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    Sign of the Times: Why Young Chinese Are Removing Their Tattoos

    Chinese millennials are getting tattoos in record numbers. But when it’s time to get married or start a career, many are forced to rush back to the studio to get them erased.

    Yang Yanmiao winces as he watches the Picosecond laser burn into his forearm. He’s 40 minutes into his tattoo removal session, and the anesthetic is beginning to wear off. He frowns and takes a deep drag from his cigarette.

    “It really f****** hurts,” he says.

    The 29-year-old has come to Beijing’s Bobo Tattoo Studio to have a sleeve design covering his entire left lower arm erased. It will be a long, painful process requiring multiple sessions, but Yang has resolved to grin and bear it. It’s an essential step toward getting a good job, he says.

    “My wife gave me three tasks: find a job, quit smoking, and get my tattoos removed,” says Yang.

    Many Chinese millennials are doing the same thing. Tattoo removals are becoming a common choice for a generation that has rejected centuries-old prejudices against body art — only to realize the rest of the country doesn’t plan to follow their lead.

    Tattoo culture has exploded in popularity in China over the past decade, as young people have embraced the art form as a fashion statement and form of self-expression. Once extremely rare, tattoo studios are now a common sight in Chinese cities.

    But the stigma attached to tattoos in wider society has yet to disappear. Many employers continue to discriminate against job seekers with ink. The authorities, meanwhile, have labeled tattoos a “stain” that should be scrubbed from the media.

    Chinese regulators have ordered companies not to put tattooed celebrities on screen. The country’s top soccer league has banned “visible ink” during matches. TV shows have begun routinely blurring out people’s tattoos in post-production.

    The clampdown has convinced many millennials that attitudes toward tattoos aren’t going to soften any time soon. Wu Bo, the owner of Bobo Tattoo Studio, says there has been a marked rise in the number of clients coming for removals over the past couple of years.

    “People see the blurred-out squares on some people when they watch TV,” says Wu. “Although we can easily tell what’s underneath the squares, the squares themselves are a warning and a reminder.”

    Suspicion of tattoos has deep roots in Chinese culture. During ancient times, criminals were tattooed so they could be easily spotted in the future — a practice known as the “ink penalty.” Confucianism, meanwhile, considered all forms of body art to be highly immoral.

    “In Confucian culture, it’s honorable to maintain your body as your parents created it,” says Hai Yang, the co-owner of Hong Tattoo Studio in Beijing. “Our bodies — down to every strand of hair and inch of skin — were given to us by our parents, and we can’t injure or alter them.”

    Though these traditions have faded over time, they still influence the way tattoos are perceived today — especially among older people, Hai says. He regularly receives bookings from 20-somethings who say their parents are forcing them to get their tattoos removed.

    Ma Xiaoyu is one of them. The 28-year-old has asked Hai to remove tattoos on her chest and ankles before her wedding next year. But she only did so at her mother’s insistence, Hai says.

    “Her mother worries the tattoos will be exposed at the wedding … and will attract criticism from her friends and relatives,” says Hai. 

    Most clients, however, book removals for the same reason as Yang Yanmiao: They’re worried their tattoos will harm their career prospects. Many employers — particularly those in the public sector — penalize job applicants who have tattoos to varying degrees. 

    “Tattoos have nothing to do with a person’s character and abilities, but we don’t have the power to change society’s perception of tattoos in the short term,” says Hai.

    In one memorable incident, Hai recalls a client being desperate to get his tattoo removed before he was due to sit China’s civil service examination. 

    The exam’s guidelines do not state explicitly that candidates with tattoos will be disqualified. But other official documents make clear that people with tattoos cannot be considered for certain positions, such as police officers, even if the design is covered at all times. Civil servants have to undergo a physical examination before starting work, during which they must undress.

    Yang is having his sleeve tattoo removed because he wants to apply for a job at a state-owned enterprise. Though there is no law prohibiting employees at state-owned firms from having tattoos, Yang says several contacts informed him that a prominent tattoo covering his arm could be a serious disadvantage — and could easily lead to the company rejecting his application.

    In the end, Yang decided he didn’t want his tattoo to jeopardize his future. He and his wife hope to start a family in 2024 — which is an auspicious year of the dragon — and he needs to get a steady job and accumulate some savings. After much deliberation, he made a booking with Wu Bo — the artist who had inked him five years previously — to schedule the removal.

    Editors: Dominic Morgan and Fu Beimeng.

    This is the second article published as part of a collaboration between Sixth Tone and IMMJ, an International Multimedia Journalism program co-run by the University of Bolton and Beijing Foreign Studies University.

    (Header image: Yang Yanmiao gets his tattoo removed at Bobo Tattoo Studio in Beijing, May 19, 2021. Courtesy of Wang Yiping and Zhang Mengyu)