As a child in China, I was pretty much only exposed to tattoos through movies. More specifically, action movies about classic gangster-police rivalries. At the end of every one, there was almost certainly a righteous-looking, severely injured policeman (the protagonist) standing over a mob boss (the antagonist) dying of blood loss. Red liquid would gush from the side of his mouth onto his tattoo-covered neck, usually of a colorful dragon or feline, mouth open, sharp teeth showing. They’d have one last solemn dialogue on evil’s inability to defeat the righteous before the mob boss turned his head limply, and the policeman was picked up by the ambulance, which always arrived dramatically late. There he reunited, oxygen mask on, with his beautiful, sobbing bride. Only then did the credits roll, and as the lights turned on, the whole cinema filled with applause.
Here’s the catch, though, I was most definitely too young to be let into the theater for these R-rated movies. However, since Chinese cinemas weren’t as strict as the US about age regulations, these violent blockbusters made up the majority of movies I watched. By the time my mom promptly tucked me into bed at 9 p.m., my mind would be plagued by the bloody scenes I witnessed with her just hours ago. As she kissed my forehead and flipped the light switch, the shadowy figures of ruthless mobsters appeared in the window’s glow, the machetes in their hands clinking loudly against the wooden floor. The tigers and dragons detached from the mobsters’ bare, sweaty skin and flew across my bedroom as I struggled to breathe quietly under the blanket. In the apartment’s drowsy silence, even the faintest noise from the heating pipes sent my eyelids snapping open as if from the tension of elastic springs. Soon, I would find myself tiptoeing across the hallway, eventually landing on my mom’s queen-sized bed. Instead of interrogating me, she would instinctively pull on the blanket’s corner so I could slide under. And as soon as I reached this new fortress, I would drift soundly asleep, as if my 5’2 mother could effortlessly defend us against an army of tatted mobsters.
When I was in elementary school, my mom dated a guy who lived in our apartment building. He drove a Lexus convertible, and sometimes when my mom was too busy at work, he picked me up from school with its top off. Under the envious gaze of my classmates, he would swerve out of the school lane at outrageous speed (I later learned how much money he lost on speeding tickets each year, but that is irrelevant to this story). Even more heroically, he taught me how to “properly” punch someone if I was ever bullied at school. I was only forced to use this technique once in the fourth grade when a much bigger kid decided to kick me during an intense recess basketball game, and it got me sent to the principal’s office. Still, it felt pretty sweet being a rebellious child for once. Needless to say, this man got on my good side fairly easily, until I caught him shirtless in our living room one day, smoking a cigarette and drinking hot tea. Over his stomach was a gigantic tattoo of a tiger perching itself in the middle of a green mountain path. I was petrified. In a moment’s time, all the dots seemed to connect: the loud convertible, the fighting tutorial, and now the tattoo… Though my mom repeatedly denied the possibility of him being a gangster, I tried diligently to find evidence to prove otherwise during the remaining years of their relationship. After all, as suggested by seemingly credible sources, only bad people get tattoos.
This perception drastically changed after I began studying abroad in the US almost a decade ago. Here, tattoos seem to be far less exclusive. Uber drivers have them, Starbucks baristas have them, pediatricians have them, and even my teachers have them! I also learned, through their prevalence, that tattoos aren’t limited to the flagrant, colorful beasts I grew up fearing. It turns out, people get fine-line drawings of birds and branches, whole arm sleeves of One Piece characters and Pokémons, or tiny, illegible stick-n-pokes of hearts and fruits. Eventually, it only seemed natural for me to begin envisioning myself with tattoos. Every once in a while, a new idea that seemed unbelievably edgy to my teenage self would cross my mind, and I would rush to record it on my notes app before it slipped out of my head. I imagined my body as a gallery of memories and images, a mystery box filled with my most prized possessions. These thoughts made me reflect on what I wished to keep closest in this gigantic world, the times and people that were worth the commitment of temporary pain and eternal commemoration. Over time, I was able to curate a whole list of unthinkable things I could do to my skin, and the idea of being in control of “customizing myself” felt like a comfort in this tsunami of a world.
I got my first tattoos in China the summer before college, just a few months after my 18th birthday. Over the course of eight hours, the artist conjured a skeleton on each of my thighs, one of a person in a contemplative position, the other of a dog, which was in honor of my childhood pet, Ci Lang. On the train home, I rolled my shorts up a whole three times, hoping for everybody to witness the lifelong decision I had just semi-impulsively made at the wise age of 18. Despite the overwhelming exhilaration, though, I found my new acquisitions to be a simultaneous source of self-consciousness.
Every day since then, I increasingly find myself fearing others’ sharp gazes. My mom said my tattoos would give my grandparents a heart attack, so I put jeans and khakis on for every family function, even if it is August and 90 degrees out. On the subway, I pull my shorts lower when there are children sitting next to me, assuming my tattoos will affect them the same way the ones in action movies affected me. Whenever I meet with an authority figure like a friend’s parent or a professor, I watch where their eyes are going and whether their brows begin to furrow in disapproval. When posting updates on social media where I’m connected with people back home, I deliberately select images where none of my tattoos are showing. Though I have seemingly shed my prejudice against tattoos, I feel myself continuing to look through the perspective of those who think otherwise, repeatedly undermining the freedom I have tried to define for myself.
These days, it seems tattoos are only getting more stigmatized in China due to the government’s efforts. They are no longer allowed to be shown on television, forcing certain celebrities to incorporate long-sleeved turtlenecks or a thick layer of concealer into every outfit. Athletes are prohibited from getting new tattoos and are “strongly encouraged” to laser off the ones they already have. As a part of the entrance screening for civil servants, one of the most sought-after professions in China, tattoos are specifically checked for, and those who are found with them automatically fail. In the place I call home, tattoos are still something unspeakable, a taboo to be shunned and erased. These regulations communicate the narrative that for someone to be respected by their communities, they must forgo the free expression of their individuality to fit into the boundaries of law and order. Under these pressures, many have chosen to conform. Yet for me, this pill somehow seems far harder to swallow. I want to be valued and trusted by those around me, as a family member or a professional alike, just as I long to be accepted for simply expressing my internal currents to the world. So here I am, finding myself at odds between two perceptions: one of the constraints of my roots, the other of my desire to be free as an inked bird, so real it could fly right off the skin.