Inking outside the box: how Hong Kong tattoo parlours are doing things differently
Tattoo artists are cashing in on the burgeoning interest in body art. Here's our guide to some of the best and brightest new stars making their mark
Time was when tattoos were seen as markers of lawless living. In Hong Kong, inking the skin was long considered the preserve of triad members proving gang affiliation by having a dragon or phoenix, or other such designs, etched across their backs.
Things have changed, of course, and so have attitudes towards body art. More and more people - from high-flying bankers to middle-aged mums - are adding a bit of flash to their flesh. And as demand rises in the city, so has the quality and variety of tattoo shops, with new ones popping up to cash in on this burgeoning interest in the art.
Unfortunately, the absence of a law governing the industry puts Hong Kong behind the times: anyone here can buy a tattoo gun online, open a parlour and call themselves a professional. These cowboy tattooists might know little about hygiene and the dangers of cross-contamination that come with poking needles into people.
But regardless, the city is still a great place to get a tattoo - so long as you know where to go and what to look for in a professional tattoo artist.
Watch reporter Sarah Karacs get a tattoo
"Cleanliness is next to awesomeness"
Tucked away in a Sheung Wan walk-up, Rob Kelly's tattoo parlour might not be the easiest to find, but what the space lacks in signage it more than makes up for in its quirky and roadkill-bedecked charm. (A stuffed, squinting fox stares at you as you sift through portfolios and discuss colour schemes.)
The bearded Brit, who has worked in the industry since 2005 (he started Blackout in 2010) can do all styles, tailoring his custom tattoos to the diverse needs of clients. When given free rein, his designs are playful, zany and at times, downright bizarre.
"My brain is broken" he says, pointing out designs he has yet to find clients willing to get. A crocodile swallowing a skipping rope, a heart-framed baby holding a skull. He personally prefers tattoos to look like tattoos, that is, to be boldly outlined with lots of black — and a bit more cartoon-like.
A stickler for style, Kelly says that he finds bad tattoos — ones with uneven lines or poor shading — offensive to look at. So you can trust him not to mess up yours.
502 Hing Tai Commercial Bldg, 114 Wing Lok Street (entrance is on On Tai Street) Sheung Wan, blackout-tattoo.com
"Sometimes people come into the shop and they don't believe I'm the owner"
At the age of 26, Zac Wong of Zink Tattoo might not be the oldest tattooist on the block, but he has been in the trade for a decade, initially using his own thighs as a sketchbook.
"My parents weren't supportive at first," says Wong, although he attributes this to the alarm they felt watching their teenage son mess with a tattoo gun in his bedroom. Now, however, they're very proud that he's one of the youngest tattooists to open a parlour in Hong Kong.
Zink Tattoo is run by Wong and his wife Vivi, who are equally enthralled by the tattoo world, and believe that everyone should get at least one tattoo in their lifetime "just to see how it feels".
But Wong stresses that getting a tattoo to look like Rihanna or Lady Gaga isn't a great idea. "Think before you ink," he advises clients, rather than mindlessly following trends. His preferred style is black and grey, and his technique is detailed, precise and realistic.
3/F, 30A Granville Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, zinktattooshop.com
"Too many people see tattoos as a product"
Hong Kong native and king of realistic portraits Kin Liu opened up his own shop in Sheung Wan last year after 10 years in the business. Preferring to recreate tattoos of faces and objects rather than experiment with out-there styles, he is a poster boy for the emerging trend of three-dimensional, photo-realistic tattoos.
His work is extremely intricate, with the tiniest traces of shading made possible only with the steadiest of hands and modern developments in tattoo machinery.
And what does Liu, who has lived in Hong Kong his entire life, think about tattooing in his home city?
"The scene is getting better — there's a new generation and new styles," he says, adding that when he first became interested in body art, it was all about tribal, a style now considered passé.
"I love tattooing and I hope people see that it's a form of art," he says. "Sometimes people come in here, get a tattoo, say 'OK' and leave," he says. "I wish they didn't see it so much as a product."
23/F Lloyds Commercial Centre, Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, soulcanvasink.com
Star Crossed Tattoo
"We put our souls into this work"
Walk into Star Crossed Tattoo and it can feel like walking into a hostel in a cool European city — there's this sense of warmth, as if everyone employed there is on an adventure rather than just working for a pay cheque.
Jointly owned since 2010 by two South Africans, Rich Phipson and Ross Turpin, the parlour is a treasure trove of curious objects to spark the imagination.
The custom tattoo designers describe their styles as "leaning more towards the traditional", putting their own spin on American and Japanese tattoos — and both enjoy working with organic motifs. Turpin's pieces tend to be powerful and bold, while Phipson's more colourful, detailed and free flowing.
They prefer not to reproduce trends that are popular on Pinterest — such as neo-tribal, dot work and black shapes. "Something blows up on the internet and within a week everyone wants to get the same thing," says Turpin..
2/F, 57 Granville Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, starcrossedtattoo.com