Right in the middle of Shanghai, the old French concession merges with modern China. Behind buildings that are reminiscent of old Parisians suburbs, brand new skyscrapers are getting closer. Here, in one of those tiny old houses, Jay opened his shop. The neighbourhood is busy and fashion is all around. The shops next door are packed full of young Chinese customers seeking branded clothes and accessories. Tattoos are seen as one of these commodities, something that Jay understood when he decided on the location of the studio.
How did you start tattooing?
"I’ve always been passionate about drawing. Friends of mine who worked as tattoo artists in Jiaxing, my native town, once asked me to draw the outlines that they tattoo after on their customers. The work was not really good as they were used to working by hand with a really old-fashioned technique. Finally, starting with them and working with others, I finally began tattooing by myself in 1994."
How did you do your apprenticeship?
"I first tried tattooing on myself and then on friends. Then I started to learn with a Taiwanese tattoo artist, whose name is Tiao Au."
You come from Jiaxing in the Zhejiang region and today your shop is right in the middle of Shanghai. What brings you here?
"I opened my first shop in 1998 in Jiaxing. Before when I was more or less twenty, I used to tattoo for free. In two months, I only had one single customer. Then, little by little, customers started coming from further and further. I finally ended up here because it’s more practical for everybody."
Since your opening, how have the mentalities changed in China?
"At the beginning, tattoos were really badly perceived. You have to keep in mind that through the Chinese dynasties, prisoners used to get tattooed, even on the face for example. Now it’s becoming a fashion, even if it’s still seen as a bad thing and commonly associated with gangsters by most people. In the past few years, you couldn’t get a job in the army because of a single small tattoo - the rule, even if a little softer, is still here. Nevertheless, designs are getting bigger and the medium starts to be recognised as an art form. I hope that open-minds will flourish in the near future."
How many tattoo artists are there in Shanghai now?
"I think there are between 100 and 200 shops in Shanghai today. Unfortunately, I think that only 10% are good enough. There are a lot of hygiene problems here; being a good drawer is the minimum."
Who are your customers?
"80% of Chinese, 20% are foreigners. Most of them live in Shanghai, but there are also a lot of customers passing by. The average age is between 25 and 40 years old. Over 40, they are foreigners."
What kind of designs do they mostly ask for?
"Mainly small pieces with more and more tribal stuff, but they start to be more and more interested by colour work."
What are your favourite designs?
"I prefer colour too. I feel better to work with it; it’s a matter of feeling. I always try to push my customers on coloured designs. Then, I really like to work and express myself on large-scale pieces. I really like Japanese style and traditional Chinese motifs."
You are heavily tattooed yourself, who did the work?
"My right arm, the one with the dragon has been done by my master, friends did all the others."
Talking about Japanese tattoo and its Chinese origins, what do you feel as a Chinese person?
Japanese tattooing has heavily influenced me. Today, whether I work in Japanese style or Chinese style, the main thing is that I need to like the design. There are many ways to represent a drawing and I try to do it my way, with a personal touch. I also try to use a small part of the Chinese iconography that has never been used by Japanese artists.
Who are your Japanese influences?
"Horiyoshi III, Horiyasu, and Shige from Yokohama."
The first tattoo convention was held in Peking recently, how was your feedback from it?
"I wasn’t there because my wife just gave birth to our daughter but I really like the atmosphere in the conventions - meeting other tattoo artists and tattoo fans is always cool. But about the Peking convention I didn’t expect it to close after one day opening. But maybe it’s because Peking is the city where official power is based. I think in Shanghai, things would have been different."
By the way, when will Shanghai’s first convention be held?
"It’s a project we are working on with other tattoo artists, but at the moment we don’t have time to organise it."