooed comes from out here, where the Western influence is less prevalent than in the city.  Chinese traditional thinking regarding tattoos parallels the Japanese attitude: that tattoos are primarily the domain of social unsavories, like crooks and hookers.  You'll find a more open mind in China's cosmopolitan areas, but this isn't once of them.  Yet I can't help but draw comparison to the American inner city and country regions, where you'll find lots of tattoos at the liquor store and local Wal-Mart, and not so many in wealthy suburbs and business districts. 

Again, I don't want to sound judgmental, and it would be very hypocritical if I was, but perhaps there is a correlation between the desire to get tattooed and being a member society's lower classes.  Since people seek to distinguish themselves by any means necessary, and since people in lower classes have less means to do so, tattoos are a convenient and available way to show one's "distinctiveness."  I say that sarcastically of course since the prevalence of tattoos has essentially watered down its effectiveness as a badge of individuality.   I've stated in other posts that the reasons Chinese people often tattooed usually differs from those in the West, but the fact remains: businesspeople, bankers, educators, lawyers, and other people whose identities are largely tied to their white-collar careers rarely get tattooed, regardless of country.  Those with less people to impress and less face to lose are more likely to get inked.  Whatever the reasons are, I'm glad they're becoming more common with everyday folk, since the social stigma is about twenty years past its expiration date.
Well it's been six months since this blog went into hibernation, but we're back in business now.  Here's a quick summary of what's been happening lately.

-Nolan turned one year old on July 24th.  We had a big party with several neighbors and friends, and it was especially cool since my mother came from the USA for a visit.  It was the first time that she had seen Nolan and Tina in person, and we had a blast while she was here.  My father passed away last year so he never got to see his grandson face to face, but I'm glad that my mother was able to make the trip.

-Tina celebrated her 30th birthday on August 2nd.  I arranged a little surprise party with some of her friends, which was something she had never had before.  For a lot of Chinese people, turning 30 is the equivalent of becoming middle-aged, so Tina was lamenting the grinding gears of time a bit.  But since she already has the husband, the baby, and the house which are all required of Chinese girls by the time they turn 30, she wasn't feeling too bad.  Plus she still looks like a dream, and people always tell her that she's got to be in her mid-20s.  By the way, she's a year and a half older than me, and you know what they say about hot, horny older womenGiggity!

-Life is slow and quiet at our new home, but it's nice.  It's a few kilometers outside of the city, which means that everything is much cheaper but it's kinda boring, with small town people, small town manners, small town life.  I'm the only foreigner around so I'm a bit of a local celebrity (which we have been able to use to our advantage in creating a small English school at our home during the summer) but I spent three years in Jiangxi province before I came to Xiamen so I'm used to the Chinese countryside.  There are a lot of things that I wish were different, but I appreciate what I have.

-Tina and I got tattooed together last week.  She got a little "Z" on her ankle for Nolan, whose middle name is "Z" (I know, cool huh?).  I got a large design filling up the empty space on my left elbow region.  It took two sessions for a total of six hours.  It was not fun at all.  I've decided that in the future, I'm going to get tattooed once a year, and with this new tattoo out of the way, I don't really have any desire to get anything new, so I think I'll just devote my tattoo energy to improving the ones I already have (and some need a lot of touching up).  I'll post the photos of Tina's and my tattoos once they've healed.

-I've been doing lots of research on cathedrals, particularly the Gothic style of architecture.  I've always loved cathedrals, but now I'm taking a serious look at the design, the styles, the symbolism, and it's utterly fascinating.  There is a commanding grandeur in this structures that I find lacking in Chinese construction, and the more I learn, the more I yearn to explore them in real life.  I'm even reading The Hunchback of Notre-Dame right now.

So that's the deal for now.  I'll be heading back to work in a couple of weeks, and it's been great having the whole summer to spend at home with the family, particularly Nolan as he navigating these formative days.  I feel bad for a lot of parents, particularly fathers, whose jobs take them away from home for so long.  It's nice to have personal space sometimes, but I wouldn't want to miss first steps or first words for anything.  The Bible says that children are a gift from God, and it's true.
This week I got a tattoo of Nolan's English and Chinese names (for free :-).  For his English name, I designed an anagram, which is a word that can still be read upside-down.  It was pretty simple, since Nolan's name is almost symmetrical (the only difference being the "o" and "a" which were easy to convert).  The tattoo completely encircles my left forearm and on the back below my elbow is his Chinese name is swoopy Chinese script.

It was nice to sit in the tattoo chair again after a nearly year-long break, though I'm sure this will be my last for a while.  I got the tattoo for free because I interviewed the tattoo artist for an English-language Xiamen magazine and he offered to give me the tattoo free of charge, which I feebly protested but eventually gave in :-).  Seriously, this dude is excellent, and I've been tattooed by more than a dozen artists in China and the States.  If you're ever in Xiamen and looking to get inked, go to his website for more info.
Unlike in the USA, university students and tattoos don't often mix in China.  Part of it is the submissive attitude towards parents, as well as the cost, the pain, and the public perception that someone sporting a tattoo is trying to be "bad."

I have a come across a few brave souls, however, even in my own classes.  In one class, two students got tattoos this semester, and one of them got hers at the tattoo artist I frequent.  My student said that the tattoo guy asked her where I've been lately, since it's been a while since my last ink session.

I've also spotted a few of the more diva-inclined students sporting cute designs on their ankles or on their shoulder blades.  More often than not, one will encounter these students staying outside the school gates long into the night, drinking, smoking, and chatting with douchebag-looking dudes, thus further solidifying their "bad" perception.  But I don't judge.

I don't flaunt my tattoos in class and around campus, but the tatoos on my forearms are visible, and while they're a bit of a surprise to students during the first couple of weeks, after a while, they just ignore them.  Although I do see students doodling on their arms or fingers every once in a while.  And while I'd like to think that I'm inspiration for this yearning to be tattooed, I know that deep down inside, most people would get a tattoo if they had the money, the pain tolerance, and parental and social approval.  Just look at the SIMS computer game.  I've never played it, but every screenshot I've seen shows SIMS avatars sporting elaborate ink.  Ah, to dream...
Kinda hard to hide these....
I confess: I love skulls.  Maybe it's too much heavy metal, maybe it's "The-Nightmare-Before-Christmas-ophilia" that has gripped countless millions.  Whatever the reason, nothing beats a skull for eye-catching appeal and creepiness.

As I mentioned on my previous blog, China doesn't do Death.  At all.  The morbid fascination that The West has with death does not exist here in China.  So naturally one would be confused to see skulls and crossbones everywhere on China's streets.

Now I'm not just talking about rebellious teenagers' punk-rock fashion.  I'm talking EVERYWHERE.  On fashionistas' scarves.  On old ladies' blouses.  On childrens' T-shirts.  On little doggie sweaters, for crying out loud.  Everywhere.
The variety is quite surprising as well.  Rarely will you see blatantly evil, fang-toothed, fiery demon skulls like the kind that we Westerners like to tattoo on ourselves and emblazon on our rock T-shirts and tricked-out lowriders.  The skulls one encounters in China (and the rest of East Asia, from what I've seen on TV) are rather benign and often cutesy skulls.

But they're still SKULLS, people.  Skulls come from dead people, and cutesy skulls come from dead CHILDREN.  Now I can understand if this was a culture enchanted by the gruesome and macabre, but this is China.  I just don't get it.

On a personal note, I think it's cool, actually.  I've got a hoodie with four separate skull designs, and my wife and I have matching skull T-shirts (now I know I've hated on this subject on other people's blogs but when skulls are involved, it's cool, so zip it).  I've always wanted to get a skull tattoo but that would go counter to the "nice guy with tattoos" image I try to maintain.  But a skull is just a skull, just a part of human anatomy. The fact is, death is not cool or fashionable, but it's a reality of life and shouldn't be ignored or feared.  The West is fascinated too much by it, and China is too petrified by it; the balance, like all things, is in the middle.

The last straw came yesterday when my wife and I were visiting a historic temple with one of my wife's friends.  She's a very typical Chinese girl who works in a local hospital, so I was a bit surprised when my wife told me that she has a tattoo.  I said, "Oh, really?" and my wife's friend said that she wanted to get it removed because Chinese men don't like girls with tattoos.  My wife lifted up her friend's shirt so I could see her lower back.  I was expecting a small rose or poorly-done angel, and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw a scowling skull glaring at me with flames the entire width of her back.  It was the last thing I expected to see on a girl like this, but it just reiterates the paradox I've been talking about.

Of course, I told my wife's friend that all guys like girls with tattoos, no matter what they say ;-P.
Last post I talked about various Chinese perceptions regarding tattoos, and one of the most irritating stereotypes is that the girl with a tattoo must be a bad girl.  Well Danwei.org has a story about a tattooed Chinese beauty queen who quit her competition to protest people's narrowmindedness.  She had advanced quite far in the competition but her sizeable shoulder tattoo had been covered up.  When her arm was bared and the tattoo revealed, people began questioning her appropriateness as a contestant.  She angrily responded, "Lots of top Canadian models have tattoos. So if a foreigner has a tattoo, it's art, but if a Chinese person has a tattoo, they're a bad person? I can't accept that idea."  Amen, sister.

We've always been taught to never judge a book by its cover.  But in fact its often very easy to judge a book by its cover in China.  There is little subtlety in Chinese culture, especially when it comes to people.  In China, one usually looks the part they are playing.  If you look like a bad boy, you are a bad boy.  If you look like a shy, conservative girl, that's most likely what you are.  Of course there are always people who break the mold, but more often than not, people's outward appearance is indicative of their job, their personality, and their behavior.

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 tattoo on the upper arm or shoulder- he's trying to look like a player.  His tattoo says "I'm not a thug, but I'm hardcore enough to dip my foot in the bad boy pool, and I know that girls like bad boys."  His tattoo will usually be very generic flash, such as a dragon, wolf, or tribal, and he will often wear sleeveless shirts and aviator glasses.
-a small tattoo on the hand- he's probably involved in fashion somehow, such as a photographer or hairstylist.  He will usually have Japanese anime-inspired hair and fashion sense, and will only be seen in the company of other such divas.
-a faded, unintelligible hand-poked tattoo- it means he and his buddies were feeling rebellious in high school and decided to give the world the finger and express their teenage angst.  Guaranteed he regrets it now.
Now for the ladies.  If a Chinese girl has:

-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.
-a small tattoo on her hand- she's involved in the fashion or beauty industry, such as hairstyling, mani/pedi, or modeling.
-lower back, aka. "tramp stamp"- she's a modern, open-minded girl who isn't bound by traditional feminine restraints, and since she's modern and open-minded, so is her fashion sense, which means she isn't afraid to show a lot of skin. 
-arm sleeves, backpiece, or other heavy tattooing- her boyfriend is a tattoo artist.
Most Chinese people would never consider getting a tattoo, because of the pain, the expense, the social perceptions, and the belief that one's body is a gift from one's parents, and shouldn't be altered or abused.  If a Chinese person chooses to get a tattoo, it's usually to express that they are open-minded and progressive.  This is a big committment, especially for girls, because China traditionally prefers chaste, conservative sunshine girls (though dreams and reality are rarely aligned) and a tattoo makes a girl edgy and independent, changing a girl into a grrrl, and that doesn't fly with most parents.  For a boy, he will unequivocally be perceived as a bad boy or playboy if he chooses to go under the needle, but China is more accepting of bad boys than bad girls.  There is hope though...my wife didn't have any tattoos before we met, and now she has two. Just yesterday, my school's foreign teacher liason, a single woman in her twenties, asked me about a good place to get a tattoo.  She was inspired by my ring tattoo and also wants to get a tattoo on her finger.  She's not super traditional but she's definitely not a bad girl.  The tide is turning one convert at a time....

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!