On his left shoulder, Chao Yue is getting a tattoo of a crane, the name of his company. The tattoo is replacing an old one of an ex-girlfriend.
On his left shoulder, Chao Yue is getting a tattoo of a crane, the name of his company. The tattoo is replacing an old one of an ex-girlfriend. - 

Kai Ryssdal: China gets a whole lotta media coverage. As it should, being the world's second biggest economy and all. Just this week, there were headlines about Premier Wen Jiabao and how he figures they'll hit their somewhat lower growth targets.

But there's a problem with headlines, right? With big-picture stories, you miss the heart of the thing.

Our correspondent Rob Schmitz is in the middle of a year-long series about the Chinese economy. The people and the places that make it work. They're stories from a single street in Shanghai called the Street of Eternal Happiness.

Today, a man and his ink. Here's Rob.

Rob Schmitz: The Street of Eternal Happiness is mostly lined with dumpling stands, boutique fashion shops, streetside noodle vendors...

This monotony is broken at #434: A purple neon sign glows in a big picture window. It’s advertising the Cang Long Tattoo Studio. Inside, artist Cang Long is etching ink from a buzzing gun onto the bare chest of a customer sunk into a barber’s chair. Around them sit coworkers and friends with spiky hair, facial piercings, skimpy shirts revealing colorful tattoos. They chat and watch the artist at work, tapping their feet to a foreign song they don’t understand…but that seems to understand them just fine: "People are Strange," by the Doors.

Thirty-seven-year-old Cang Long considers it strange that he even owns this place. Growing up, he never thought China and its conservative culture would be ready for tattoo parlors. Years ago, Cang etched his first tattoos into the bodies of his friends in the back of bars late at night. He used individual needles dipped in ink. Very unsanitary, he says. You couldn’t even buy a tattoo machine back then.

Cang Long: At that time, people who had tattoos were mostly gang members. When I got my first tattoo, my parents were shocked. They were like: “Why did you do that? This goes against traditional Chinese beliefs!” They got used to it. Part of my job is to change this negative stereotype of tattoos in China.

It’s working. There are now hundreds of tattoo shops in Shanghai. China’s most popular sports stars have tattoos: people like tennis star Li Na and badminton gold medalist Lin Dan. Still, the government frowns upon tattoos -- most public workers aren’t allowed to have them. But Cang says that isn’t stopping them.

Cang: I’ve even got kindergarten teachers! Teachers, doctors, police officers -- they’re all my customers, but they have to get tattoos where you can’t notice them, or they’ll get fired.

But even these rules seem to be changing: He says a few months ago the Chinese military loosened restrictions on tattoos. He’s already had an uptick in business from People's Liberation Army officers. And as tattoos become more common in China, Cang says, people want more individual styles.

Cang: When tattoos first became popular in China, I noticed a lot of Chinese customers wanted tattoos in English. Foreigners wanted tattoos in Chinese characters. Each culture thought the other’s was really mysterious. These days, people’s tastes have changed. My local customers now want more creative tattoos.

An intricate tattoo of a blue tiger staring into the moonlight with ocean waves lapping around him adorns the shoulder of customer Chao Yue. That tattoo got Chao kicked out of China’s air force years ago. Cang Long is engraving a new tattoo on Chao’s other shoulder. This time, Chao’s got nothing to worry about. He’s his own boss. He sells private jets.

He asks me -- without any hint of sarcasm -- if I would like to buy one.

Chao tells me he’s spending $10,000 on his new tattoo. He’s doing this to cover an old tattoo.

 Chao Yue: Before is my girlfriend’s name. But now we are not together.

Chao had that tattoo for five years. His new tattoo is of a crane with its wings spread in front of a stormy sky. Crane is the name of Chao’s new company in Chinese. This tattoo will last forever, he tells me, taking a draw on his cigarette, watching Cang color in the crane’s eyes. But you never know; China’s changing so quickly. Chao may return to this tattoo parlor on the Street of Eternal Happiness sooner than he thinks.

In Shanghai, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

Follow Rob Schmitz at @rob_schmitz