Tattoo Bias & Economies of Thought
“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Hong Kong has somewhat of a ‘traditional infamy’ regarding triad tattoos. Due to the economic success and population density of this small fishing village turned metropolis, China’s Special Administrative Region is renowned for criminal tattoos and displays of organized crime affiliation. Public perception and purported fear of these markings is then reinforced by mainstream media, Hollywood included. Far from an insight into gang organization, this portrayal is a fantastic double bluff. The practice also sheds light on how the general public’s judgment of the tattooed is merely an economy of thought – allowing for broad generalizations without the need for subsequent artistic discrimination. Both of these conditions allow for illogical and outdated ‘inked-discrimination’.
The term ‘triad’ is said to have been coined by the British after assuming control of the colony. The name was derived from the traditional Chinese triangle iconography used by the gangs signifying the unity between heaven, earth and man. And even most Hong Kong triad groups still have their roots strongly in Mainland China. Throughout the 19th and 20th century the triads’ presence in Hong Kong grew alongside the territory’s reputation as an international business and shipping hub. Like any industry, the triad groups were separated by area of specialty and geographical location. There are still many active groups throughout both Mainland China and Hong Kong. It was just in 1993 that the notorious 6 acre ‘Walled City’, boasting a population of 33,000 under triad rule, was demolished. Today the number of active members in each of the top groups is estimated to range between 20,000 and 100,000+.
The two most recognizable forms in triad tattoos are the dragon and the phoenix. These generally aggressive images work in tandem within the mythology. The dragon image is held to signify the ‘yang’ or dark side of the ‘yin-yang’ balance. Far from a beast to be feared or hunted as in Western mythology, the Chinese dragon traditionally symbolized good luck, power and control over various elements. Of these traits power is the most common reason behind the acquisition of dragon tattoos. On the other side is the ‘light’ or ‘yin’ element represented by the phoenix. A fire bird consistently reborn from the ashes, the phoenix symbolizes regeneration. And to that extent the phoenix also stands for a kind of power over the mortal coil. Again, the dragon and phoenix are the most recognizable pairing in triad tattoos. The other combination is the dragon and tiger. The reason for this second grouping derives from a variety of cultural sources including particular etymology of local dialects, myths behind famous Chinese leaders as well as the perceived internal struggle between the inclination towards good or bad (with each animal representing a distinct proclivity).
The use of these images and mythology by triad members is not in question. Many triad members will have such tattoos. However, the mistaken belief is that these tattoos are used by the triad organizations themselves. Any broad categorizations of those who wear these tattoos automatically being a triad member of any repute are deeply inaccurate. The subtle differentiation being that those who publically display these tattoos are either a separate class of triad members or simply tattooed individuals.
Generally speaking there are two types of triads. The first is locally referred to as a ‘troublemaker’, the ‘young and dangerous’ type. These ‘troublemakers’ are generally concerned with street squabbles over territory, drugs, petty crime and intimidation. Due to their public profile and propensity for display, this type receives the most attention. The second type is colloquially referred to as the ‘black-band’ society. Much like any major crime organization their ranks are controlled with militarily precision and its members can be professionals from a variety of fields. Throughout the largest groups lawyers, bankers, business owners, politicians and policeman can be included in this second category. There are two rules governing the second type, to never cause trouble and to never be identified as a member. The gang’s income and business structures require the preservation of a status-quo. To upset this through any petty crime, unauthorized intimidation or showboating would be short sighted and absolutely detrimental to operations. The first type has allowed for the current negative stereotyping of the tattooed in Hong Kong. They have a propensity for very large tattoos yet, due to limited financial means, will usually only complete the outline of the piece. The second type, should they have any tattoos, would not display them in the same way. At an organizational level, leaders of various fractions will not allow followers to be tattooed. Such tattoos would draw too much attention whilst allowing for immediate identification. In a business where anonymity and discrete operations are of primary importance it would be wrong to assume that there is some displayed, physical method of membership categorization.
The idea of an economy of thought is simple, it is a mental shortcut. If one was passed by three people on the street and then asked to describe who passed, answers are most commonly economies of thought. A response could be “Two guys and a girl passed by”. Another could be “Two business men and a woman walked by”, and so on. From personal grooming, types of clothing and even their stride; a plethora of readily available information is frequently overlooked. Due to the sheer amount of information we are exposed to on a daily basis it very rarely serves any purpose to go into further detail than this. And in the absence of any extenuating circumstance, for the everyday person much of this information would indeed be useless to retain. One’s more complete attention is devoted to the environmental aspects that are of immediate concern or use. Economies of thought serve multiple purposes and allow for speedy navigation of modern day life. Yet if these economies of thought are taken as inherent truths they form the foundation for most every type of discrimination.
To racially profile, judge, dismiss or otherwise unfairly discriminate is to uphold an ill-formed economy of thought. A striking example of this being the ‘Craniometry’ and ‘Eugenics’ movements most famously employed by the Nazi’s. These supposed ‘sciences’ consisted of taking physical measurements of various body parts. The subsequent ratios between the measured sections were then said to indicate the subjects’ value as a human being. So the length and shape of one’s nose could be used as evidence of intrinsic inferiority or cognitive capacity. Again, an ill-formed economy of thought enables discrimination as investigation or genuine understanding of the facts is rendered unnecessary. This mental process (or lack thereof) with varying levels of complexity and specific cultural pressure applies to all racial profiling, stereotyping and prejudice.
To move out of the somewhat morbidly extreme nature of the previous example, general economies of thought are applied to most every aspect of life. These are internal defense mechanisms that allow for rapid categorization of the information saturated world we are part of. And not to reduce this logic to the Socratic line of continual investigation ending in the admittance we actually know nothing with certainty, mental economies of thought are comparatively topical shortcuts. Much like the snap judgment of someone’s supposed indicated wealth through a subjective calculation of the price of their clothing, the shortcuts in question here are ones that can be reduced or removed entirely with minimal effort.
To see that public displays of dragon and phoenix tattoos do not necessarily indicate a true inclination or connection to organized crime is a novel concept to many. As with any behavior, extreme actions are of course rightfully questionable. Yet tattoo art, in and of itself, can be an art form collected by the most educated and trustworthy people across the globe. To know that there are tattoos and on the other end of the spectrum there is tattoo art will allow for new, slightly more accurate mental economies of thought to develop. To automatically fear, discriminate or dismiss the tattooed would be allowing ill-formed economies of thought to grow and negative stereotypes to propagate. In a world where the rate of tattoo adoption is growing exponentially, we must understand that when properly performed tattoo art can be as varied, complex, beautiful and as detailed as the people who wear it.