What's your artistic background like? And how did that lead to tattooing?
I’ve been in love with drawing and design ever since I was a kid. I grew up in very rural areas of Mainland China & Hong Kong and didn’t have any art books - I just drew anything and everything around. The idea of being a tattoo artist wasn’t even in my vocabulary and tattoos themselves were thought of as only being for criminals. I worked in the cosmetics industry before leaving to study design. I started with graphic design then moved to fashion and finally interior design. I went to New Zealand to study English and while I was there I saw how people carried their tattoos with pride, it completely changed my entire outlook of the art. From then it was as if a fire was lit inside me. I knew that I had to become a tattoo artist. I traveled to Thailand, China, France, Germany, Switzerland, the US & UK just studying tattoos and different types of body art.
I've read you're a professionally trained Chinese Calligraphy artist—the only one who is also a tattoo artist. Tell us a bit about your background and training in calligraphy.
Even though Chinese characters serve as a practical method of communication the art of Chinese calligraphy is extremely complex. Almost like a hidden layer behind a language we use every day. Calligraphy is said to be the art form most revealing of the artist’s personality. The level of individual interpretation, movement and style is what adds life to the writing. I’ve been studying calligraphy since I was very young because my mother loved it. She still enters calligraphy competitions and is in class every week. For me it’s been many years of training with the Hong Kong Calligraphy Association and under many teachers. Calligraphy, much like any art, is something you can never ‘master'. I’m still in training everyday and classes a few times a week. When designing a tattoo I typically write out each character around 100 times according the client’s requested calligraphy style and period of history (each character is written differently according the time in Chinese history). Despite all the years put in I’m sure I’ll still be going to class as a very old lady!
You could easily be considered one of the pioneers of translating traditional Chinese calligraphy shapes and form in a way best suitable to tattooing...
I see Chinese character tattoos that simply look like computer font or where it’s difficult to even make out what the character is as the proportions can be so off. I read somewhere that bad Chinese characters and mistranslation is the main reason behind tattoo removal! One of the tattooing techniques I’ve worked hardest on is the recreation of brush lines and genuine calligraphy movement. It was something never done before. Each character needs to be tailored to the area it’s being placed on the body. Then if there are series of characters the whole chain has to be individually balanced and then the script again as a tattoo piece. The preparation time is considerable but it’s always a pleasure to see the result. Most of the clients who come to me for calligraphy are themselves Chinese.
In addition to calligraphy, you're known for specializing in a wide range of Asian styles. What does that mean exactly? Can you show us the different, uh, 'Asian styles' you like, maybe explain the differences between them for those of us that don't know everything?
‘Asian style’ is indeed a pretty broad category. Some of the best known forms within this are; Chinese calligraphy of course, traditional Japanese (like the well known koi, wave, fan and flower designs), Chinese mythology & nature scenes (dragons, phoenix, watercolor and landscape paintings, bamboo, trees, flowers), modern Chinese (nature scenes, abstract pieces), Thangka Art and Asian mythology (Hindu deities, Chinese deities, archetypal depictions). There are of course many more examples under each style but this is a general idea!
Japanese design is generally busier than Chinese. The Chinese approach also values the empty or negative space as much as the subject of the piece. It’s much more of a balancing act than just filling in every available space. Traditional Japanese pieces, like the body suits, really cover whole areas and are tailored to the contours of the body.
There are many bourgeoning modern Chinese styles that offer a twist on traditional elements. Specifically things like bamboo or cherry blossoms can be used in new ways within body art. Thangka is one of my absolute favorites. This style is from Nepal and uses high contrast bright color with close detail.
Dragons are some of the most flexible and individual characters. Every artist can really create their own style or feeling of dragon. The Filip Leu book of dragons is a fantastic example of a Westerners’ use of these traditionally Asian elements.
As each tattoo is custom designed for the client and only used once I'm always being tested and pushed in new directions. I love the challenge!
As an American, I'm always curious what it's like to be involved in the tattoo scene in places where being tattooed carries such a different weight socially. What's it like living and working as a tattooer in Hong Kong?
Hong Kong tattoos are thought of by most locals as being just for gangsters or sailors. Most tattoo studios are just filled with flash designs. In many places today you can still smoke while getting a tattoo and it wasn't too long ago that you could actually trade packs of cigarettes for a tattoo! There is still no government control over tattoo studio hygiene or operation, almost as if it's not really recognized as a legitimate trade. The Hong Kong discrimination towards tattooing is very slowly moving away from a really rough, underground practice but there are opposing ends of this trend. Meaning some people still really do get gangster tattoos while others see their body art as a very high-end collectable. Obviously they'd be frequenting different studios : )
We're starting to see more people get tattooed but there is still a very strong stigma attached to the practice. Most locals we have talked to still won't get a visible tattoo because they're afraid of how their family might react. Hong Kong is also a huge tourist hub and many studios cater to the walk-in traveler looking for a permanent memento.
I've tattooed police chiefs, CEO's, doctors, lawyers and many high powered executives. In the professional world there is still a prejudice towards individuals with visible tattoos - more so than in the Western world. This doesn't stop them from getting large art pieces but everything is usually able to be covered by a business suit. The Western celebrities helped bring the practice out of the shadows a bit in Hong Kong as ink made it into the public sphere. Shows like LA Ink and Miami Ink were very popular. Conversely, the whole situation can help people choose their artwork more carefully. As there is a negative stereotype attached people think more about what they really want, plan & research longer and are happy to wait for their perfect piece. Generally speaking, if it is not socially acceptable to simply collect just any type of tattoo then there is a chance that the quality of ink people do choose to get could increase.
All in all we are in an extremely early stage of acceptance of tattooing as an art form. Hong Kong is roughly a decade behind many Western countries in regards to tattoo uptake. And we're even seeing many great artists coming out of Mainland China now as the social climate there could be argued to be more accepting of tattoos than in Hong Kong!
Do you get to do much traveling. If so, where do you go and how often?
During maternity traveling can't be on the agenda for the next few months! I think walking is hard enough. One of the greatest parts of being a tattoo artist is a freedom to travel. Seeing how artists work and other cultures value tattooing is just fantastic. There are very few worthwhile conventions around APAC but I've been to Singapore, China, Taiwan and Thailand for a few. The next convention I'm planning on will most likely be in the UK and then a few over in the States. I'd like to go as often as possible but the amount of work I have here keeps me off the planes and in the studio.
Last I knew, your wait list was roughly a year long. What's it like as an artist to go so long between visits from clients, or know that you literally have NO available time to tattoo people?
I know it's really long and I'm working hard to make it shorter! The waiting time is actual bookings already made. So from consultation to application, 12 - 19 months is the estimated length of time. This of course also depends on the detail and complexity of the requested piece. However many of the clients fly in from overseas for their tattoo. As such we're usually in contact via phone or e-mail throughout. I'll get in touch right away if I have any questions or need their feedback on a project. If they come across a reference that they really like they often send it through to discuss. The waiting time doesn't feel as long as it sounds as we're pretty much in constant contact. It really is a collaborative process and I love it! I'm just so grateful for the opportunity to work with such great clients who really value their tattoos.
I'd love to know more about the tattoos YOU have? Who are the last three artists that tattooed you, and what did they do? (NOT PRINTED: You are welcome to include photos, links to artists whose work you have, etc.)
I have a portrait on my leg from Little Dragon. He's a fantastic artist and really a 'xi fu' or master of the trade. I have another portrait on my leg from Paul Booth. This was a few years ago from when he was a guest artist here at Tattoo Temple. Paul Booth is an absolute legend and just a powerhouse of a character. And my right arm is covered in large flower petals. This was done by a Chinese artist call Jia Liang. I have to get back in touch with him as it's still unfinished!
What are your feelings on tattoo conventions? Any specific ones that you absolutely love?
I have to get out and see more! I think anything that promotes tattooing as an art form is worthwhile. I love the community and excitement that comes with conventions. Everyone is happy to show their ink. And I think most people appreciate it on both sides - to both show and be seen. The artwork is progressing and its development will also continue to redefine how these interactions change over the years. As the quality and appreciation of the artwork grows so will the standards.
.For a female that was interesting in tattooing, what would your advice be to get started? Surely things are different nowadays, and sometimes it's hard to figure out where to even start.
Things are different nowadays and the industry is definitely more open. To me the most important point would be to simply follow your passion for art. Study and learn as much as you can! If you're interested in any art form it can all be put to use in tattooing later. All roads lead to body art in a sense. I think the differentiating factor is that great tattoos take art and then add a layer of complexity by applying it to a human body. In a sense a moving, living canvas. What art form or style you want to do that with is your choice. Just follow your passion.