As anti-government protests continue to rock Hong Kong, some have taken to a more subtle medium to express their views: tattoos.
In recent weeks, photos of tattoos have emerged that center on imagery from the current protests.
Umbrellas, goggles and gas masks—all used by protesters for protection—are a common theme, as are upbeat messages in both English and Chinese, such as Bruce Lee’s famed mantra “be water” and the words “Hong Kong.”
One of the more clever designs is a set of Chinese characters that reads “Hong Kong” when viewed upright and “add oil,” a phrase used to express encouragement, when turned to the side.
The design idea came from Kyo Chen, a Taiwan-based graphic designer. He says he was “shocked and moved” to see his work being used not only on merchandise such as T-shirts and flags, but also tattoos.
The design, he says, was his contribution to the protests.
“On June 9, I saw Hong Kong residents, including my friends, take to the streets for freedom,” he says, referring to the day when an estimated one million people marched to oppose a controversial extradition bill. “I wanted to make a contribution by encouraging and comforting them through my design.”
YC Carl Lee, who has been working as a tattooist for a year, has inked at least six clients with Chen’s design. He believes it perfectly encapsulates the character of Hong Kong because of its clever double meaning.
“It is not only a word but a form of beauty,” he says.
Meanwhile, over the past two months, Zada Lam has been inking his own geometric design featuring an umbrella and bauhinia, the flower of Hong Kong.
He says he has given the tattoos free of charge to at least 70 to 80 people.
“It’s my way of doing something,” Lam says, “a meaningful way to support the people who love Hong Kong, and help them show and share how important this place is to them.”
‘Sense of belonging’
Tattoos have long been used to signify solidarity or membership in a group.
Once the preserve of sailors in Hong Kong, they became a marker of affiliation with the city’s triad societies from the 1960s onwards.
Getting one is an act of protest in itself because body modification is still largely considered taboo for its association with organized crime.
But attitudes are changing in Hong Kong, as one group of researchers at the University of Hong Kong noted in a 2018 white paper.
While having a tattoo was once considered “deviant behavior,” conservative attitudes are eroding and tattoos’ popularity among young people is rising, partly thanks to their normalization by celebrities and on social media.
The growth in the popularity of tattoos among Hong Kong youth shows a generational shift toward self-expression through skin art.
Incorporating a political statement in the design of a tattoo takes that self-expression further. It signifies the wearers’ passion for a cause—and willingness to defend their stance if challenged in public.
“One of my clients told me they felt proud to have the same tattoo as other people,” Lee says. “The identity, the sense of belonging, has never been so strong.”