World’s finest inkers line up for third Hong Kong tattoo convention

Some 120 tattoo artists from around the world will be showing off their skills at three-day event in Hong Kong next week

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 5:37pm

Jay Foss Cole wants the world to see that not only gangsters have tattoos, but also people such as doctors and judges.

“There’s a long tradition in this part of the world. It’s an ancient art form but also an endlessly changing, developing one. I’ve always been interested in tattoos, and wanted to do something that casts them in a more positive light,” says Cole, better known around Hong Kong as Jay FC.

Two years ago that desire led him to launch the International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention in partnership with tattoo artist Gabe Shum of Freedom Tattoo. The convention’s third edition takes place from October 2 to 4.

Nearly 120 tattoo artists from around the world, sourced by Shum, will assemble at the 22,000 square foot InnoCentre  in Kowloon Tong, where there will be food and drink stalls and a stage, sponsored by skatewear brand Vans, that features a line-up of live bands and DJs.

Hong Kong, China and Japan are well represented among the artists, but others come from as far afield as Venezuela, South Africa, Poland, the Netherlands and Canada. Since most of us are unlikely to be visiting all those countries any time soon, the convention offers a rare opportunity for anyone thinking of getting a tattoo to pick from a global smorgasbord of talent.  Some of the bigger artists bring their most successful subjects along to display their work as a sort of living canvas.

“Anyone who’s been accepted to attend is of a level where they’re among the best, both conceptually and in their craft,” says Cole, who gets a new tattoo himself at the event each year. “The top-tier artists are basically celebrities. With Shige [the professional name of star Japanese artist Shigenori Iwasaki], even before he confirmed he’d be back this year, he was already fully booked.”

Cole, who heads  design studio China Stylus, got his first tattoo at the legendary Ricky & Pinky’s in Wan Chai when he moved to Hong Kong from Britain  in 1994. His first tattoo-related event was the Skin:Inks art exhibition in Central in 2008, which showcased the work of tattoo artists on canvas rather than skin. He organised the event alongside Shum, a renowned tattooist who has worked on the likes of David Beckham, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and a partnership was born that resulted five years later in the first convention.

Some of the artists, if they weren’t working on skin, they’d be a lot more famous
Jay Foss Cole

Before launching their own event, Cole  and Shum  visited the Singapore Tattoo Show,  which – surprise, surprise – was very professionally organised but lacked a certain buzz. “We liked it, but we thought we could do better,” says Cole.  

The two previous Hong Kong events, both at the same venue, have attracted between 4,000 and 5,000 people, and about the same number are expected this year. A surprising number of them don’t have any tattoos at all, and are there simply to appreciate the artwork. “It’s not just crappy pin-up girls and anchors any more,” says Cole. “It’s extraordinary now – just another level. That’s why people are interested – because there’s better and more interesting artwork and messages. People say: ‘I had no idea there was so much variety.’

“Even on paper this stuff would blow your mind, but it’s been done with a heavy metal device on skin. Some of the artists, if they weren’t working on skin, they’d be a lot more famous.”

The event even attracts its share of families. Cole says his own boys, aged eight and five, love the spectacle it presents. “It’s a really nice environment: colourful, bright, creative, noisy.” Because of its attraction to children and the fact it is a public forum, participants need to show sensitivity with regard to  both the subject matter and location of tattoos.

Nonetheless, Cole says, Hong Kong is becoming more open-minded about tattoos. “Attitudes are definitely changing here, especially among younger people. Even when I first got here the line was a bit blurred it was still associated with wayward behaviour. In the past 20 years, famous people have got tattoos, not just punk rockers. Given that we are deeply immersed in celebrity culture these days, that has really helped to make them more mainstream.”

He adds: “Those people who are into it are really into it. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most over the past two years is just looking around at all the people there and thinking: where are all of you normally? There are all these young, innocent-looking kids totally covered in tattoos. Young people in Hong Kong are looking for culture more and more. It’s just lovely to see all of those people feeling comfortable in that environment.”

International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention, October 2-4, 1pm-10pm, InnoCentre, Tat Chee Avenue, Kowloon Tong. Advance tickets HK$120 (Friday), HK$180 (Saturday), HK$150 (Sunday), HK$360 (weekend). Inquiries: info@freedomtattoo.hk