While getting a tattoo in Mandarin characters may be all the rage among some Westerners, particularly basketball stars, in the ink parlors in this part of the world some of the panache goes to those who get tattoos in English.
"It's better looking and simpler than Chinese," said Zhang Hui, as he pulled his shirt off to display his former girlfriend's name tattooed in Roman letters between his shoulder blades.
His new girlfriend slunk to the back of the room.
"The English looks better," agreed Rocky Feng, a 24-year-old teacher shopping for a tattoo in a backroom parlor in north Beijing.
Tattoos have been around for nearly a millennium in China. Perhaps the most famous one graced the back of Yue Fei, a famous general in the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 A.D.) whose back read: "Serve the country loyally." Legend has it that his mother ordered the tattoo as inspiration. Under recent decades of Communist Party rule, however tattoos have been largely taboo. Soldiers and police officers must be ink-free. Sports stars rarely have them. And employers discriminate against those with tattoos, thinking they signal a criminal bent.
Only in the past few years have scores of tattoo parlors opened in China's capital, often in back alleys and in private apartments. The industry is unregulated but flourishing, operating in a gray area that occupies a significant slice of Chinese life, neither legal nor illegal.
So which is prettier? Chinese characters or English writing? I guess the grass is always green on the other side of the fence.