No pain, no gain

The approach of Hong Kong's first tattoo convention prompts Jason Gagliardi to consider the practice's artistry, history and cultural significance

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 6:06pm

I got my first tattoo in Hong Kong at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. In the heady pre-handover years, it was a rite of passage, as tattoos often are. That hidden dragon or crouching tiger carved into flesh in the dark heart of Wan Chai was a note to your future self, a permanent reminder that all the craziness did happen.

The parlour lurked in Lockhart Road, an anonymous door in a blinking forest of neon. I turned up there one morning around 3am with two sozzled fellow reporters. We had made the fateful decision an hour before in a pub. There was no turning back.

There's more to tattoos than sailors, bikers and gangsters
Jay FC

We rang the bell until a frowning Chinese fellow appeared and we followed him into a lift that creaked and moaned like some superannuated Suzie Wong. Eventually it rattled us up to the parlour, which was a room lined with mirrors, cheap furniture and rusted steel flooring glazed with tiny ink spatters. Shades of Blade Runner. The walls were festooned with the dragon scales of yellowing tattoo flash and glistening snapshots of the freshly inked.

The implicit reminder: tattoos hurt. There will be blood.

It did hurt. There was blood. And my tattoo, a tiger, wasn't quite right. It looked like … a lizard. A soft reptilian thing slouching up my left shoulder, shorn of any hint of sex or menace, meaningless, absurd.

Jay FC, co-organiser of the 1st International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention 2013 taking place over the coming weekend, also got his first tattoo at Ricky and Pinky's in 1994. The founder and creative director of ChinaStylus creative studio, pioneer of 2008 Hong Kong tattoo event SKIN:INKS and the ST/ART street art collective, and a member of the Clockenflap festival organising team, arrived better prepared than my posse.

Jay FC says he had his first tattoo all figured out. "It was a Maori hei matau, which had personal significance for me." The fishhook-shaped hei matau is usually worn as an amulet to denote power and authority, conferring protection on those travelling over water. "My friends all thought it was the Ocean Park logo."

It took Jay FC almost a year to return to Ricky and Pinky's, this time acquiring a spectacular dragon coiled around his arm and shoulder. "It was fantastic. Ricky sat down and did the whole thing freehand. I realised great tattoo artists have to understand what they are doing and do what they are best at. You just have to let them get on with it."

Pinky Yun died two years ago and Ricky Yan is in his dotage. The new Hong Kong tattoo king is Gabe Shum Long-wai of Freedom Tattoo, the driving force behind the convention. His empire sprawls over the 11th floor of a To Kwa Wan warehouse, but the industrial chic ends there. Inside, it's more like a smart new bar or an advertising agency. Only the finest American inks are used, rigorous American health standards are followed. And it closes at 10pm.

Shum, a Malaysian-born Chinese who spent a peripatetic youth in Ghana, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, now calls Hong Kong home. A dragon devotee, down to his name (Long-wai), he namechecks HR Giger and US tattoo artist Guy Aitchison as influences, along with his father, who was "always drawing and tinkering with machines".

This latter-day local hero acts global: David Beckham and NBA star LeBron James sport his art, also to be found on vast expanses of Hong Kong celebrity skin.

When contemplating a tattoo, Jay FC says common sense, sober reflection and the real estate dictum - "location, location, location" - should be applied. You will have it for life. And it will die with you. "That is the bittersweet sadness of the art," he says.

True believers will be able to debate the existential dilemmas and artistic conundrums of the ancient practice from midday to 12am, on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, in the new InnoCentre in Kowloon Tong. About 40 leading tattooists from Hong Kong, the mainland, Britain, the US, Japan, France, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland and Thailand will be doing displays, competitions and tattoos for paying customers.

The convention "has been my vision for a long time", Shum says. "Our goal is to create a tattoo event for Hong Kong which can become an annual event and help put Hong Kong tattooing on the world map."

Jay FC adds: "Tattoos have existed for centuries and it is an extraordinary art form - physically, culturally, spiritually, technically, creatively. There's more to tattoos than sailors, bikers and gangsters."

The word itself comes from the Tahitian word tatau, and Captain James Cook overheard it somewhere in Polynesia and anglicised it. Cook returned to England and news of the strange, painful practice spread. By the mid-18th century, every port had a tattoo parlour or two. In 1862, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, was inked with a Jerusalem cross on his arm, and the British aristocracy adopted the practice with a passion.

The oldest tattoo on record belongs to "Otzi", the ice man sprung from an Austrian glacier who got his first ink 5,000 years ago. Minimal must have been in vogue - his tattoos are mostly multiple sets of parallel lines. It's the Egyptians who really got the ink flowing all over Asia. Mummies dating back past 2000BC sport the curious Morse code-like dots and dashes of ancient Egyptian body art.

The Ainu tribe is thought to have taken tattooing back to Japan, where in typical style the Japanese perfected it. In Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism were conflated and tattoos grew in stature as sacred markings with special powers.

Tattoos spread into China along the Silk Road, splintering into myriad styles and sects.

For this convention, Shum and his Freedom Tattoo team have taken charge of bringing in the tattoo artists and the overall concept. Jay FC is on point for the non-tattoo happenings. These include hip hop celebrity supernova 24 Herbs, metal bands DP and Qiu Hong, plus local DJs every day from 4pm - not to mention graffiti and street art, food and drink, tattoo equipment displays, silverware, Thai Buddhist accessories and live traditional Asian wood carving.

Watch for the mysterious SANAxxx, who fuses traditional Butoh, contemporary dance and a generous helping of eroticism. Her South African husband, Travelling Mick, will also be there. He is the tattoo world's unofficial scribe, documentary maker and poet laureate, a heavily inked free spirit who roams the world on a quest to chronicle every last tattoo culture.

"People will be blown away by the diversity of creative style and technique," says Jay FC. "The diversity of people who have tattoos from the obvious to the unexpected, across all ages, cultures, social status and beliefs. The diversity of the scale of tattoos from the subtle to the extensive. The diversity of the tools of the trade. Plus I suspect few people have never seen a Thai Buddhist monk tattooing someone with little more than a sliver of sharpened bamboo."

Jay FC also hopes to dispel some common fears. "Times have changed, techniques have improved. There is better hygiene, better equipment, better inks." Prices, too have changed: top-notch ink will set you back HK$2,000 an hour, so if you want a Beckham-esque arm sleeve, prepare to part with HK$20,000 or more.

Everything about today's tattoos is better, but bad taste and poor judgment still lurk. Think that first tattoo through. Get a second opinion. Listen to your artist. Years later, I came to appreciate the genius of my tiger-lizard-thing: the buffoon had been branded with his drunken whim, with all of its desired attributes excised.

I sensed a warning: the tiger-lizard-thing was me, if I didn't change my ways.

A barbed rebuke. A lesson. And a last laugh that would last a lifetime. All for the price of one tattoo.

Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention 2013, Fri-Sun, 12pm-12am, InnoCentre, 72 Tat Chee Avenue (near Festival Walk), Kowloon Tong, HK$100 single day advance, HK$220 weekend advance, from door (single-day only) HK$150. Inquiries: