“I want people to know that traditional Chinese landscapes, still-life paintings, and portraits can also be tattoos,” says Beijing-based tattoo artist Chen Jie.
Although still largely taboo, tattoos have become increasingly popular in China.
And while styles from abroad such as old school and new school—characterized by hard lines and bold colors—were once the trend, a distinctly Chinese aesthetic, inspired by traditional watercolor paintings, is gaining ground.
Chen is one of many tattoo artists in China turning traditional watercolor paintings known as 水墨画 shuimohua into skin art.
“I started doing this style by chance,” she says. “We had a watercolor painting of peonies at home, and I told myself that when I was skilled enough, I’d do watercolor tattoos.”
Compared to more conventional styles, watercolor tattoos require greater precision and different techniques.
The challenge is achieving the faded look of a watercolor painting.
“For regular tattoos, you first draw the outline and then fill in the colors,” Chen says. “But Chinese watercolor tattoos don’t have outlines. You have to ink it slowly bit by bit from bottom to top.”
The process is laborious and requires two types of guns: one that acts as a pen to draw the bold lines and another to act as a paintbrush injecting faded colors.
“Doing watercolor on the body and on paper is essentially the same,” Chen says. “On paper, you need to dilute the ink to get lighter colors and achieve that faded effect.
“It’s the same on skin. We have dark colors, midtones, and light colors, and we have to fade them gradually.”
Her style has resonated with an audience at home that still largely views tattoos as an element of underground culture.
“I think this traditional Chinese watercolor style is more palatable to Chinese people,” says customer Song Jian, while taking a break from getting a tattoo at Chen’s shop, “because it’s very unique and more distinct than old-school and new-school tattoos.”
Chen hopes her style will help tattoos gain greater acceptance in China. Already, she’s seen more local customers than she did 10 years ago. “Now, if I count them, 70% are Chinese,” she says.
And she notices parents embracing skin art.
She recalls a woman getting a tattoo at her shop and showing it to her mother.
“When she saw this tattoo that looked like a really beautiful painting, the mother was so impressed that after one or two weeks, she came back to get a tattoo herself,” she says.