Seriously Dodgy Street Tattooing in Chengdu

Update: August 20, 2012

Fig 1 - Making a selection.

This is a short post for those who fear that tattooing has been permanently co-opted by urban hipsters and sorority girls. A post for those who long for the days when getting a tattoo was a right of passage involving risking your life (or at least your health) by venturing into the darker corners of town. Fear not old-school aficionados: life-threatening tattooing still exists in the back alleys of your favorite Chinese city.

Near Chengdu’s north railway station, there is an epic wholesale market where everything from pantyhose to endangered animal parts is available on the street. Near the gate, several people had laid large sheets of flash on the ground (see fig 1). Passersby could then select their new tattoo from among these images. But where was the work itself being done? Fortunately, a courageous young Chinese man had decided on getting a rather ornate tattoo on his hand, and so I asked if I could tag along and take some pictures.

Fig 2 - Yes, this man is getting a tattoo in a dingy alley.

I had assumed that we would be lead off to an apartment studio somewhere, but instead we simply turned the corner into a small alley, and everyone squatted down in the muck (see fig 2). Not exactly a sterile environment. To his credit, the tattooist (I can’t quite bring myself to call him a tattoo artist) did use a new, disposable needle. But the machine and tubes that he used looked like they had not been cleaned in years.[1] The tattooist insisted several times that everything was “very clean”. Most definitely not true. About this time I realized the crazy foreigner taking pictures (that would be me) had drawn a bit of a crowd. Time to go. So I took one more picture of the tattoo, with the outline completed (see fig 3) and got the hell out of dodge. It’s also worth noting that this was this man’s first tattoo, and he decided to get it on his hand. In traditional western tattooing, the hands and face have always been pretty much off limits, as those are the only parts of your body you can’t cover up with clothes. In addition to the various communicable diseases this guy probably got, he’s also going to be stuck with a horrible tattoo, in full view of everyone, for the rest of his life. So if that sounds like your cup of tea, or if you’re just nostalgic for old-school back-alley scab-vending, now you know where to go.

Fig 3 - The completed outline. The box behind him contains the tattooist's supplies. His own personal disease transmission kit.

For the record, not all the tattooing being done in Chengdu is grim. In fact, I’ve seen some surprisingly good work being done, and if I can find the time, I’ll post about that as well.


For those of you wondering if you really can catch some kind of horrible disease from dirty street tattooing, check out the picture at right.


[1]A tattoo machine consists of needles moving in and out of a tube – kind of like a mechanical pencil. It doesn’t do much good to have clean needles if your tubes are nasty. In this case he was also getting his ink directly from the bottle, mixing this guy’s blood in with the rest of the ink and getting the whole thing set for the next customer.

The Comics Connection III: The Green Lama (and I don’t mean Milarepa)

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A while back I wrote a couple of posts about how Batman and Dr Strange both received their training among the magical monks of Tibet. Once they each returned stateside, however, their Tibet connections become a footnote; a quaint piece of backstory, but not much more. Not so for The Green Lama, who not only studied in Tibet, but who wraps his whole identity around the place. When he gets in trouble, he chants Oṃ Maṇi Padme Hūṃ, and the power of that mantra resonates with a monastery in Tibet and transforms him into a unstoppable crime-fighting force (image 1). Needless to say, this is a fairly unprecedented use of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion (click here for some previous posts featuring authentic uses of the maṇi). On the upside, they did get the Tibetan spelling of the mantra right, which is no small feat for 1945 (see the center panel in image 1). Besides his unconventional use of the maṇi, he has a Tibetan servant named Tsarong who calls him 'tulku' and he even works the term 'lama' into his crime-fighting name. Surely this must be the most Tibet-centric superhero ever.

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Ok, so he’s wrapped himself in all this Tibetan imagery. But what about all the violence? When he first returns to the US after ten years in Tibet, The Green Lama wants to teach Americans to meditate. He is barely off the ship, however, before he witnesses a murder and becomes convinced that Americans are not ready to meditate. So instead he becomes a superhero, punching out bad guys’ lights left and right. this may not accord with our notions of peaceful Buddhists, but I can’t help feel it resonates with some of the ideas surrounding Tibetan protector deities, or the legends about figures such as Gesar. So maybe we’re not so far off here…. I have no idea what kind of research The Green Lama’s writers did, but it would be really neat to know if these resonances were intentional, or purely coincidence.

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Other than its Tibet connection, perhaps the most striking thing about this comic series is the explicit anti-racism stance it takes. The Green Lama was published from 1944-1946, and in one issue, The Green Lama picks up a racist soldier and carries him to Nazi Germany, where he sees the impact of racism and learns the error of his ways. In another issue, The Green Lama travels to Texas in order to expose and shame an anti-semite. To be fair, the writers of this comic clearly supported the war effort, and their characterization of German and, particularly, Japanese soldiers is anything but sympathetic. Still, arguing against racism so strongly seems pretty remarkable for this time. If anyone reading this has studied pop culture of this period, please feel free to add your two cents in the comments box below. I’d be really curious to know how common this was.

So there you have it: the most Tibet-centric comic superhero of all time. As always, we can see the same old stereotypes of Tibet as a land of mysterious enchantments and power, and, as always, the hero is a caucasian male and actual Tibetans are relegated to minor roles. Still, the fact that a comic like this could appear in the forties, and assume that young readers would already be familiar with terms like ‘lama’ and ‘tulku’ speaks to a pretty remarkable level of knowledge and interest in Tibet at the time.


If you want to read more about The Green Lama, the entire run is contained in the following two books:

  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 1. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • The Complete Green Lama: Featuring the Art of Mac Raboy. Vol. 2. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Archives, 2008.
  • Ewoks Speak Tibetan!

    For years, people have told me that the Ewoks, the furry creatures from George Lucas’ film, Return of the Jedi, spoke Tibetan. I have even passed along this piece of gossip to others, quietly chuckling about Tibetan’s little moment in the spotlight. So you can imagine my joy when I came across the following article confirming the story. The article is from the September 1983 issue of Tibetan Review magazine, which I stumbled across while doing wholly unrelated research (Really, I was. I promise). There is no byline, so we can just attribute it to the editors of Tibetan Review. It is a short article, so I will present it here in full. And remember, this is from 1983, the same year the movie was released.

    Ewoks, the furry teddy bear like creatures featured in the blockbuster film Return of the Jedi, speak a curious language in which many Tibetan words and sentences are clearly distinguishable. This is a fact which even Producer George Lucas may not be aware of. When the film was released in the United States, reporters asked people working for Lucas whether the Ewok language is nonsense. They were told. “No, it is not. It is Tibetan run backwards!”

    Much of what the Ewoks spoke could very well be nonsense or even Tibetan spoken backwards. However, the rest are definitely Tibetan spoken by real Tibetans. Among words the Ewoks are heard employing are Tibetan for “Hurry! Let’s move,” “No, it’s not him. It’s the one over there,” “There is lots of money here! There is lots of money here!” (in a scene where no money of any kind is in sight!), and a brief prayer.

    Tibetan film buffs in Delhi and Dharamsala, who have seen the film on video, suggest the following solution to the mystery: Steven Spielberg, friend of Lucas, shot a small sequence of his film Raiders of the Lost Ark in Nepal. When there on location, he may have recorded various stray voices in the bazaars of Kathmandu (which would explain the above references to money) for possible use in future. So when friend Lucas was looking for exotic sounds to attribute to his furry creatures, Spielberg made his tapes available. Q.E.D. Next problem, please.

    Great to hear that Tibetans can actually understand what the Ewoks are saying, but somehow I don’t think Lucas used Steven Spielberg’s Kathmandu street recordings. Fortunately, we have Wikipedia. The ‘Languages in Star Wars‘ entry provides several possible solutions to where the Tibetan comes from, and even indicates that the incomprehensible bits may not be Tibetan at all, but Kalmyk. Those interested in a more academic approach should check out Maria S. Calkowski’s article, “Is there Authoritative Voice in Ewok Talk: Postmodernism, Fieldwork and the Recovery of Unintended Meanings,” which can be found in the journal Culture, vol XI, 1991, pages 53-64, freely available on Google Books.