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Different strokes

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I don’t think I’m in love with tattoos enough to get one of my own anytime soon, but if I were, I would want to get one done by Joey Pang. Based in Hong Kong, Joey’s mastery of translating traditional Chinese brush painting and calligraphy styles into permanent body art has earned her international acclaim, as well as a waiting list that’s roughly two years long.

I’ve lived in the States my whole life, so I’ve seen more than my share of hackneyed “Asian-inspired” tattoos. They’re usually sported by unsuspecting white people who genuinely believe that the “Chinese symbol” on their bicep really means “loyalty”. And I get it — there’s a unique poetic appeal to Chinese characters that makes it oh-so-perfect for tattoos. If I were to get a tattoo, it would almost certainly incorporate a few Chinese characters. But as a Chinese person, the prevalence of ugly, inaccurate hanzi tattoos (and other Asian-inspired tattoos) on Westerners who know next to nothing about the Chinese language really bums me out.

It’s irritating to see white people butcher my language with their comically nonsensical Chinese tattoos. But it’s downright infuriating when a person with “fast stupid” tattooed on their back isn’t the subject of ridicule the same way that Chinese people are ridiculed for their “engrish,” but instead receives praise for their “cultural awareness.” Moreover, the fact that these ugly-ass Asian-inspired tattoos have become a trend almost exclusively amongst “culturally aware” white people only adds insult to injury.

If I, a Chinese person, were to get a tattoo of a Chinese character on myself, it wouldn’t be seen as an expression of my cultural heritage. It would be seen as nothing more than a fashion statement, an accessory that has been sported by thousands and thousands of white people who, for all intents and purposes, “came up with the idea first.”

So even though a tattoo by Joey Pang would probably require a couple thousand bucks, a flight to Hong Kong, and at least two years of patient waiting, I would never consider getting any kind of Chinese calligraphy or Chinese art-inspired tattoo by anyone other than her. When I look at her art, the word “authenticity” comes to mind — in the obvious sense, in that she was formally trained in Chinese brush painting and calligraphy, thus making her work on skin all the more true to form. But more importantly, she approaches each tattoo with a high degree of respect and reverence, both towards her client:

Artists can use any kind of medium to express themselves but tattoo artists express themselves together with the person who gets tattooed. So it is two people’s minds coming together… You actually get ‘under their skin’. It is an art and a design process together with psychology.

as well as the art itself:

Calligraphy, much like any art, is something you can never ‘master’. I’m still in training everyday and classes a few times a week. When designing a tattoo I typically write out each character around 100 times according the client’s requested calligraphy style and period of history (each character is written differently according the time in Chinese history) … One of the tattooing techniques I’ve worked hardest on is the recreation of brush lines and genuine calligraphy movement. It was something never done before. Each character needs to be tailored to the area it’s being placed on the body. Then if there are series of characters the whole chain has to be individually balanced and then the script again as a tattoo piece.

Chinese calligraphy — and even the writing of Chinese characters — demands that kind of respect. It wasn’t until very recently in China’s history that calculated efforts were made to promote literacy of Chinese characters amongst all Chinese people. The ability to read and write Chinese characters was a skill reserved for the scholarly elite, gained over years and years of dedicated training and education.

Granted, the philosophy behind literacy today is far less elitist than it was during China’s dynastic era. However, the fact remains that much of the beauty of hanzi is only revealed through a deep understanding of its historical richness and a full appreciation of its poetic worth. The same can be said of Chinese calligraphy and painting, both of which have been regarded throughout Chinese history as difficult, highly refined forms of art.

To many Westerners bearing Chinese character tattoos, hanzi are just symbols; a dragon is just a dragon; a cherry blossom is just a pink flower — free to be commodified, free to be casually tattooed on otherwise oblivious bodies. But they are much, much more than that, and as a tattoo artist and a student of Chinese art, Joey Pang understands this to its fullest degree.

(image via Flickr)

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