Permanent protest: Demonstrators in Hong Kong are getting tattoos

Updated 21st August 2019
Tattoo artist Zada Lam offered protest-themed and Hong Kong-themed tattoos for free as the protests raged.
Credit: Zada Lam
Permanent protest: Demonstrators in Hong Kong are getting tattoos
Written by Jessie Yeung, CNN
An umbrella. A bauhinia flower. A bleeding eye.
These icons have taken on new significance in the Hong Kong protests -- and now, a number of demonstrators are getting them inked onto their bodies.
The pro-democracy movement, which is heading towards its 12th consecutive weekend, has inspired a wave of protest art. Posters, banners and flyers have offered protesters a way to spread their message, appeal to international audiences and satirize the embattled government and police force.
Tattoos are the next step, illustrating the demonstrators' creativity and dogged commitment to the movement. While last weekend's protests were largely peaceful, violence over the past two months has escalated on both sides.
One local tattoo artist, who asked not to be named for fear of backlash, offered free Hong Kong-themed tattoos throughout July. Designs included the bauhinia flower featured on the territory's emblem and flag, and two cleverly arranged Chinese characters that mean either "Hong Kong" or "add oil" -- a local rallying cry -- depending on which direction they're facing.
The tattooist estimates that about 100 people took up his offer. Some, he said, were simply attracted by the free tattoo, but others got inked as a symbol of their dedication to the movement. One client told him he wanted to commemorate the event, and pass the story on to his children.
Another image that has gained notoriety among demonstrators is that of a bloody eye or eye patch, which spread rapidly after a female protester's eye was badly injured on August 11. Protesters claim she was shot with a projectile by police, and the incident sparked huge outrage. The next day, thousands occupied the city's international airport wearing eye patches and holding posters and signs depicting the injury. Police say they are still investigating the incident.
The image has also inspired tattoos. One striking design, posted on Instagram by Hong Kong-based tattoo artist Rich Phipson, shows an eye, drawn in thick black lines, a drop of blood falling from the pupil.
The client who got the eye tattoo, a 30-year-old who asked to be called Cjai for security reasons, said she had it done in honor of the injured woman and the "innocent civilians" who have been "heartlessly hurt" by police.
"One part of it is that I want to remember the darkness in Hong Kong -- but another part is the sacrifice and effort made by Hong Kongers," said Cjai in an Instagram message.
Tattoo artist Zada Lam is quickly becoming known for his geometric designs of bauhinia flowers and umbrellas, which first became a significant protest symbol during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution" was the largest protest movement Hong Kong had seen at the time, and shut down parts of the city for months.
Umbrellas have continued as a protest staple in recent months, often acting as shields against tear gas and riot police.
Yellow umbrellas have become particularly ubiquitous with the pro-democracy movement, appearing on posters, social media and public mosaics of Post-It notes, nicknamed Lennon walls.
Lam estimates that over 100 people have been tattooed with his protest-themed designs, which he also offered for free in the months of June and July.
"Some of the clients are getting (the tattoos) for the same reason I offered them -- they want to memorialize this moment and everything they witnessed," Lam said in a phone interview. "This tattoo can help them remember the Hong Kong of today, the things that have happened. They want to express how much they love Hong Kong, love this place."
Protesters have chosen a range of other designs, from Chinese script tattoos reading "Never give up" to tattoos of the protective hard hats worn at protests. One 21-year-old, Rachel Lam, even got a tattoo of a girl in a gas mask with tear gas floating around her -- a reference to the copious amounts of the gas fired by police this summer.
A tattoo of a gas mask and tear gas in Hong Kong.
A tattoo of a gas mask and tear gas in Hong Kong. Credit:
"This tattoo represents the dream that I had, which I will never forget," Lam told CNN in an Instagram message, adding that she has been hit with tear gas at recent protests.
Tattoos have long been taboo in Hong Kong, as they were closely associated with organized crime groups known as triads. However, in recent years perceptions shifted as tattoos became more popular.
There's a growing number of tattoo artists in the city, and a distinctly whimsical local style has emerged.
The protest-themed tattoos act as public statements of dedication and belief -- particularly striking in a time when most demonstrators are trying to conceal their identities.
Many wear face masks and goggles to obscure their faces at protests, and are wary of being identified by cameras or by other tracking methods. This fear of being caught has ramped up as authorities have cracked down and made hundreds of arrests -- but the permanence of the tattoos will forever connect protesters with the movement.
Watch: A quiet sanctuary in sleepless Hong Kong
Zada Lam said that aside from offering people a way to express their beliefs, the protest tattoos are a reminder of community, and of the hundreds of thousands who have marched all throughout the summer.
"You can remember how many people stood together. I think it's a positive thing, to make people realize -- you're not alone. Everyone's beside you, everyone's supporting everybody. This is what my clients and I think," he said.
One protester, who asked to be called Sia for fear of being identified, said her "Made in Hong Kong" tattoo captured the sense of unity that she feels.
"I hope that when I'm older and I look at the tattoo on my body, I can remember the beauty of Hong Kong right now, how united Hong Kongers are," she said in an Instagram message.
"That is the Hong Kong that I've known from the time I was little until now."
Young students and teenagers have become the face of the movement -- they are often on the front lines at protests, and are figureheads in political parties like Demosisto. Many of those getting protest tattoos appear to be young -- but the artists spoken to by CNN also report having clients from other demographics and corners of society, a sign of how widespread support for the movement is.
Some clients are well into middle age -- in their 40s and 50s -- according to Zada Lam. Some even work for Hong Kong's government, which protesters accuse of inaction and bullheadedness. These government employees feel less able than young people to be on the front lines, so they take a stance by getting tattoos, he said.
On Lam's Instagram page, the tattooist shares anonymous messages from Hong Kong protesters in captions next to defiant tattoos.
One such message reads, "Hong Kongers, keep on going and strive hard!" Another reads, "Everyone, don't give up on your dreams and goals."