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Portraits of Young People in a Changing China

Xiao Wu, Tattoo Artist

New America Media, Personal voice/photo essay, Xiao Wu - as told to Rian Dundon Posted: Aug 27, 2008

Editor's note: As the glamour of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing fades, NAM takes a post-Olympic look at the country and the real lives of people there. Photographer Rian Dundon captured images and crafted intimate portraits of the lives of young Chinese men and women in a changing society. In the first in a series, Dundon profiles 24-year-old tattoo artist Xiao Wu.

From Changsha, the capital of south-central China's Hunan Province, Wu runs a small shop on a street famous for its stolen mobile phone peddlers. Well-known among the Chinese tattoo community, Xiao Wu's art and shop have been featured in tattoo magazines and his business earns about $1,450 a month. Last year, he won second place for his color work at an international tattoo convention in Beijing.


CHANGSA, China -- The origin of tattoo art in China dates to the Song Dynasty when criminal groups were tattooed to show their status. Like Japan, we have a long history of tattooing, but Japan does a better job of protecting its traditions. Right now, about 300,000 people make tattoos in China, but only about 10 percent of them are real artists. Most are inexperienced workers making cheap tattoos in very dirty conditions, because, although the industry is developing quickly, there are still no standard rules for tattooing in China.

xiao I was born in Xiangtan, Hunan Province, but my mother came from Xinjiang and my father from Beijing. They came to Hunan because, at that time, Chairman Mao had decided young people should learn to be peasants by working as farmers. Before the Cultural Revolution, my father had been a university student in Beijing and my mother was learning to speak both Russian and Japanese. In Hunan, they worked in the tea fields, met each other, and were married. Years later, my father went to Shandong for work and very seldom came back, so as a kid I didn't see him much -- maybe once or twice a year.

I became interested in art when I was 5 or 6 years old. My mother didn't want me going outside because she thought it was too dangerous, so I would stay home and draw. My mom was always supportive of me making art and would hire private art teachers for me. Maybe she thought if I could become good at one thing I would have more opportunities. Later in school, when I did poorly in other subjects and on my exams, I realized I should concentrate on making art.

I went to university in Wuhan, where I studied classical art from the 16th and 17th centuries. In class we would look at old paintings and copy them. We would make all these drawings and paintings and give them to the teachers and then never see them again. We never knew what the teacher did with our work. All we got in return was a little red certificate, a little prize that said 'good job.'

xiao It was during this time at university that I started doing tattoos, but it was always a secret I kept from my teachers and classmates. Even now, when I go back to Wuhan and see people from school, I wear long sleeves and cover up my ink. People still cannot accept tattoos. Some people think maybe I'm a bad guy or a gangster but for me tattoos were one way of gaining more independence. Tattoo culture is so different from university life.

After two years at school I lost interest in classical art. At that time my parents were divorcing and the stress affected my mood. I was anxious, and the style of education at university was too strict for me, too conservative. One day I hit my teacher when he disrespected me and I was kicked out of school.

rionI know now that if I had continued in school my life would be very different. I look at my former classmates who all have jobs as teachers and think they know everything. They're arrogant. I don't know if I am more successful than they are, but I do know I have more freedom and happiness and that with success comes confidence.

Two years ago I came to Changsha and opened my own tattoo shop. My customers are from all walks of life. Students, businessmen, gangsters, government officials, and even foreigners come to my shop. Business is pretty good, but earning money is only one part of it for me. I also have the time and freedom to pursue my own artwork, my own ideas.

Today, Chinese tattoo artists are using a mixture of Western and traditional styles in their work, and in this way, we are trying to develop our own contemporary Chinese style. We still don't have democracy, and human rights are few, but artists are starting to become known.

Now, I'm almost 25 years old. After Spring Festival, I will move back to Wuhan to study French and then, after one year of study, I will move to Paris. Why France? For one thing, French people are respectful, whereas Americans can be very arrogant. In France, I can learn and understand more about art, and I can earn more money through my tattooing than I do in China. France is the center of culture in Europe and there I can find more people that think like me.

chinese To me, the most important thing in life is to experience and understand as much as possible about the world because the more you see the more you can do. I also think we can find ourselves by looking at and comparing the places and people we come across in life.

In a few years China will be the center of culture in Asia, and then I will return to my homeland. My hope is that everything in China can become better and that more people can realize their dreams.

Photo credits: Rian Dundon. His photos can be seen at www.dunnflicks.com.

Related Articles:

Beijing Olympics Promote Lost Arts in China

Activists Blast SF Museum's Exhibit of Tibetan Art

Olympics 2008 Unreal For Most of China

No Way Out: Lack of Education Traps Chinas Rural Youth

From Mao to Yao Ming

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