Qiu Zhijie – Luckily these are not real tattoos

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 2, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 2, 1994

Who is Qiu Zhijie?

Qiu Zhijie is well known for his capacity to add provoking new meanings to traditional Chinese calligraphy. In many of his works, Qiu incorporates calligraphy into modern media to fuse important elements from his culture into his art. His Tattoo series, released in 1994, explores the state of one’s independence and invisibility.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 1, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 1, 1994

Qiu’s ‘Tattoo’ series

To highlight these elements, Qiu included large and oversized Chinese characters on his body and a white background behind him. The artist used a technique he calls cali-photography, whereby he utilized an electric torch to write his calligraphy. He then used a digital camera set on extended exposure to capture the writing before superimposing the shot on another photograph.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 3, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 3, 1994

Qiu’s exploration of symbols

Qiu explores the burden that symbols have on the identity and the independence of a human being. His installation comments on the power that symbols have in society and how they can impose their ‘rule’ to affect how a person sees themselves and how they relate to others in society.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 4, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 4, 1994

In short, the work explores the change that occurs in people as a result of societal symbols. Symbols can change a person until a person becomes a mere vehicle used to display logos and characters. Personal ideologies and personal expressions are replaced by the need to fit into an acceptable mold.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 5, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 5, 1994

The meaning of the work

Although the symbols incorporated in the photographs are superimposed technologically, Qiu has done so expertly, such that they appear painted rather than photographed.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 6, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 6, 1994

This reflects a crossing of mediums that became more and more acceptable in the art scene. The main calligraphic character used can be translated to mean ‘Bu’, which is the Chinese-language equivalent of the word ‘no’.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 7, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 7, 1994

The imposition of the word no across the images could also be translated to signify the Chinese government’s imposition on the independence and individuality of its people. As such, apart from being a powerful social piece, it can also be categorized as a political piece.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 8, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 8, 1994


Qiu Zhijie has managed to create a following for his work because of the diversity of his pieces. The manner in which he combines written and curatorial elements alongside his personal explorations of issues sets him apart from other contemporary Chinese artists. The title suggests that the imposition of the symbols is not just on the surface; it runs deep like a tattoo.

Qiu Zhijie - Tattoo 9, 1994
Qiu Zhijie – Tattoo 9, 1994

All images by Qiu Zhijie unless otherwise noted.


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