It was business as usual at Kevin's tattoo shops in Ximending, Taipei. Akon's new album was on the beat box and muffled the steady buzz of drills. A young woman was bent over a chair and a tear slipped down her face as she had a design inked into her lower back. A friend comforted her. No pain, no gain.
On the parlor's walls were hundreds of graphic testaments to the popularity of tattoos. Smiling celebrities put their arms around Kevin's shoulder. Even politicians such as Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have given their tacit approval by agreeing to be photographed, grimacing, with the shaven-headed businessman, who dresses hip-hop style and exposes his tats.
Tattooing has come out of the closet and the reason is easy to see. Of the five people having tattoos last Sunday afternoon at Kevin's, three were women. Around 60 percent to 70 percent of his customers are female and it's the same story at other tattoo houses.
"It used to be guys, now it's girls, especially young women, even moms. Things have changed, modern women are more independent and can make their own minds up about tattoos. They're not against them," Kevin said.
"The younger generation's attitude is: 'This is me.' They're OK [about what people do with their bodies]. Older people, they see tattoos in NBA games, on showbiz programs and on the streets, so it's not a shock any more."
In fact tattoos have become so fashionable in the past seven years they're in danger of losing their bad-boy cachet. On the beach and in the clubs they're so ubiquitous the question for many young people is not, "why have a tattoo?" but "why not?"
Kevin got his first tattoo after completing military service. In the army tats are banned because of their gangster associations. He liked the NBA player Dennis Rodman and his elder sister copied the basketball player's tattoo and etched it into Kevin's skin. He was a deliveryman at the time.
"I didn't have any other skills, I wasn't earning much money and I didn't want to be 50 years old and have no house. You know the saying, 'five things to be successful' (五子登科). I wanted a wife, child, a car, house and gold. All I had was a talent for making pictures. I know everybody draws when they're young, but I was better and I practiced."
He opened up shop in Ximending and it was tough at first. Kevin said gangsters came round collecting protection money, the zeitgeist was against tattoos and business was slow.
"In those days people's attitudes were different. They didn't know whether having tattoos was right or wrong. The business was a risk. If it had failed I would have nothing. To succeed and be my own boss is great. Now I reckon I need `six things to be successful,' because I want a boat.'"
Kevin drives to work in a black Hummer H3, with decals of pirate skulls on the side. He employs 13 people and he's referred to as "teacher" or "master." He's often asked to judge tattoos at conventions and has become a tattooist to the stars, though he observes a "code of silence" about them and their tats. He often appears on showbiz programs and recently co-hosted Fun Taiwan (瘋台灣).
He stills plays pickup basketball with the lads and goes hunting in the mountains, but he's just as likely to play golf at a club and chat about his new villa in Sindian (新店), with its spa club and pool. Tattooing has arrived. It's no longer a mark of criminals, as it used to be in China. On the contrary, it's an assertion of individuality by the "me generation."