Tattooing can be a hobby, or a full-time job. The ink can last forever, so it is not easy to sit for a tattoo.
It’s odd, then, that the prevailing stereotype surrounding heavily inked tattoo artists in China is of their supposed flakiness. Tattoos are still a stigmatized art form, even though they have become more popular among young Chinese. On television, performers’ tattoos are regularly scrubbed; tattoo artists, especially women, are stereotyped as poorly educated, financially struggling misfits.
But is this true? I was able to conduct fieldwork in several tattoo studios in Shenzhen’s southern megacity last summer. August, a Shenzhen resident and a University of the Arts London grad, owns the August Tattoo Studios. (I have used pseudonyms for all of my research participants to protect their identities.
Jeff is the only exception, but all of August’s artists are young women. Contrary to common stereotypes about tattoo artists being poor migrant girls living in poverty, or rebellious urban young women looking to challenge traditional feminine norms, they are not poorly educated. Many young women I met had clearly articulated and strong reasons to get into the industry. Most importantly, they all had a financial safety network.
It can be difficult to make a living tattooing, especially for a woman. It is costly to learn how to tattoo. A lengthy apprenticeship is required to get a foothold within the industry. Unlike apprentices in hair salons, who can earn money washing clients’ hair or cleaning the shop, tattoo apprentices have no income and are expected to shoulder a hefty tuition fee and equipment expenses.
For a two-to three-month apprenticeship, the average tuition fee in Shenzhen ranges between 10,000 and 20,000 Yuan ($1,500 to $3,000. It does not cover expenses like daily food and accommodation. The cost of training can reach up to 50,000 Yuan, which is much more than for other trades.
The reward for this process is a spot in the gig economy. There are nine artists at the August Tattoo Studio, only two of whom are full-time. The others make ends meet with part-time or full-time jobs elsewhere, treating tattooing as a side gig. For example, KK is a full-time accountant who works part-time as a tattoo artist. Another August artist, Poppy, took up tattooing as a hobby when she was a university senior, paying for her training with financial support from her family.
“The average tuition fee in Shenzhen is between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan for a two- to three-month apprenticeship.”
– Yang Chengyang, writer
The studio’s commission system and the lack of labor contracts or insurance make earning a living difficult. Studios take anywhere from 30% of an artist’s income to as much as 70% for clients introduced by the studio. They don’t offer insurance or any other benefits.
Female tattoo artists are often subject to social pressures, in addition to financial pressure. Although Poppy’s father supported her financially through her apprenticeship, he made his disapproval of her hobby clear. He gave her an ultimatum. Either find a better job, or study abroad. She chose to do the latter. “I know I can never make a living doing tattoos in China,” she said. “But maybe in Canada I will work as a tattoo artist to make money.”
August, the studio’s owner, entered the industry half a year after graduating from university. Her family strongly opposed her new profession at the time. Their opposition to her career has diminished significantly since she was married and had children. Her willingness to take on the role of mother and wife apparently made her “improper” job more acceptable.
There is Zero. Although she was an outlier at August, her boyfriend provided financial support so she could pay for the apprenticeship. Although she doesn’t pay rent for their shared apartment, her tattoo income is not sufficient to cover her expenses.
Although tattoo artists are seen as extremely individualistic and motivated to pursue their own self-expression, it can be difficult to escape the realities of capitalist society. Many female tattoo artists don’t consider themselves to be misfits. Their primary job is to sell and package a trendy countercultural image and identity. Viewed through the framework of what British sociologist Mike Featherstone referred to as the “aestheticization of everyday life,” they’re closer to yoga instructors than anti-society “rebels.”
Nearly all of the tattoo artists I interviewed have a strong safety network. While some are from well-off families, others have tattooing interests that they can share with their friends or make arrangements. Although it may not be the best career choice for them, there are many factors that can help make it work.
This article was contributed by Li Xueshi, a sociologe at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Shenzhen.
Editors: Cai Yiwen and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header photo: A tattoo artist is at work in Nanchang Jiangxi Province, 2015. VCG)