Chinese tattoo artist tells women's stories through ink

Chinese tattoo artist Song Jiayin sketching a tattoo on the leg of a client at her studio in Beijing.
AFP / Greg Baker

BEIJING, China — For over two years, Chinese tattoo artist Song Jiayin has interviewed her female clients and posted the results online, recording the memories, hopes, and fears of hundreds of women in ink and video.

Her designs — from a sunset to a delicately stylised uterus and images of beloved pets — are as varied as the women's motivations for getting them etched on their bodies.

In a country where spaces for female self-expression have shrunk in recent years, getting a tattoo can feel like an empowering act.

"When you choose to get tattooed, and choose a different image to put on your body, you are actually taking action to say, I control my body," Song said.

China's Communist Party has long exercised control over women's bodies through coercive reproductive legislation, such as the now-abandoned one-child policy.

Under President Xi Jinping, authorities have cracked down on almost every kind of feminist activism, restricting NGOs, arresting high-profile figures, and suspending social media accounts.

Conservative attitudes valuing women primarily for their appearance and childbearing remain the norm, reinforced by state media and popular culture.

Song, who describes herself as a feminist, sees her project as an open-ended documentary that she hopes will help both promote women's voices and challenge stereotypes.

"I want to give (women) a bigger platform for more people to see what they express," she said.

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The "1,000 Girls" videos all stick to a simple format — they start off with an ice-breaker: "What is your zodiac sign?"

But in the conversations that follow, interviewees share intimate thoughts about mental health, gender, anxieties about growing older, and the deaths of loved ones.

'Worst form' of sexism

Inside Song's book-filled studio last month, 27-year-old Liao Jingyi was excited to become a part of the project — and receive her first-ever tattoo.

Lying on the tattoo table with her jeans rolled up on one side, Liao braced herself as the needle moved over her skin, and the outlines of crashing waves and a boulder gradually took shape on her calf.

She said she was inspired by a professor she looked up to at university, who told her to be like a "rock whose edges have not been worn down."

While tattoos are not uncommon in China's more cosmopolitan and wealthier areas, women in particular still face scrutiny over their appearance.

Getting inked, or not conforming to traditional styles, is frowned upon in conservative circles.

The recent suicide of a young woman who became the target of misogynistic online abuse after posting a photo of herself with pink hair spotlighted the intense pressure women can face.

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"When a woman doesn't conform, she gets attacked and her morality gets questioned... It is sexism, rooted in gender inequality, in its worst form," writer and social commentator Lijia Zhang said.

Defying disapproval

One clienta woman in her 30s who chose to be tattooed with rainbow motifs, said she had wanted to get inked as a younger woman but her boyfriend had threatened to break up with her.

Another woman, a doctor who asked for a design based on her grandparents' purple hydrangeas, said that at her hospital many patients would feel a tattooed doctor "doesn't seem to be responsible enough."

Song said she was especially moved by a woman in her 40s who had come in for her first tattoo.

Song recalled the woman asking: "I have been a mother, a wife, now can I be myself and get a tattoo of whatever I want?" 

Broken chain

One of Song's own tattoos near her elbow stands out in particular. 

It depicts a broken chain as a tribute to Xiaohuamei, a woman who was found trapped in a shack in rural China with a chain and padlock around her neck last year.

Thought to be a victim of human trafficking, news of her plight sent shockwaves throughout the country. Several clients have asked for the same tattoo.

"I think any woman seeing this, including her being forced to have eight children, would feel immense heartache," Song said. "I think we have struggled for too long. This struggle for women to gain rights has gone on for too long."

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