Foreign Disciples Flock to Shanghai Tattoo Master
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2017-04-17 14:33:45

SHANGHAI — Daniel Whitford is deep in concentration as he hunches over a sheet of silicone practice skin at Zhen Cang Tattoo. Sporting a black baseball cap, the American apprentice holds his focus as he inks a tattoo he designed himself. Each precise stroke is followed by the dab of a cloth. His teacher and the parlor’s owner, Shao Gang — or Just Shao — nods his approval, giving infrequent guidance in simple English.

“Just Shao is a tattoo monk,” Whitford tells Sixth Tone with a smile. Shao’s shaved head, round face, and calm, serious demeanor could well see him mistaken for a monk if he were to don flowing robes. Instead, his waistcoat and hand-carved pipe betray a life devoted to the aesthetic, not the ascetic — though he approaches his work as a spiritual calling.

Shao is well-regarded both in China and abroad for his distinctive 3-D effect biomechanical style of tattooing. To Whitford, Shao is one of the most successful living artists, enjoying a level of recognition that few artists in any medium achieve during their lifetimes.

Tattoo artist Shao Gang shares his experience training overseas apprentices. By Tang Xiaolan and Hai Yang/Sixth Tone

Whitford is the latest foreign tudi, or “disciple,” to make the pilgrimage to Shao’s unassuming tattoo shop on Shanghai’s Xiangyang Road to learn from the master artist. Whitford remembers when he first met Shao in the U.S. in 2015. “I was attracted by the photo-realism and the high level of execution. There’s no sloppy line work,” the American enthuses. “If he makes a koi tattoo, you see it and want to throw bread crumbs at the fish.”

However, it has been a long journey to success for the 39-year-old native of Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province.

Shao started his career as a punk and jazz musician. At the time, tattoos were uncommon in China, but they were more popular in the open-minded band scene. With his lifelong love of drawing, Shao was quickly attracted to the art form. 

If [Shao Gang] makes a koi tattoo, you see it and want to throw bread crumbs at the fish.

His first taste of the craft came 17 years ago, when he learned tattooing for a week from an American in Hong Kong. Afterward, he taught himself through watching other tattooists, attending tattoo conventions, and asking friends to bring back information and equipment from overseas. Step by step, Shao progressed from tattooing whatever a client requested to customizing part of the design, and eventually drawing from scratch. At first he would develop the design in consultation with the client, but increasingly, clients were happy to just give him a guiding theme.

To Shao, one has completely mastered the art form when the client merely provides the canvas, and the tattooist does as he sees fit. Shao is now on the brink of reaching that final step. “It’s the most difficult part, as you need to get the customer’s total trust,” he explains. “It’s also only possible when you have sufficient knowledge of art.”

In both China and the U.S., most tattoo shops rely on books of “flash” — generic designs that customers pick off the shelf — with partial customization at most. “There are not a lot of artists or teachers in the U.S. who can take a concept or create their own concept and then execute it onto a tattoo, especially at the level Just does,” says Whitford, explaining why he came all the way to Shanghai to study tattooing. 

Tattoo artist Shao Gang in his primary studio, Zhen Cang Tattoo, in Shanghai, March 25, 2017. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Tattoo artist Shao Gang in his primary studio, Zhen Cang Tattoo, in Shanghai, March 25, 2017. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Shao believes there is little difference between teaching Chinese and foreign students. But at 36 years old, Whitford is finding it more difficult than he expected. “It’s like trying to make a painting with a knife and not cutting the canvas,” he says. “It’s something that’s going to be on a person permanently, so if you mess it up, what does that say about you?” 

Whitford, originally from Oakland, California, is the fifth foreigner to be taught by Shao, but unlike the others, Whitford speaks very little Chinese. The stream of pilgrims began with Whitford’s friend, San Francisco native Oliver Wong. Wong attributes his encounter with Shao to fate — or more precisely, the Chinese concept of yuan fen, which describes a sense of predestined affinity.

I had developed a distaste for a future as another cog in the multinational corporate machine.

At the time, Wong was stuck at a crossroads. He had worked as a financial advisor in the U.S. and then completed an MBA at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, but the 2008 global financial crisis and the pollution he saw in China left him disillusioned with this path. 

“I had developed a distaste for a future as another cog in the multinational corporate machine,” Wong tells Sixth Tone from San Francisco.

Wong met Shao through a friend after mentioning his interest in tattooing. But Shao was far from enthusiastic. “I don’t take students, and I don’t have time,” Shao responded. Wong seemed stern and difficult to talk to, he recalls. The American felt the same about Shao.

But after half a month, the barrier broke. The pair relaxed around each other and realized that their first impressions were mistaken. Shao finally relented in large part because of Wong’s drawings, which showed his enthusiasm and his willingness to give up his career for tattooing. 

The encounter was life-changing for Wong — who now works as a tattooist in San Francisco — as well as for Shao. Shao’s main studio, Zhen Cang, now offers 30-day classes to students wanting to learn the craft.

Tattoo artist Shao Gang demonstrates the process of tattooing a pattern to apprentice Daniel Whitford in Shanghai, March 25, 2017. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Tattoo artist Shao Gang demonstrates the process of tattooing a pattern to apprentice Daniel Whitford in Shanghai, March 25, 2017. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone

Another of his international students, Zhen Liheng — or Leo Zhen — had migrated to Canada from Kaiping in southern China’s Guangdong province in 2010. Zhen returned to China to study under Shao when he decided he wanted to change careers from sushi chef to tattoo artist. The move was not totally out of the blue: Zhen had studied graphic design and had himself designed three of the tattoos gracing his own skin. It was Zhen’s own tattooist who introduced him to Shao. 

Zhen couldn’t find a teacher as organized or versatile as Shao in Canada. “Many artists only focus on one style they like, but Just Shao is not the same,” Zhen says. “He does all the styles, all the kinds of tattoos, and he is trying to discover a new style himself.” Zhen had intended to return to Calgary to continue tattooing, but near the end of his studies, Shao offered him an apprenticeship — the first he had given anyone.

Meanwhile, Whitford’s career had never been related to his creative pursuits. But a previous job in the California prison system piqued his interest in the art of inking skin when he saw prisoners tattooing themselves with improvised tools. “I found the concept of tattooing intriguing because you could take their clothes and possessions away, but you couldn’t do anything about the tattoos,” he says.

It’s like trying to make a painting with a knife and not cutting the canvas.

Few tattoo shops in the U.S. offer apprenticeships, and those that do often have apprentices spend most of their time cleaning and ordering food. Whitford appreciates what Shao offers in the way of structure. For 12 hours a day, he attends Shao’s lessons and practices different techniques while taking in feedback. Whitford has no distractions, no expectations, and no sense of entitlement. 

“I’m a child here, and that’s a good place to learn,” Whitford says. Despite Shao’s limited English, there have been few problems, and Zhen has been able to interpret when necessary.

Shao himself never had the luxury of studying under a skilled master. With little information on tattooing available in China when he began learning, he looked overseas for inspiration from the internet and magazines. Shao hopes to teach his students the skills to perfect their technique, but leaves it up to each of them to develop their individual styles.

Despite his reputation as a mentor, Shao is still focused on evolving his own artistry. “When you express human nature through art, you can commune with people easily, but I’m not trying to touch people all the time,” he says. Intimate and indelible, tattoos add a layer of spiritual potency to anything they express, and Shao is clear about his personal mission. “Foremost, I need to bring meaning for myself,” he says.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Tattoo artist Shao Gang inks a tattoo on a client’s skin in Shanghai, March 25, 2017. Tang Xiaolan/Sixth Tone)