Body art
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LIFE

Hong Kong's 'new tattoo culture': photographer charts its evolution

Helen Mitchell, an artist and academic, first photographed tattoos five years ago in Hong Kong. She recently returned to find a much expanded and changed scene

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 May, 2015, 2:07pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 May, 2015, 8:59am

Helen Mitchell has one tattoo: the image of The Great Wave off Kanagawa - also known as The Wave - by Japanese artist Hokusai, curling from her waist to her right thigh. "I got it when I was in my 30s. It started out as the size of a large coin, but the tattooist was right when he told me that I'd add to it. It's now quite big," she says.

It comes as a surprise to learn that the photographer, artist and academic from Wellington, New Zealand, doesn't have more tattoos - and didn't get her first earlier - considering she's been fascinated with body art since a young age.

"I'd wanted a tattoo for as long as I can remember … I was attracted by their indelibility and the stories they conveyed," the 50-year-old says ahead of her second exhibition in New Zealand focusing on Hong Kong's tattoo culture.

Her love of tattoos goes deeper than the dermis. Mitchell has spent more than a decade peeling back the layers of the art form, examining the cultural significance of tattooing and its shift from subculture to popular culture. While most people who get a tattoo are consumed with the "what" - what image or what words they want etched on their body - Mitchell is more interested in the "why".

"When I got my tattoo I was really interested in the motivations as to why I'd commissioned this artwork for my body," she says. "Apart from decorative reasons, why did I - and why do others - get a tattoo? What's the motivation?"

Mitchell's tattoo was a response to the experiences she had travelling through Japan in her early 20s.

This nagging question led Mitchell, a photography senior lecturer at Massey School of Fine Arts in Wellington, on an ink journey - she's been studying tattoos in popular culture since 2007 and it's the subject of her master's degree. She's documented a tattoo renaissance within New Zealand society, focusing much of her research on why women in her homeland get tattoos. "We're reputed to be the most tattooed women in the world, although I think North America slightly pips us," she says.

In New Zealand, moko - the art of tattoo - is deeply etched in the indigenous Maori culture with the sacred, symbolic and intricate one-of-a-kind markings of the body and face bearing huge cultural significance, symbolising a wide range of meaning from beauty to belonging. "Since the early 1800s, Europeans have been travelling in the Pacific and acquiring tattoos, so there's been an exchange of non-indigenous tattoo in New Zealand throughout its colonial history."

During her research she stumbled across "a few articles - a couple in the South China Morning Post and on BBC" - looking at the rise of tattooing in Hong Kong, feeding her theory that people in post-colonial societies are getting inked as a way to strengthen their cultural roots and identity.

"Our identity is less likely to be tied to race, a professional organisation, or our social hierarchy where maybe it used to be. People now have the freedom to construct their own sense of who they are. A tattoo contributes to that individual construction of identity," she says.

"I found that people living in a post-colonial culture are more interested in identity. What I saw emerging was the idea that if your identity is floating, how do you fix it? You might dress in a particular way, style your hair a certain way, or you might get a tattoo."

Armed with a camera and a curious mind, Mitchell came to Hong Kong in 2010 to document its tattoo scene; the resulting images were shown at the exhibition "Shifting Identity: The Evolution of a New Tattoo Culture in Hong Kong", in Wellington in 2011.

Last month, Mitchell returned to Hong Kong and spent two days photographing 35 people - tattoo artists and those with tattoos - to see how the ink landscape had evolved. What she found was a much changed scene - one that had not only expanded but also diversified. "On my first visit I noticed the tattoo designs were very traditional, a lot by [tattoo artist] Jimmy Ho, who is famous for his dragons."

This time more people were paying homage to Hong Kong. "People are getting more coloured work with detailed shading and tattoos of iconic Hong Kong scenes such as the Star Ferry. There was a real affection for the city. The influences are more contemporary - they are commissioned artworks.

"There're interesting motivations for getting their tattoos and loads of diversity - and loads more tattoo parlours," says Mitchell, mirroring a shift in attitudes in a city that once considered tattoos a sign of gangster links, with those who had them often stigmatised.

With her new subjects she also noticed a lot of body art celebrating relationships. "A lot of people had memorialised significant events in their lives, they were celebrating their passions, although not all were serious and not all profound. Some might remember their love of the 1950s through a tattoo, while others might have tattoos that commemorated the death of a friend or loved one.

"One tattooist I photographed had birth signs of his children, a rabbit on the front of his body and a dragon tattoo on his back."

Mitchell also noted a gender shift with a rise not only in the number of women getting tattoos but in the number of female tattooists. "The way the tattoo scene is evolving in Hong Kong is really fascinating."

All images will be shown in Mitchell's latest exhibition "Hong Kong Ink: Tattoo Culture and Identity", at Northart Gallery during Auckland's Festival of Photography in June. She plans to return her work to Hong Kong once she finds a space to show it.

"There's this wonderful confidence about the people I photographed - even the people who were quiet and shy seemed very self-contained and comfortable. I think these photos say a lot about the people of Hong Kong. It's a gutsy thing to take off your clothes in a photographic studio in front of a couple of strangers."

For this story and more, read The Review, published with the Sunday Morning Post on May 17, 2015