BEIJING — While getting a tattoo in Mandarin characters may be all the rage among some Westerners, particularly basketball stars, in the ink parlors in this part of the world some of the panache goes to those who get tattoos in English.
"It's better looking and simpler than Chinese," said Zhang Hui, as he pulled his shirt off to display his former girlfriend's name tattooed in Roman letters between his shoulder blades.
His new girlfriend slunk to the back of the room.
"The English looks better," agreed Rocky Feng, a 24-year-old teacher shopping for a tattoo in a backroom parlor in north Beijing.
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Tattoos have been around for nearly a millennium in China. Perhaps the most famous one graced the back of Yue Fei, a famous general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) whose back read: "Serve the country loyally." Legend has it that his mother ordered the tattoo as inspiration. Under recent decades of Communist Party rule, however tattoos have been largely taboo. Soldiers and police officers must be ink-free. Sports stars rarely have them. And employers discriminate against those with tattoos, thinking they signal a criminal bent.
Only in the past few years have scores of tattoo parlors opened in China's capital, often in back alleys and in private apartments. The industry is unregulated but flourishing, operating in a gray area that occupies a significant slice of Chinese life, neither legal nor illegal.
"I'm busy every day of the week from morning to night," said Liu Yubo, who operates the Wumo People tattoo parlor. "People have to make an appointment a month in advance."
At Liu's two-story office — waiting room downstairs and ink studio upstairs — patrons can flip through notebooks of designs from East and West.
"Young people like designs from Europe and America," Liu explained. "People over 30 prefer oriental images like dragons, tigers and legendary figures. It's also influenced by education. If you are better educated, you might get a Western design."
As in any culture, the foreign can seem exotic.
Zhang's cousin, who said her name was Ting Ting, showed off part of a vertical tattoo that dropped down her back — in Greek.
"I think it says, 'I'll love you forever,'" she said. "I didn't have any particular reason. I just liked the way the Greek letters looked."
Anyone who's read celebrity magazines in the West has seen how Mandarin characters and Chinese-themed tattoos have caught on. Pop stars such as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears have them, as does actress Angelina Jolie, who sports a dragon and tiger on her lower back.
Tattoos are common in the U.S. A Harris Poll last year found that one in seven Americans had them, most commonly among people between 25 and 39.
It's on U.S. basketball courts where Chinese language tattoos have the most dermal real estate. Scores of professional basketball players have inked up their arms with Chinese symbols and characters. The English-language China Daily said in an article late last month that as many as a third of NBA players have Mandarin or Chinese-themed tattoos.
One of the first players to sport Chinese characters, Marcus Camby, who plays for the Los Angeles Clippers, has "strive for the clan" tattooed on one arm, although the two characters often leave Chinese puzzling at the meaning.
Reversed or nonsensical characters are common among NBA players, drawing snickers from the tens of millions of Chinese fans who watch NBA games on television. Among those with odd tattoos is Shawn Marion, who plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Marion calls himself "The Matrix" and sought to put three Chinese characters on his right leg with the same meaning. But the Hanzi Smatter blog, which routinely finds that Westerners tattoo Chinese characters that have different meanings than the ones they intended, says the three characters mean "demon bird camphor," a rather senseless phrase.
China Daily noted that Chris Andersen of the Denver Nuggets, who lived in Beijing as an adolescent, also might've gotten a bum recommendation for his tattoo.
"He wanted the character for 'good' on one arm and 'bad' on the other — accurately summing up his character and performances," China Daily said. "Unfortunately, something got lost in translation as the character for bad also means 'nausea.'"
Even so, some Chinese still head to the tattoo parlor and ask for similar designs.
"Some clients come in and want the same tattoo as NBA stars, maybe like an arm ring," said a manager at the Golden Phoenix tattoo parlor, who gave his name only as Bian, his surname.
On the walls were photos of tattoos, some in English, like "PrayGod" and "Love & Honesty." One said "SaintSinner," with the "n" spelled backward, either with a stylistic purpose or by mistake.
"There are many people wanting 'Jesus' or 'church.' Christians like 'Jesus'," he said.
A large tattoo doesn't come cheaply, perhaps costing the equivalent of several hundred dollars, or perhaps half a month's salary in urban China. A majority of clients are white-collar rather than working-class, and get tattoos where they aren't easily visible. Bian said 60 percent of his clients are women.
At Mummy Tattoo, on the 15th floor of a high-rise in a tony section of Beijing, artist Zhou Xiaodong said he often tries to talk young people out of getting English tattoos.
"I persuade my clients to have something very suitable for them," Zhou said, and that means staying away from tattoos in languages one doesn't speak. "You cannot do it just because you are curious."
Feng, the 24-year-old teacher, said he'll face some backfire for getting large wings tattooed on his back — especially from his mother, with whom he shares an apartment.
"If people my mother's age see me with a tattoo, they'll think I'm a good-for-nothing. They've been influenced by those early 1990s Hong Kong mafia movies," Feng said.
Feng said he'd keep his shirt on around the house.
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