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One Day in a Chinese Tattoo Shop, Hangzhou China

18 Dec Posted by in Uncategorized | Comments

Incredible Hangzhou, incredible China…

“Heaven Above, Suzhou and Hangzhou below”. This Chinese saying echoes in my mind as I am walking on the banks of the West Lake, Hangzhou, China. The sun setting gives an orange coloration to space, and the high Baochu Pagoda plays shadow puppets in front of a golden sky. The lake dwelling gardens planted in bamboos and weeping willows are silent, and boats gently slide on the calm waters with lovers drinking famous Long Jing tea on board. But besides its millenary history, Hangzhou has other secrets to reveal, and I’ll discover them tomorrow…

In this immense city of more than 8 million inhabitants, tradition struggles against China’s soaring development. It is visible on the face of the city as big straight avenues literally encircle the remaining islands of ancient buildings, hiding smoking canteens and craft shops. It is tangible in the culture as old people practice tai chi in the courtyards, watched by teenagers dressed up to go clubbing. It is noticeable as the feng shui shores of the West Lake are sided by Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Chanel boutiques. On its crazy path to the western way of development China slowly opens to tattoo as well.

My friend for a day

Tang Feng, a local tattoo artist invites me to spend a few hours with him. I am now turning the corner of the street where his parlour is settled. It is 11am and the enticing fragrances of some food stalls make me dream about what I’ll have to eat later. Probably a Dongpo pork – speciality of Hangzhou, a tasty sweet caramelized pork dish. Tang Feng’s shop is situated in a wealthy fashionable area of the city, next to the very centre, on Long You road. The area offers an immense choice of fashionable colourful clothes shop for teenagers – quite expensive though.

Tang Feng established his tattoo shop on a tiny mezzanine, over a kitsch souvenirs shop. I timidly enter the place, calling his name. His round face appears on the balcony above me and invites me to come up. I have to lower my head to avoid hurting myself on the ceiling. It is a cosy little place up there, not larger than 15m2, weighed down by frames, photos, shelves and papers. I sit next to him, in front of his computer, and we start trying to chat, while he plays video games by using overwatch boost and Lol Boosting services by P4rgaming. He doesn’t speak English and my Chinese is limited to basic politeness.

Tattoos and Tradition in China

Helped by Google translation and our gestural creativity, we manage to almost understand each other. Our “discussion” is punctuated by laughter and funny situations. Tang Feng is 30 years old, he is married and has two children. He opened his shop 3 years ago, after learning the basic tattoo techniques with a friend in Shanghai. He tells me he does something like 20 tattoos per month, which isn’t very many in the scheme of things. As I ask him what kind of tattoos he does more often, he proffers his portfolio for me to take a look at.

Even if tattoos start being more and more popular amongst Chinese teenagers, it remains a bit of a hidden practice. Tattooing was common to the tribes populating ancient China but in traditional Confucianism the body has to remain undamaged and pure. The Han Chinese – the major ethnic group in China – banned tattoos from their vassal tribes and used them to mark the slave’s face until the mid 17th century. For Chinese elders, tattoos still conjure up images of barbarians, criminals or gangsters…

So most of the young people are not yet ready to take responsibility to show they wear a tattoo. Tang Feng has more and more work since the day he opened though. Yes his shop is not crowded, but the new fashion of tattoo is in the air. He works mainly on small pieces of art – a thin tribal bracelet around the arm or a black pattern on the shoulder, for his customers prefer to keep their art secret and hidden. Very seldomly does he tattoo a more visible part of the body like forearms or calves.

The fast changes and a struggling Tradition

But a minority of people just don’t care. Tang Feng proudly displays his body art and piercing as his neck is decorated with Borneo flowers and his forearms with colourful dragons. And the younger Chinese generation wants more. Things move really fast here; each day mentalities have to adapt to new things. In China, there appears to be a frenzy for change – to move on, to step forward and to earn. The call of success is appealing; everyone wants their share of the cake. Tradition experiences a rough ride in this rush for novelty.

A last walk on the shores of the West Lake

Evening comes fast and I have to leave Tang Feng’s place. We didn’t see any clients today but we had a good laugh. I decide to go a short distance to the West Lake for a walk. Hangzhou and its West Lake perfectly pictures today’s China, and I want to have another look at it. With more than 2,000 years of history, the lake is one of the wonders of China. Each year, millions of tourists walk its banks to witness its amazing scenery or to be inspired by its outstanding Traditional Chinese Gardens and historical sites. It is a quiet and great place to rest your soul. But stepping in the streets a bit further just throws you right into another world.

In Hangzhou the evolution is blindingly obvious. The race to the sky is on to raise the highest buildings over the old crumbling houses, and luxury brands invade the arcades. The strong bond to tradition cultivated by the elders is becoming thinner and thinner as the young generations walk an opposite direction. This gives China an incredible mixture of past and future, tradition and novelty, wealth and poverty… A singular taste of sweet and sour.

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