Irresistibly drawn

Calligraphy tattoo artist Joey Pang was initially drawn to the art form by her desire to draw

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 October, 2013, 5:44pm

Joey Pang was travelling in New Zealand when she realised that tattoos could also be an art form.

Back home in Hong Kong, tattoos were mainly associated with gangsters, but the ta moko Maori tribal tattoos she saw were something else entirely: serious and elegant, elaborate and sacred.

I didn't start because I thought tattooing was cool. It was purely a medium of drawing for me
Joey Pang

Pang was then working as an assistant teacher at a cosmetics school, but longed to draw professionally. "Growing up in Hong Kong, I knew I wanted to do something related to drawing, so I went to design school," she says.

"But I realised design is totally different from drawing. Make-up was a chance for me to play with colour. From there, I got the chance to learn body-painting. Once I got the feel of painting on skin, I thought it was a pity that after all the hard work, you wash it off and it's gone."

Following her transformative trip to New Zealand, Pang decided to try her hand at tattoo art. She went to Europe to train at studios there. "I didn't start because I thought tattooing was cool. It was purely a medium of drawing for me."

At one studio, a Swiss artist told her that Chinese characters were a popular tattoo trend across Europe, although the characters were often incorrect. Pang had been searching for her own style, and the news struck her as felicitous.

"From then on, I had a mission: to show the world real Chinese calligraphy art. When I came back to Hong Kong, I started studying with a calligraphy teacher. I'm still learning. Calligraphy is its own art form - kind of a lifetime study thing."

Pang has become famous for her "Asian-style" tattoos, as distinctive as they are beautiful. Her style is "wet" - nearly all of her tattoos are rendered with a soft, brush-like texture, often incorporating splashes and splatters of ink and blood.

Her approximation of a brushstroke is incredible, considering the sharp, exact needle of a tattoo gun, and her tattoos often look more like painting than drawing. Certain motifs feature prominently in her work: blossoms and Buddhas, koi and dragons. And, of course, calligraphy.

"It's all from calligraphy," she says. "I know the feel of the brush. The most important thing is to learn the philosophy behind calligraphy: everything is the same thing. But technically … I can't describe how I do it. It took years of training.

"[Calligraphy] is more difficult than tattoo art. It's all in the control of the brush, and the brush is so flexible. It's all about your qi. Most calligraphy artists also do tai chi to gain inner balance."

Pang opened her own parlour, Tattoo Temple, after returning to Hong Kong in 2006. She wanted something radically different from the gangster-driven, grimy salons of her youth.

"A traditional tattoo artist usually looks scary or mean. I don't know why," she says, laughing. "The music is always angry and loud. The energy here is so different, as you can see."

Indeed, Tattoo Temple feels more like a spa than a tattoo parlour. All guests are asked to remove their shoes upon entry. The lights are dim, and every client is tattooed privately in a room with slick, black glass walls.

In addition to her beautiful designs, Pang has built a reputation on impeccable hygiene and customer service. "The reason I went to Europe was to learn the proper procedure and hygiene. I wanted to give people safe tattoos where everything is perfectly done."

Pang found that other tattoo artists were cutting corners and skimping on cheap, inadequate equipment. "I thought if I want to do things my own way, it was better I have my own studio and bring high-quality hygiene to Hong Kong."

Tattoo Temple employs four full-time artists, including Pang who trains every artist from scratch as an apprentice. But she's careful about taking on new apprentices.

"It's quite hard to fit in. The way I present the whole tattoo experience is peaceful and comfy. It's really about customer service. We make sure we are on time for all of our sessions, and I've found that to be hard for many tattoo artists. I prefer to train people from zero, and then we're all made from the same material."

Although Hong Kong's first annual tattoo convention debuts this weekend, Pang and Tattoo Temple will not be there. She has decided to stop accepting new customers in order to focus on developing her art. Pang's work is so popular her waiting list is now stalled at two years and counting.

"After everything we work for in our life, the last stage is to know yourself - to find inner peace. Art is about feeling and connection. I build better connections with my clients by being more sensitive and aware," Pang says.

After completing her waiting list, Pang plans to take only one full-body client a year. "My ideal image is a virgin body - someone with no tattoos. Then I would spend time getting to know the person, and spend half a year building a design using their whole body."

However, she has one condition, which some may find alarming - and others, alluring. "They need to give me their skin after they die. In Japan, they've kept [heavily tattooed] yakuza skins after they die in [Choshiro Nakano's Asakusa Tattoo Museum]. For me, that's such a romantic thing to do. After we die, there's nothing left, so why not?

"My ideal plan would be to make a collection of my work. If people don't want to do that, they can pay me, but that would be expensive, of course."

One client has already donated her skin - not a "virgin body", but a leg. Considering Pang's cult following, it's likely more will follow.

Some people will doubtless be drawn to the extraordinary idea of preserving their skin for posterity's sake. For those who are repelled by the thought, not to worry - Tattoo Temple's other artists will work on as usual.