Tattoos have had three main eras in Hong Kong beginning with allied servicemen stationed here after the Second World War. The tattoos had basic outlines and their quality was poor - features that remained in the 60s and 70s when tattoos began to be linked with triads. Intriguingly, however, this is a misconception. No genuine triad would get a tattoo - the police would spot them a mile away. Rather than proper gangsters getting inked, it was young rascals starting for trouble. Despite this stigma, in recent years we’ve been moving into a different era - with tattoos just beginning to be appreciated as an art form.
There’s a long way to go, but one of the artists driving the evolution is Joey Pang (above) who established Tattoo Temple in 2006. It’s one of the few studios (if not the only studio) in Hong Kong that solely produces unique tattoos. Joey’s waiting list is two years and she charges HK$1,600/hour. It beats journalism, and if you think that’s impressive, the top artists outside Hong Kong can charge up to US$500/hour.
When we visited her studio a client was getting an enormous dragon tattoo that will eventually wrap from his back to front and scare the life out of his children. In total he will have to sit for 100 hours, a journey that will span an entire year because he has to wait a few months between each sitting to allow his skin to repair. How long you can sit depends on your pain threshold. Some customers can only stomach 30 minutes. Others can last 13 hours.
Encouragingly, Joey says their clientele’s been changing over the past few years, with more women getting inked as well as more businessmen. The majority of their clients still choose to get tattoos in places where they can hide them (such as on their backs) but Joey says more people want tattoos in the first place. Tattoos may still be taboo, particularly for the older generation - but they’re not what they used to be.
The growing acceptance of tattoos in Hong Kong has popular culture to thank. Over the past decade a multitude of stars from Angelina Jolie to David Beckham have been getting inked. (Incidentally, Becks got one of his tattoos in Hong Kong at Ace Dragon Tattoo.) Hong Kongers follow their idols as intently as they listen to food bloggers, so the surge of celebrity tattoos has caused a consumer spike. Celebrities have helped normalise tattoos and, for many, removed the necessary association with gangsters.
A major issue, however, is this celebrity influence is unsustainable. When the celebrity trend dies, so will the consumer trend. What this means for Hong Kong is that tattoos will lose a significant amount of public appeal. In fact Chris Anderson, Regional Manager for the Unique Living Art organization, believes the honeymoon period is already over. He says the celebrity phase is waning. This decline won’t affect quality artists like Joey (you don’t get a tattoo from her if you’re following a fad – not least because you’ll have to wait a few years to get a sitting) but it will affect overall tattoo numbers.
The reason people go to a pro like Joey (unlike celeb-followers) is because they see tattoos as an art form rather than just a sticker. They believe their body can be turned into a canvas. One of the reasons so few people in Hong Kong share this opinion, however, is sheer ignorance. The majority of people in Hong Kong simply aren’t aware of the colours or patterns you can produce with a tattoo gun. Why would they be? Because of the stigma attached to tattoos they're rarely shown off, and because they're rarely shown off, few people are aware of their appeal. It’s a vicious cycle and the end result is that tattoo culture in Hong Kong is decades behind the rest of the world. In fact, the artists we spoke to said Hong Kong’s tattoo culture is defined by its absence. There is none.
Alex Lendrum, Editor of Blank Skin, Hong Kong’s first magazine devoted to tattoos, said the critical factor preventing the growth of tattoo culture in Hong Kong is the lack of community between the city's artists. Most artists work for themselves and the money - not for the medium. Though this wouldn’t raise any eyebrows at Credit Suisse, it’s markedly different to tattoo culture in the rest of the world.
A case in point, having worked abroad for several years, when Joey returned to Hong Kong to set up Tattoo Temple she tried to create a community - but when she visited other studios she was treated with hostility. The artists thought she was trying to poach business. Alex found the same when he tried to establish a regular tattoo night for artists and fans. He was told it would never work because rival artists would never meet in the same place. It sounds like the school playground but the fact is in Hong Kong tattoos are seen as an industry rather than an art form. Most artists just see each other as competitors vying for the same pie, and until that changes, the culture won’t improve.
Without a community in Hong Kong, artists also struggle to improve their talents - they can only learn so much if they can't venture beyond their own studios. Joey summed it up when she said artists in Hong Kong ask each other how their business is going rather than what they’re drawing.
Another surprising feature is the lack of regulation. Red tape in Hong Kong is usually as infectious as Ebola, but shockingly there are no hygiene laws for tattoo parlours. It’s essentially up to the studio to implement whatever regulations they see fit. With needles involved it’s a serious situation, so if you’re getting a tattoo, make sure you ask whether the studio follows international guidelines.
Alex admitted there’s a significant lack of information about the industry which also makes it confusing. At Blank Skin he was trying to produce Hong Kong’s first tattoo directory simply because there wasn’t one. Alex said there are roughly 50 tattoo studios in Hong Kong (excluding bedroom artists) but no one knows the exact figure. It’s a mess.
Despite these issues a few enthusiasts are trying to push the boat forwards. The artist who inked Beckham’s tattoo in Hong Kong, Gabe, will try to kick-start a community again this year while Joey is pressuring the government to regulate. What’s more, though tattoo culture in Hong Kong is virtually non-existent, the perception of tattoos is changing along generational lines, and that’s a positive. Whilst the elderly still view tattoos as taboo, the younger generation are more accepting.
A couple of green shoots are visible but the success of tattoo culture in Hong Kong will ultimately depend on artists changing the way they interact. Such artists also miss the point that their revenues would actually improve if tattoo appreciation were to take off. For now, at least, it remains a pitched battle between coin and culture – but ironically they need each other if they’re both to win out.