Mengmeng says that women, the majority of her clients, typically want English or French words tattooed on their shoulders, the back of their necks or ankles whereas men desire fish, dragons, and eagles on their arms and backs. Mengmeng mentions NY Ink once more, preferring US tattoos because of their abstract and colorful designs. She points out that tattoo technology in the States allows for better results because the needles don’t penetrate deep into the skin (ink absorbs better at the proper depth), adding that she orders her ink from the States and uses current technology.
Although tattooing and tattoos are not new in China, the younger generation’s burgeoning expression of individuality through ink is. So, it’s not surprising that the typical client age ranges from 20-30 years old, although Mengmeng once tattooed a mother who liked her son’s tattoo. She sees between 4-5 clients on a “busy day” and zero on a “slow day.” I ask Rita to relay to Mengmeng that I had read an article about nail salons and eyebrow studios offering tattoo services and to ask if she’s heard about this. “Yes, but they use different equipment,” says Mengmeng.
The Chinese government doesn’t regulate the tattoo industry, but it is forbidden for those under 18 to be tattooed without their parents’ permission. I ask about sanitary conditions. “I wear gloves,” Mengmeng says. Needles are one-time use, like Chinese chopsticks, and the back of her business card delineates aftercare instructions. She doesn’t mention an autoclave, and I decide not to ask for fear of embarrassing her further, like I did with regard to the tattoo removal machine. Mengmeng adds that she won’t tattoo intoxicated people.
When I ask about her most memorable tattooing experience, she laughs and recalls a man who fainted while she was tattooing him because he feared needles. As for payment, she says her rates are reasonable, and if clients don’t have the funds, they may leave their cell phones in her possession until they do. So far, every one of these clients have made good on their promise.
Ruff! Ruff! The Pekingese alerts us that a client has been snagged and in walks a young man. Rita, never having witnessed a tattooing session, perks up at the impending scene. Having been seated for the better part of the interview, I am snapping pictures after a quick “duì” [yes] from the client. My movements in the stifled heat cause a renewal of the river source between my shoulder blades.
The young man, already a veteran of tattoos, received his first at the age of 16 without his parents’ permission. However, he added, his parents eventually approved of the inky addition on their son. Since then, he has acquired more tattoos, and today he desires two on his lower right leg: peonies and 义. According to Rita, 义, Li in pinyin, means loyalty to friends. When I ask what had inspired him to get a tattoo when he was 16, he replies that tattoos interested him. I gather though from his insouciant attitude and the casual drags off his cigarette (yes, clients may smoke while getting a tattoo) that tattoos have a cool factor attached to them, along with a whiff of rebelliousness.
Mengmeng directs the client to sit in a chair as she crouches next to him and preps his leg by first spraying it with a cleanser and then shaving the area with a disposable razor. Using a reference found on the Internet, Mengmeng commences drawing the flowers with a pen directly onto the leg, glancing now and then to the reference. Her expert eye and skillful hand produce an astonishing facsimile of this possibly or not possibly copyright-free image. As someone who can’t draw her way out of a paper bag, I sit in awe. After the client approves of the pen drawing, the character Li apparently saved for later, Mengmeng pulls the doctor’s stool over to her and sits on it. With gloves and a tattoo machine outfitted with a new needle, she begins outlining. The client’s stoic face belies the occasional squint. My eyes follow the cigarette smoke waft above the workstation and across Mengmeng’s drawings. My ears tune into the tattoo machine’s zzzr, zzzr, zzzr.
I’m suddenly taken back to the mid-90s, where I sat bare of tattoos in Tatus by Koré in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The owner, Koré, a 5’3” athletic woman with a spiritual aura, initiates me into the world she characterizes as “soul-surfacing skin designs.” An inverted leafy spiral inspired by a page border in a magazine, personalized through my artist friend and further through Koré, would soon surface on my upper left arm.
After spending my early and mid-twenties ranting petulantly about the world’s injustices while groping toward an identity, I felt an emerging confidence about myself as I entered my late 20s. I wanted to express this newfound confidence by getting a tattoo on my left arm to represent growth and change. The tattoo also represented strength in being left-handed in a right-handed world. Months before I had walked into Koré’s shop, I told my friends about my desire to have a tattoo. Most of them balked at the idea, citing limitations on my wardrobe choices (i.e. strapless dresses), a tattoo’s fate on old and saggy skin, regret and my role as a mother.
If anyone dared to trample on my reproductive rights, they would have gotten an angry diatribe complete with marches, chants, posters and all, but I caved under my friends’ influence. Only the depraved or the military tattooed themselves, so I couldn’t figure out where I fitted in, but I knew getting a tattoo felt right to me. However, not as an expression of anti-anything but pro-me, and the pro-me finally decided not to listen to my dissenters: my body, my choice.
Also, I chose to teach overseas when my last child went to college. I had always wanted to travel and work in other countries, to submerge myself in another culture and to find new ways of thinking and seeing the world. My friends questioned this decision too, but this time, I didn’t become defensive because I understood that their concerns were a reflection of their own doubts and fears, not mine. A tattoo of a colorful, mystic bird surrounded by stars on my back left shoulder symbolizes my first excursion overseas to Turkey and as mentioned before, the peony, to China. These tattoos not only represent physical journeys to these countries but also evolving notions about the people who live there and their cultures in addition to evolving notions about myself living and working overseas. My other tattoos encompass inward journeys, such as cherishing the rare but felt presence of my mother’s kindness and turning a physical and emotional scar into a beautiful image. My tattoos are acknowledgments of milestones in my life as I make my way through a perplexing, contradictory world.
Over 15 tattoos later and all by Koré, I sit in Gold Wire Tattoo witnessing the surfacing of this young client’s design that reflects a larger cultural shift happening in China where the young yearn to access the greater world despite a government unwilling to yield fully to this yearning. Where the young feel the palpable rise in power of 1.3 billion Chinese and its country’s economic impact on the world’s economy. Where the young risk the evolution of self in a culture where the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Tangentially, this last thought connects me to this young man and to Mengmeng. Despite America’s fanatical individualism, tattooing and tattoos remain, to a certain extent, taboo. The cautionary slogan “If you want to remain employable, don’t get tattooed from the neck up” is reminiscent of the 60’s “Cut your hair and get a job,” which are cultural prescriptions intended to homogenize people — no nails sticking out.
However, a cultural shift is happening in the US, too, allowing for not merely tolerance, but acceptance of people who have tattoos. As noted by many tattoo artists, the soccer mom now has ink. This shift can probably be attributed to tattoo shows educating the public about the process of tattooing, who’s doing the tattooing and who’s getting them. In China, tattoo shows might also pop up on TV as those who have tattoos move into media. Mengmeng might be a featured artist on one such show and the likes of Kat Von D and Ami James might be studying her videos. As of now, Mengmeng has her shop, her clients and her friend behind the bamboo blind. And the little Pekinese. The young man lights another cigarette and squints his eyes as he takes a slow drag. Mengmeng’s hair acts as a curtain around her work, a wizard who will soon present magic to dazzle the audience. Unfortunately, I cannot stay to see this magic trick. I nudge Rita, still enrapt, and indicate that it’s time to go. I depart regretfully, issuing many heavily accented xie xies (thank you) mingled with Rita’s native Chinese. Mengmeng thanks us, too, nodding her head, tattoo machine lifted mid-air.
As Rita and I exit Gold Wire Tattoo and merge anonymously into the pedestrian traffic and evening humidity, Rita talks excitedly about the shop. I’m feeling wistful, though, for I’ll be leaving Dalian soon now that the school year is over. I look down at my wrist that has the peony flower tattoo — a tattoo now infused with my experiences in China. What better way to punctuate the end of my stay than to visit a tattoo shop witnessing, to recall Koré’s description of tattoos, soul-surfacing skin designs? I look back at Rita, happy that she’s happy, happy that my experiences here with other people bind me to them in a way like a tattoo binds a milestone to its bearer.
Jill Boyles’ work has appeared in Toasted Cheese, The Ilanot Review, and Calliope Magazine, among other publications. She holds an MFA and was the recipient of a Minnesota State Arts Board grant and a finalist for the Jerome Grant. She’s currently working on a novel.