In Taiwan, Tattoos Act as Statements Smashing Age-Old Cultural Stereotypes

In Taiwan, Tattoos Act as Statements Smashing Age-Old Cultural Stereotypes
Credit: TJ Ting

What you need to know

We spoke with three proudly tattooed women in Taiwan. One would gladly show off her tattoos in public – while hiding them from her parents for seven years.

If you are deciding whether or not to get a tattoo, you are likely considering numerous factors. There may be the issue of budget. Maybe you are dreading the pain. It’s also common to worry about what your family might think.

There’s a saying: “Shenti fa fu shou zhi fumu” (身體髮膚受之父母), which translates to “Every hair and every bit of skin on our bodies come from our parents.” In Taiwan, one’s appearance is often considered a vessel of filial piety, tailored to the specifications of the opinions of our elders.

As a result, many people ‘don’t dare to’ get tattoos, rather than ‘don’t want to.’ And when they do get tattoos, they often hide them from their families. Of course, there are now plenty of families with at least two tattooed generations – and this does not count indigenous people such as the Atayal, who have tattooed themselves for hundreds of years.

Each generation goes through a similar dilemma when they begin to break the norms known to their parents – who, of course, did the same with their parents. And each generation manages to find its own way of bringing their outer selves closer to their true selves.

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Credit: TJ Ting
From left: Tamina, Tamina's mother, and Jen Jen.

Working as a marketer and business development manager in the chemical engineering sector, Jen Jen got her first tattoo in London in 2010. She later got more tattoos while studying in Oxford and Glasgow and, after graduation, got even more while working in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei. Until her mother found out in 2017, she had kept her tattoos a secret for seven years.

Why did Jen Jen fall in love with tattoos? “Because I’m not afraid of pain,” she says. In addition, getting tattoos abroad is quicker and cheaper than it is in Taiwan, so she made the decision early on to fulfill what had been a childhood dream.

Jen Jen’s first tattoo is a picture of the names of some of her close friends strung together. “I informed my friends prior to getting the tattoo that we couldn’t bicker afterwards, or it would be very screwed up,” she says. Only half a year after her first tattoo, Jen Jen decided to get a second one on her waist – a ship representing her father’s occupation: a sailor. Soon afterwards, she got yet another tattoo of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the first gift her mother sent her while she was studying abroad.

To this day, Jen Jen has visited tattoo shops more than 10 times. The tattoos she has had are primarily Western ‘old school’ style. The latest is a picture of her and her husband’s Chinese zodiac animals and ‘double happiness’ on the right side of her calf. “Because there had been pictures scattered across my back, I wanted to fill the spare space,” she said. “The current plan is to have the rest of the calf tattooed.”

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Credit: TJ Ting
Though they were done by different artists, the tattoos across Jen Jen’s back are stylistically consistent.

Jen Jen doesn’t hesitate to share the tattoos on her body with passersby. “At first I would hide [the tattoos],” she says, “but later on I felt the point of me having spent so much money was to let you look.” Eager to show off her tattoos, Jen Jen ditched her habit of wearing trousers and started wearing shorts outside.

There were only two people Jen Jen couldn’t share her tattoos with: her own parents.

There had been times when Jen Jen had to work in Beijing for a prolonged period of time and only returned to Taipei in winter. She was naturally able to use long sleeves and trousers to cover her tattoos. “I was going to tell them after I got married,” she says. But her mother found out about them one night, when her back was exposed while she was sleeping.

‘You got tattoos?’

‘I have not.’

‘Come here!’

After her unwitting discovery, Jen Jen’s mother was sad for months. She was worried that Jen Jen would have difficulty finding a job and getting married. On top of that, she was angry that her daughter had done something she had been told not to do.

“I spoke to my mum about getting tattoos while in junior high school. She told me to get one after I turned 30 and had a steady job and life,” says Jen Jen. “She felt I saw her as a mother I was unable to communicate with.”

‘Why did you get such large tattoos? What would you do if you regretted it?’

‘It was because I would never regret it that I got such large tattoos.’

Although Jen Jen hid her tattoos from her parents for seven years, it seemed that her father got to know about it early on. “It was probably because when I uploaded photos on Facebook, my dad was my friend’s friend,” she says. Her father didn’t react strongly when Jen Jen let him in on the secret before she got married. “I walked up to him and said ‘Cool, isn’t it?’ My dad didn’t say a word. It felt like he thought, ‘You’ve done it. There’s nothing I can do now.’”

But now that Jen Jen walks around the house in shorts, her father occasionally asks: “Would others be scared by you like this?”

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Credit: TJ Ting
Jen Jen’s next goal: Have the left leg fully tattooed.

Her worst nightmare: Bumping into her boyfriend’s mother in the street

Like Jen Jen’s family, the parents of her boyfriend, now her husband, are more conservative types. Little did Jen Jen know that she would bump into his mother shortly after she started seeing him. “My entire face froze,” she recalls. She then started talking incessantly about her own educational background and working experiences to his mother along the way. “I wanted to make her feel I was brilliant and thus forget about my tattoos,” she says. Although her husband was admonished by his family for a long time when he got tattooed, his family has never said anything about Jen Jen’s tattoos.

Looking back on the day she first decided to get tattooed, Jen Jen felt like she had the mindset of "It’s just a tattoo. I’ll be fine." She also wanted to prove that highly educated people could still have tattoos, which on average are not favorably perceived by the society. Later on, she felt "she could spontaneously find a husband who would accept her." She continued to get more tattoos and successfully broke through the stereotypes surrounding them.

Though Jen Jen is not yet 30, her mother no longer cares about the broken "promise" made long ago. In terms of work, relationship, and tattoos, she is complete.

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Credit: TJ Ting
Jen Jen’s nervousness about her tattoos has since become a fond memory.

Tamina and her mother: Two generations of tattoos

On the day of the interview, Tamina’s mother wore Ray-Ban sunglasses, her figure harmonizing with the younger people filling the cafe. Working in advertising, she got her first tattoo at 46, even earlier than her daughter, who works in interior design.

“I had always wanted to get a tattoo when young,” she says. “But my family was conservative. I was afraid my parents would get upset and that I would be beaten to death.” It wasn’t until 2011, when she was discussing tattoos with her colleagues, that she decided to fulfill her dream and get one. “No one can control your actions when you’re in your forties,” she says. “You can do whatever you want.”

Tamina’s mother got the same tattoo she dreamed about when she was young: a picture of a dandelion. It doesn’t carry any special meanings. She just felt rather strongly about the picture. “At that time, I just felt the picture was rarely seen,” she says. The tattoo, on her right shoulder, is not so obvious; it can only be seen in its entirety when she wears sleeveless shirts. “It was more like I got it for the sake of getting it,” she says.

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Credit: TJ Ting
Tamina’s mother says getting a tattoo feels similar to getting a shot.

Tattooed daughter: Unafraid of pain, courageous

Tamina long wanted to get a tattoo, but she only came as close as saving the designs she liked on Pinterest. Usually, she would quickly think better of it. She never spoke to her mother about the idea until she inadvertently saw the tattoo on her mother’s back. “I felt, oh, so it would be fine,” says Tamina. She then went to consult her friend, who is a tattoo artist, right away.

Tamina’s first tattoo is a geometric design that her friend drew for her, reflecting how she had just started university and gone into design, a field she had never considered before. Tamina had this concept of a turning point in her life and that of people passing past each other tattooed on her own arm. “But this picture is too small to satisfy me,” she says. After half a year, she had a picture of a flower tattooed below her neck. “When I first saw the picture,” she says, “I felt like, ‘I can go get it tomorrow.’”

Thinking back, Tamina feels that, though she had always wanted to get tattoos, she probably wouldn’t have got one so early if she hadn’t seen her mother do it first. For Tamina’s mother, she just feels her daughter is brave. “Because I know how painful it is after I got one,” she says. “It was painful when she tattooed my spine. It felt especially dreadful when I couldn’t see it.”

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Credit: TJ Ting
The flower on her back is Tamina’s second tattoo.

Tamina and her mother didn’t talk to each other before they both got tattooed, but they haven’t gone out of their way to conceal their ink from their family, including Tamina’s 70-year-old grandmother. However, when her grandmother discovered the dandelion on her shoulder, her mother was worried that she wouldn’t be able to accept it. So she told a white lie. “It’s a tattoo sticker from an event. It will come off in a few days.” Tamina’s grandmother seemed to believe it. “She probably thought her daughter wouldn’t have dared,” Tamina’s mother says.

“As a child, my mom would say the benefit of a tattoo is that it makes it convenient to identify bodies,” Tamina’s mom says. Older people often hold the belief that getting tattoos is something only gangsters would do, so it is easy to connect these lines of thought. Nowadays, regardless of whether tattooed people have ‘decent jobs’ or not, there is no reason to think like this. “I got a tattoo yesterday,” says Tamina’s mother, “but there wouldn’t be any changes in me today.”

Loving mother: Wants Tamina to be happier than she was at the same age

Many parents consider themselves open to communication, but there is usually a precondition: that their children follow the rules they set themselves. “That actually doesn’t seem like communication,” Tamina’s mother says. Besides, no matter what children say, parents often feel that their kids are challenging them. This often means children do certain things only when they are sure they can confront their elders.

“Unlike my daughter, I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do when I was young,” Tamina’s mother says.

She neither encourages nor opposes her daughter’s tattoos. All she wants to do is to believe in her child’s decisions and to support her unconditionally.

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Credit: TJ Ting
Though born to a conservative family, Tamina’s mother has an air of openness and tolerance.

Maybe it’s because both mother and daughter work in the creative industry, but none of their colleagues and friends would bat an eye at their tattoos. “Because I work in design,” says Tamina, “I can either show or cover them.”

That said, some industries still keep those with tattoos outside the door. Take the advertising company where Tamina’s mother works, for example. A lot of proprietors avoid those with tattoos when they are selecting models. “I’ve seen it quite a few times,” she says. “We ourselves would deliberately avoid [models with tattoos].” Tamina, however, has a different opinion on it, offering two of her friends who run a children’s gallery as an example. “Both of their arms are covered in tattoos,” Tamina says. “But the parents of those children wouldn’t mind [and] often take pictures with them instead.”

Oppression only generates resistance: An axiom also true with tattoos

Generations never stop changing. Some are progressive, others are conservative, while all constantly shift and redefine the definitions of what it means to push the envelope of social normativity.

Tamina’s father, for example, still doesn’t known about his daughter’s tattoos to this day. Tamina says she is not worried that he might know. “But I wouldn’t voluntarily tell him,” she says. “Just let things happen spontaneously.”

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Credit: TJ Ting
Sharing tattoo tales.

Just like when their children choose schools, majors, or boyfriends and girlfriends, parents worry that their children will suffer socially if they choose to get tattooed. But if their suggestions, even when made out of kindness, are communicated too forcefully, they often spark a backlash. Such a negative result can be as minor as a standard generational gap, but it can also morph into something that irreversibly severs the relationship between parent and child.

As long as their children are not breaking any laws, and they are willing to take responsibility for the decisions they make, there’s no need for parents to insist on what their children should do. “Parents can’t bear [to see their children suffer]. Yet children can bear [to rebel against you],” says Tamina’s mother. “After you have figured this out, you would feel happy and unrestrained inside.”

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Lin Ying-jen

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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