NOTE: This interview was originally published in the latest 2018 issue of Nepal Inked Magazine. To read the full interview, order your copy today.
XiaoDong Zhou, aka Dong Dong C is one of the foremost masters of Chinese tattooing. His journey coincides with that of Chinese modern tattooing, and his mastery has laid the path for future generations of Chinese tattooers. Our partner artist, John Ma got in touch with the living legend to delve into his thoughts around art, machines, life and everything in between…
John (J): In your head, what is the basic idea that you attach to tattooing? Or in other words, why do you tattoo?
Dong (D): My idea about tattooing is simple. The ink gets inserted into the skin. Nowadays, the aesthetic has changed, which led to the change of ink and depth of colors. I like to keep tattoo simple and enjoy the process of inking. This is the essence of tattoo. I have the skills to make it happen and make a change. I find it good.
J: Riding is a hobby or passion? And love for machines?
D: My father had a great impact on me when it comes to my passion in riding and machines. When I was little, my father was always on his motorbike. The motorbike carried all of my brothers and served as the source of income. I was always thinking: can machines be so strong? The motorbike could not only take us to school but also brought us bread. Sometimes, the motorbike got broken. My father always repaired it himself. All the years, I was at his side watching him repairing the bike and started to develop interests toward it. With time, I grew more passionate about machines. This is my hobby. The more I understand machines, the more I am interested in learning more. Different parts get assembled and create different functionalities. I find it special. I realized that things should be complementary to each other. Let it be persons, groups, mindsets, or cooperation. You do not need to consider too much about machines. The most important thing is fitting parts together to generate better functionality, which is very goal-oriented. And if you know a bit more about machines, then you will be safer when driving a car or a motorbike. Because you will be able to deal with malfunctions and problems.
J: It’s like in your art, You are trying to capture the spirit of the subject. And your subjects are mostly very expressive. Emotionally, what do you try to achieve with every creation?
D: I have my own understanding about art and painting. People have different perspectives toward paintings, I also have my own ones. Based on my cultural background, I consider there is a great variety of Chinese arts. The Chinese culture contains many branches. For example, the Buddhist art or a representative art from a certain era. Although I am highly interested in the art from the past, I also get confused during the learning process. A lot of time art is vague for me because I did not have any teachers. Still, I continued on the path of learning and discovering. As far as I am concerned now, capturing the spirit is the most direct way. By constant copying, you can definitely draw the outline, for example the shape of a pine tree. However, it is still hard to depict the whole picture. I have been trying to understand the thoughts a painter bears towards the painting. I would not say my work is expressive. Simply that I have been drawing and practicing. No piece I have made is perfect. Oftentimes, I enter into another state of mind during practicing and drawing because I see everything I like in front of me. In the process of painting, I am alone because I am not painting for other people, but for myself. If I cared too much about other people, I would not be able to make a good painting. For my paintings, I use different materials, colors and tools to implement my understandings and to improve my works of tattoo. I do not want to copy works from the ancestors or any other persons. It is difficult as many artists might also think. I only want to compete with myself and discover more possibilities. That is why, I have been trying different ways to depict emotions and feelings on paintings and also on the skin.
J: You grew up studying gongbi painting. Do you think that is one of the reasons why there are like a million shades in your paintings, yet overall maintaining simplicity and transparency of colors? How do you like to describe when you turn your subjects into paintings?
D: I studied Chinese traditional Gongbi. When you are doing Gongbi, you cannot hustle. There are a lot of principles in the traditional paintings. For example, a lot of old masters would wash their hands and bodies thoroughly before painting. The habit does not exist anymore, of course. You need to be very calm and quiet while making Gongbi because you are using brushes and they are soft. You need to slowly feel the bounce of the brush against paper. This is the basic practice for Gongbi. I also like to observe everything in life. Those special things, like special shapes or objects, will be integrated into my paintings according to my subjective view. The structure as well as the movement of light and shadow should also be taken into consideration. As a painter, you need to control the source of light. Without this ability, you can only create diagrams. Paintings represent spirits, which come from within and flow with your minds. You should not restrict your minds otherwise you will not be able to create a piece of art. I tried different subjects, such as dragon, fish, and flower. All the paintings are my attempts to improve.
J: Water and air are your strong elements, as we can see in your art. There is so much to feel, so easy and dramatic flows… how do you implement?
D: Water and air are intangible. The visuality of them has something to do with the culture. In our culture, water is quite dominant and often represents fortune. Air is also present in the traditional Daoism, martial art and medicine. First of all, you need to like it and understand their strength and power. There is a Chinese saying: constant dropping wears the stone. You will not sense the strength of water when it is calm. But when water flows down from a high level, like waterfall, it possesses vigorous power. Air is an element which connects all of my paintings. Air is everywhere in the traditional paintings as it connects all the elements. A line contains air. In the Chinese calligraphy, especially, you feel the strength of air. The cover of one of my books is blue. Blue like the sky and the white is the air. I integrated this concept into the design of the book. Blue gives me an impression of transcending, like entering the universe. White pulls you closer and makes you return to reality. Water and air are very present in my own culture; that is why I quite like them.
J: You have travelled around the world tattooing and riding and adventuring, what have been your biggest life lessons that make you who you are, as an artist?
D: Tattooing is my profession and my hobby at the same time. On top of that, I get to travel through tattooing. It is a very good opportunity for tattoo artists. Prior to my passion in art, I love life more. I could see and feel various new and challenging things. When I am in a new environment, I get to experience different people, natures, and landscapes. I love discovering local cultures. Through the discovering process, I get to see different layers in details. Seeing details helps me to create. During my trips, I create tattoos, make new friends, and exchange ideas with local artists, which is of great value for me. From a more personal viewpoint, I am not old yet and can still travel a lot. I spend half a year travelling, and the other half in the studio in the city where I live. During this time, I digest all the experiences from the travels, which takes time. If I am always on the road, it will be too much hustle for me. I need to be away and come back home to create and get a reboot.
J: People keep saying tattooing has evolved and changed. But, has it? Do you ever think that maybe it’s just the crowd around tattooing that just keeps getting bigger? And may be the perception has changed towards tattoo?
D: The time has changed and things are different now over the years. The artists around me are also younger and younger. However, I do not see any change in tattoo. It is time and people which are changing, not tattooing. Tattooing as a kind of art at the high level is as great as before. As for my personal skills, they have been improved with no doubts. But, still not at its best. I still have a lot to learn. In China, more and more people start to like tattooing, both the culture and the art. Tattooing is a magical art. In the modern time, people start to consider having a tattoo when they enjoy a certain degree of life quality or after they have developed appreciation towards art. China is changing, and the people are better educated. With the growing number of tattoo lovers, the environment is also better for the artists.
J: How good is the Chinese tattoo scene in general now? As you are one of the pioneers in Chinese tattooing, how it was 25yrs back, and now, how do you see this?
D: Chinese tattoo has taken off 25 years ago. I think it has developed at a very fast pace and reached a certain level. Constantly, there will be new tattoo artists and new ideas. I find China offers a very vital…
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