by Vivian Lin

As a tattooist’s black ink fills the petals of Hong Kong’s Bauhinia flower on her upper thigh, ‘C’ says the indelible act of rebellion will forever serve as a reminder of the city’s summer of defiance.

“No matter how many years pass, I’ll remember this year; I decided to stand up to fight for my freedom and to fight for what I really care about,” said the finance worker who asked to be identified only by an initial.

From umbrellas and Chinese calligraphy, to gas masks and helmets, people are getting their bodies inked as a sign of solidarity with a protest movement challenging the city’s government and its Beijing backers.

This photo taken on August 21, 2019 shows client ‘Jerry’ with his new ‘Hong Kong/Add Oil’ tattoo by artist Vincent Yau at MOFO Tattoo studio in Hong Kong. – From umbrellas and calligraphy in Chinese, to gas masks and helmets, people are getting their bodies inked as a sign of solidarity with a protest movement which is challenging the city’s government and its Beijing-backers. Photo: Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP.

The Bauhinia flower is the emblem of Hong Kong and normally coloured red, but is represented in black in C’s tattoo as a mark of the troubles clouding the city.

The five stars on the flower’s petals, which usually represent China and its ruling Communist Party, are also missing – a move commonly made by Hong Kongers who want to separate their identity from the mainland.

Since June when the largest protests to hit Hong Kong in decades erupted, tattoo studios have received a surge in requests for protest-related artworks.

They include a so-called ambigram that from one angle reads “Hong Kong” and from another “add oil” – a Cantonese expression of encouragement which has become one of the catchphrases of the unrest.

“Tattooing is an action to show that you have control over your own body,” said Iris Lam, a 28-year-old tattooist recognised for her calligraphy-like style.

“It helps people think about freedom of speech and even freedom of thought.”

One of Lam’s clients, a 40-year-old protester, had requested a full sleeve tattoo depicting scenes of Hong Kong’s demonstrations but decided to hold off until the protests are over.

“He doesn’t want to get hit by tear gas with a big wound on his body,” she explained. “It would be painful and trouble to take care of, so he wants to do his tattoo after the protests.”

Many protests have seen violent clashes, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets, and hardcore demonstrators throwing bricks and Molotov cocktails.

The crisis began with protests against plans to allow extraditions of suspects to mainland China, then morphed into a broad pro-democracy campaign that has seen hundreds of thousands of people march regularly through the streets.

The magnitude of the ongoing protests is what has brought people together, said Vincent Yau, another Hong Kong tattoo artist.

“A lot of people want to commemorate this,” Yau said, and tattoos are a way to “say to yourself that you were part of a movement this big.”

Yau said his studio had been doing most of the tattoos for free.

“It’s our way of supporting this movement.”

Lam said the tattoo community has banded together tightly over Hong Kong’s protests.

“Art is power, to spread an idea or to touch people or to inspire people,” she said.

Lam is also involved in creating Hong Kong pro-democracy propaganda posters and art.

Asked if she feared repercussions from being so strongly supportive of the protests, Lam was unfazed.

“No,” she shrugged. “I can still tattoo from jail.”

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