Daniel Whitford currently practices his craft at a small studio called Lucky Lasagna. (Alywin Chew / China Daily)
The pursuit of his dreams in China has not been easy, but this aspiring tattoo artist isn't about to call it quits yet
Daniel Whitford isn't afraid to say that he's a broke foreigner in Shanghai.
In fact, he even admits that he has just a few hundred dollars left in his bank account and is living from hand to mouth.
But instead of packing up and heading home to the United States where he is confident he can find steady employment, the aspiring tattoo artist is adamant that China is where he needs to be in order to hone his craft.
"It's the work ethic in China. Here, the focus is not so much on talent but on being disciplined and working hard. That's what I need to improve," said the 37-year-old.
"Besides, there's just so much else for me to learn here, from the local culture to the language. I just feel so humbled here. San Francisco used to be a big city to me. After coming to Shanghai, San Francisco just feels like a ghost town. America is easy for me. China is not — and I like that."
Born in Seattle and raised in a small town in the Sierra Nevada, Whitford has since his childhood days possessed a love for creating things. He recalled how he used to spend his days playing in the junkyard of a neighbor's home, piecing together scrap objects to form robots. He also enjoyed drawing and doodling.
Whitford first came into contact with tattoos when he worked as an engineer in a California prison. There, he learned about the art form from inmates who were assigned as his helpers. But it wasn't just the designs and symbolism of the tattoos that was eye-opening.
"In prison, people have nothing but time to be innovative. The inmates would make their own needles from lighter springs or small pieces of metal. They'll find anything with an electric motor, like an old walkman, that can drive the spring," he recalled.
"It's even crazier how they make their own ink. They would put a wick in a cup of lotion and light it. They would then collect the soot from the wick and mix it with toothpaste to create ink."
Whitford became so enamored with the art form that he went to get his first tattoo after leaving the prison to work as a water treatment plant operator. He now has eight tattoos, all of different styles, on his body.
He later learned about the creations of Shanghai-based tattoo master Shao Gang through his friend Oliver Wong who apprenticed under the Chinese artist. What Whitford saw left him spellbound.
"I was in awe of Shao Gang's work. It's pretty astounding stuff. His ability to emulate depth in a tattoo is something I've never seen before. I think if he didn't live in China he would be one of the most famous tattoo artists in the world. Right now he's lacking exposure because tattoo culture isn't as pronounced in China," he said.
A confluence of factors — the breakup with his ex-girlfriend, an existential crisis and job dissatisfaction — compelled Whitford to take the leap of faith in 2016 to pursue his interest of becoming a tattoo artist. And there was only one person he wanted to learn from — Shao.
"I knew it was going to be a gamble. But what's the worst that could happen? I would just head back to the US and find another job. It's not as if I'll die," he said.
Whitford recalled that Shao was skeptical of his request to learn until he showed up at the shop in Shanghai in November 2016. And just like that, he became an apprentice to the revered artist for about a year. The American did not have to pay a single cent.
While the grueling training regime — 12 hours a day, six days a week — helped Whitford to improve his skills, it also prevented him from getting a job. Slowly but surely, the decimal point in his bank account shifted to the left. He was broke by the end of 2017.