Hong Kong's skin trade: How tattoos have emerged from the triad shadow to make a respectable mark

Yonden Lhatoo says most people have no inkling that body art and a respectable job are not mutally exclusive but times have changed and tattoos are no longer restricted to the rebellious youth demographic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 November, 2015, 3:38pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

I was recently invited to give a pep talk to a group of youngsters from Hong Kong’s ethnic minority communities. The air conditioning wasn’t working properly in the small auditorium and we all had to take our jackets off to beat the heat.

So there I was on the rostrum, delivering my speech in a T-shirt, when I realised that no one was really listening. Parents and children alike were gawking at and whispering about my tattoo, which is a rather in-your-face dragon design wrapped around the length of my right arm from shoulder to wrist.

It’s a work of art by a Taiwanese master and I’m very fond of it, but I avoid displaying it at black tie affairs or formal gatherings. At this event, the dress code was semi-formal, but I’m sure no one was expecting a newspaper editor with ink on his skin rather than in his veins.

When it was time to mingle, almost everyone who came up to me was curious about the tattoo. The kids were intrigued and wanted to take pictures. The parents kept telling me they had never imagined, during all the years I was anchoring the news on television, that I was quite heavily inked. The two concepts – tattoo and respectable job – were just too incongruous for them.

I had my first tattoo done more than a decade ago in Hong Kong, at a time when I was the only one in my circle who thought it would be cool, while everyone else had serious reservations because of the stigma attached to it. But tattoo culture here has come a long way since then.

You can trace it back to the 19th century, when sailors would pick up epidermal souvenirs at every big port they stopped by. Their patronage was what launched the old tattoo parlours in Wan Chai.

Of course you can go much further back in Chinese history to look at how tattoos were embraced by secret or criminal societies, a legacy that continues to this day with triad gangs. But a new generation of talented artists is helping overturn traditional taboos and bringing the concept of body art into the mainstream.

Times have changed. I attended Hong Kong’s third international tattoo convention in Kowloon Tong last month and was struck by the number of respectable-looking folk who turned up to get inked, as opposed to those outlandishly illustrated and pierced individuals who attract disapproving stares in most places.

My friends in the industry are no longer surprised when police officers, doctors, lawyers, bankers and teachers book their studios to get tattooed. It’s no longer restricted to the rebellious youth demographic. “Everyone and their mum is getting tattoos these days,” a well-known local artist told me.

She wasn’t exaggerating about the “mum” part, either. Mothers, fathers and grandparents are going for it. Sometimes they even go together.

I’ve asked artists about Hong Kong government officials among their clients who might be concealing tattoos in public – none of the names I’ve heard so far rings a bell.

But why not? Canada’s new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, flaunts one on his left arm. The design is not particularly impressive and resembles cave art compared with the stunning images that tattoo masters can carve on your skin these days, but at least we now have a world leader who’s making it acceptable.

I wonder how many prominent people in Hong Kong, minus the usual singers and actors acquiring permanent reminders of temporary feelings, are inked and we don’t know about it. It would be fascinating to see them come out into the open.

Think about what kind of tattoo would be fitting for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, for example … but then again, maybe it’s best not to go there.