One in a Billion: Skin Deep
   2013-09-17 09:50:40      Web Editor: Yangyang

Zhou Xiaodong looks over the instruments he is preparing to use to apply shading to the arm of his customer who has just arrived. [ Jin]

By Stuart Wiggin

Contributors: Karen Jin and Liu Yuanhui

At 11 am in an apartment-like studio situated in the trendy Gongti area of Beijing, Zhou Xiaodong starts preparing for the arrival of his first and only customer of the day. Xiaodong, the owner of Mummy Tattoo, is one of Beijing's premiere tattoo artists. Today he has an appointment for a four hour sitting during which he will add shading to a full length sleeve tattoo of Guanyin, a well-known figure within Buddhist culture. Covered in tattoos himself, Xiaodong is softly spoken and extremely welcoming.

His studio is a hotchpotch of various items, with art on the ceiling, intricately woven carpets on the floor and other weird and wonderful collectibles dotted around the shelves. A fish tank to one side of the room greets customers as they enter Xiaodong's place of work. The eclectic nature of the items on show speaks volumes about Zhou Xiaodong himself, who at times sounds almost like a philosopher when comparing the difference between the artwork he creates and the artwork which adorns his walls.

"My understanding of painting [as an art form] is an expression of feelings and emotions. You express your thoughts to an audience," Xiaodong explains, "Tattoo is similar in that way but at the same time I think it's more than that. It's alive, it's got blood, it's got pain and it will always stay with you. It is a very unique and rare art form. There's also an element of trust; it feels great when the customer trusts you." Xiaodong added that his customers come to trust him to such an extent that many often share intimate stories with him regarding the inspiration behind their idea for a specific tattoo design. But the process of creating beautiful designs is not a simple one, and Xiaodong believes that in order to create a truly amazing design, he must first get to know his customers.

"It all comes down to communication," Xiaodong says as he fiddles with his tattoo gun. "You have to understand what [the customer] is thinking deep down; what he is imagining in his head. He might not be able to express what he wants. But you have to understand what he really wants in order to design something he really likes. Some tattooists get impatient and it affects the customer as well, which ends up in a failed collaboration."

Zhou Xiaodong has been a tattoo artist for the past 19 years and his business is extremely successful. At first he admits that he copied the style of other tattoo artists but gradually went on to develop his own style over the years, drawing heavily upon Buddhist art and the imagery from traditional Chinese paintings. Thanks to word of mouth alone, Zhou is often fully booked and customers have to make reservations weeks or even months in advance. However, the time that customers have to wait in order to go through with the tattooing process isn't only the result of a full schedule for Zhou. The period of time between making the reservation and finally getting the tattoo allows both parties to think over the design as Zhou himself explains, "I want the customer to take time to think about whether they really want a tattoo on their body. On the other hand, the tattooist needs to take time and design the pattern. That way, nothing is rushed because when something is rushed, it ends up looking rough."

Xiaodong's customer arrives around one in the afternoon; the outline of his tattoo is already complete, so Xiaodong's job for the next four hours is to apply shading to various areas of the Guanyin figure. The customer grimaces as the needle begins to inject the ink into his skin. Xiaodong speaks over the buzz of the tattoo gun, stating that he prefers it if his customers know something about the art of tattoo prior to getting one. Knowledge on the customer's part allows for a bond to be struck between the tattoo artist and the customer, enabling Xiaodong to create the perfect design. At the very least, Xiaodong says his customers must be aware that getting a tattoo involves pain.

As he continues to concentrate on applying shading to his customer, Xiaodong recalls how a business trip to Japan some years ago left him enamored with tattoo culture. But the unassuming looking tattooist firmly believes that his parents also played a massive role in his career thanks to their parenting approach. "I was born in a rural area of China. My parents didn't have much education but they understood one thing; not to interfere with a child's educational development and hobbies," says Xiaodong while taking a break from applying the dark blue ink to the crown of Guanyin's head.

"So it was a natural development for me," he added, "Sometimes people who have less education seem to be more open about the topic of education. When you are educated and know about a lot of things, you tend to worry too much as well and inevitably you might interfere with your child's development. When I was growing up, I had no plans. My parents had no expectations for me, like becoming an artist, a pilot or a lawyer; nothing like that. All they wanted was for me to be healthy and happy, and not to interfere with their work."

Zhou Xiaodong admits that he doesn't see his job as work per se; it's just something that he enjoys. However, this joyful activity enables Zhou to lead a very comfortable life, traveling to three or four countries every year and deciding his own pace of work. There is pressure in the job though, and that pressure is related to the expectations of his customers. And despite the fact that Zhou is comfortable from a financial perspective, he stresses that money has never been a driving factor for him; it's always been about the pursuit of the art form itself.

"From the very beginning to now, I've always put money second or third. Whether the pattern is something someone wants is the one reason that kept me going and the one reason why I love this industry so much," Zhou says, wiping the blood away from the arm of his tired looking customer. "If all I wanted was to make money or become some incredible tattooist, maybe I could have achieved the same as now, but the feeling would have been different. Therefore, perhaps I wouldn't have created these art works, or in other words, art works that make me feel happy and relaxed. If you think too much about money, the customer's idea might overrule your own because you end up being a servant."

It is for this reason that Xiaodong doesn't do many celebrity tattoos at present, stating that the minds of celebrities are too unpredictable and their thoughts often change within a short space of time; possibly implying that following trends in order to look fashionable is not really what the art of tattooing is all about. After four hours of continuous work, Zhou wipes away the sweat and blood from the arm of his customer, applies a specially imported lotion and covers the pattern in plastic cellophane so as to allow it to heal. His customer is clearly relieved that the process has come to an end.

As both he and his customer take a cigarette break in the stairwell, Zhou asserts that he wouldn't have been well-suited for any other kind of industry; being a tattoo artist allows him to have freedom, not only in terms of his personal life, but also in an artistic sense. He sees himself as being different from many other tattooists due to his sincere appreciation for the art form. "[The art of] tattoo is mysterious, deep and beyond our imagination," says Zhou in a particularly serious tone. "A good tattooist must have a thorough understand of history, culture and humanity. It's not just about picking up a machine and finishing a pattern." 

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