Tattoos in some Asian cultures have long-been associatedwith criminal activity, giving them a bad reputation.Between China’s triads, Japan’s Yakuza and the Russianmafia, body art has been associated with less savoury characters in Asian cultures.
But, that is changing.
Vice News’ i-Dreported recently about how tattoo culture,which is still frowned upon by older generations in HongKong, is being embraced in the city by younger peoplewho are influenced by pop culture rather than criminals.
In that piece, young Hong Kong model and tattoo artistClara Jade explained how people in the city aresometimes reluctant to sit by her on transit or talk loudly totheir children about not ending up covered in ink like herand she insinuates that when her mother found out abouther first tattoo, she beat Jade with wire coat hangers untilshe couldn’t sit.
And while society is slowly coming around, the model said,there is still a long way to go, especially for womenbecause skin ink is still seen as much more taboo for themthan their male counterparts. Her tattoos have gotten herdropped from modeling gigs and she says in the highfashion industry, they are still problematic.
Jade noted that tattoos may be verboten in Asian culturesbecause it is not desirable to stand out and anyone whotries to stand out by tattooing their skin is not appreciated.
As tattoos in Hong Kong move away from their associationwith the criminal underworld and more toward general popculture, there are still hurdles to them being fully accepted.Tattoo artist Lily Cash said the Hong Kong governmentdoesn’t see tattoos as culture, which is why they are notregulated there yet and bartender Hueson Chu said eventhough he’s an animal lover, he would not get a tiger or adragon because they feature prominently in tattoos wornby Triad members.
However, it’s a different kind of tattoo that is popping upamong youth in China that is drawing the ire of the rulingcommunist party. Asnews.com.aureports, there is acurrent trend among Chinese youth to get eithertemporary or permanent tattoos of British children’scartoon character Peppa Pig, often depicted as a gangsteror a pirate.
It is thought the prevalence of the porcine children’scharacter is a way for young Chinese people to voice theirdispleasure with the ruling authorities in that country.According to a Global Times article, Peppa Pig has beenadopted by China’s Shehuiren, or gang, subculture andnow features prominently in tattoos of people who belongto gangs in the country.
In Korea, it is much of thesame story, as young peopleare slowly changing the perception of tattoos as justsomething criminals had. More and more young Koreanpeople are opting to get tattoos — munshin in Korean — asfashion statements and expressions of individualism. AsKorea continues to develop economically, the society ischanging towards more expressions of individualism and ahigher interest in appearance.
A lot of the increase in popularity of tattoos for youth inAsia is the increased exposure to western culture. Tattooshave been much more accepted in the west for a longerperiod of time and Asia is being increasingly inundatedwith pop culture from the United States and, to a lesserextent, Europe. Pop culture icons within Asian countriesare now sporting more tattoos, which is also influencingyoung people. In Korea, for example, members of K-popbands often have skin art, which their fans are eager toemulate. In India, too, foreign and national celebrities havebeen driving the demand for tattoosamong both young
and oldin that country.
Asian Expat Youth & Tattoos
Getting tattooed with something of cultural importancefrom their ancestral homeland is a major contributor toyoung people of Asian descent in the United States gettinginked. Researcher Jaclyn Sakura Knitter studied AsianAmerican youth and their tattoos for the SmithsonianInstitute and found that they were just as eager as anyother young ethnic group to get a tattoo.
Pew Research found in 2010 that one in four Millennialshad at least one tattoo and that ranged across all ethnicbackgrounds. In her own research, Sakura Knitter foundthat young people of East Asian heritage would often optfor what she calls “heritage tattoos,” meaning tattoos thatrepresented something from their Asian heritage, whetherit be a design or a symbol from their ancestral homelandor even a word in their ancestral language. Choosingthese so-called heritage tattoos made their decision to geta tattoo more palatable for their families.
Some common motivators she found for young East AsianAmericans included wanting to connect with a heritagethat was lost because of a generational gap, having apersonal interest in tattoos and being influenced by theirpeers of both Asian and non-Asian descent.
She also found that Asian American youth tended to besatisfied with their tattoos and had no regrets about gettingthem. In fact, their tattoos were a source of empowermentand confidence for them.
While Sakura Knitter reported that some of these youngpeople’s families were reluctant to accept a tattoo at first,the heritage aspect of the tattoos made it easier for theirfamilies to accept them and support the young person’sdecision to get one. The tattoos were generally wellreceived by strangers and would often sparkconversations about the meaning behind them.
She also found that young East Asian Americans tend toconsider their professional prospects when deciding onwhere to get a tattoo on their body, which caused many ofthem to get their tattoos in spots that can be easilyconcealed.
The researcher posits that tattoos will continue to gainacceptance among future generations of Asian Americans,spurred on by a general interest in tattoos, a desire to fitinto their new homeland and the growing acceptancewithin Asia itself for the art form.
As younger people across Asia continue to find ways toexpress their individualism and tattoos in general continueto become more mainstream, there is bound to be moreinking of young Asian skin to draw tattoos out from theirseedy criminal past and have them recognized for the artform they are.