Who's the Hong Kong Tattoo Artist Who Inked David Beckham and Lebron James?
In Hong Kong, the art no longer signals triad culture.
Malaysian-born tattoo artist Gabe Shum opened Freedom Tattoo parlor in 2000, becoming part of the crew who drove Hong Kong tattoo culture away from its connections to triad life. He is particularly known for his freehand work, and has done work for David Beckham and Lebron James. Shum set up the International Hong Kong Tattoo Convention in 2013, which is now in its third year. He tells Evelyn Lok about inking Hong Kong and changing people’s minds about the art form.
I was first exposed to tattoos at 13 or 14. I couldn’t sit still as a kid. I’d be happiest if you told me to go motorcycling or horse riding. The only thing that could make me sit still was tattooing.
I would spend a lot of time in tattoo parlors just watching. Hong Kong tattoo legend Jimmy Ho gave me my first one for free because I kept bringing in customers. It’s a small dragon on my thigh.
When I came back to Hong Kong in 1998 to open my first place [Acedragon Tattoo], there were only four tattoo parlors in Hong Kong. Mine was the fifth. I’m part of the third generation of tattoo artists here.
Back then, the scene was still very “triad-y.” The designs were simple and it was still mostly triad members who got tattoos, so there was that association.
It was because the local artists learned from their sifus, opened their own places, but they’d never been abroad.
We were already thinking of organizing a convention back then, but we were so few, and the styles were so old school.
In the past 10 years, I’ve been working to correct the idea that tattoos were exclusively to do with triads.
In Europe and America, they had already long lost that connection. There’s a real culture and history there.
Nowadays, there are probably more than 100 tattoo parlors in Hong Kong.
There’s good and bad: It’s inspired a whole new generation of artists, but some just see it as a way to earn money. They just buy a tattoo machine and don’t have the necessary training or knowledge about safety and sanitation.
But tattooing is a profession that requires a lot of responsibility.
My own style leans towards monochrome designs that incorporate more biomechanic, fantastical or “dark side” imagery—but people also like my calligraphy work.
The thing about calligraphy is that a lot of it is about balance—in terms of the character, the placement on the body, and how several words look together. I’m particularly sensitive to that.
I’m about to open a new branch in Beijing. You wouldn’t have guessed it, but people are quite open to tattoo culture there.
In Hong Kong, when people want their first tattoo it’s usually a tiny one, but over there, once they’ve made up their mind they get a massive one on their back or on a leg.
In tattooing, while there are plenty of similar designs, you don’t want to copy other people’s work.
A respectable tattoo artist, one who wants face, should add their own touch.
When you’re working with color in tattoos, you have to look at what kind of customer you’re working with, too. It’s like drawing: You decide on the mode of expression depending on the kind of paper you use.
Asians have yellow-toned, brownish skin. If we get color tattoos, we tend to lose out compared to Caucasians, who can carry them much better. Also, when we tan, the color fades more easily as well.
Black and grey designs tend to be more long lasting. When a tattoo artist controls the contrast well, they look even better with age. Just like with tea: The longer you keep it, the stronger the flavor.
Some people see tattoos as just a trend: They don’t have an eye for the aesthetic, they don’t care what the tattoo is.
They think, “If David Beckham has one, then I’ll have one too.”
But tattoos can hold a lot of meaning. I have a customer who gets a tattoo every time he gets fired. He has a long list of dates on his leg.
Some people have really weird requests. One guy wanted an eagle: I mocked up a few for him, but he found a reference he really loved. It looked incredibly dumb and childish to me but he insisted. We had to find the middle ground.
Drunk people come up a lot. Usually they don’t even know what they want. They say, “You decide.” If they say that, they’re not respecting themselves, or tattoos. I usually turn them away.
As tattooists we have a responsibility to know the meanings behind symbols.
There are two things I’ll never tattoo: The Nazi swastika and the rising sun flag of Imperial Japan. It’s a form of respect to those who lost their lives.
Hongkongers still aren’t very well versed in tattoo culture, but it’s starting to get better.
There was a former triad boss, a very polite man who forbade his “brothers” to ever get tattoos. His daughter got one here, and hid it from him for half a year.
When he finally saw it, instead of getting mad he came here to get one too.
His underlings, dozens of them, all ran straight over and said, “Dai lo, what’s wrong? You forbade us from getting tattoos for decades!”
He said, “I was wrong. Tattoos can be beautiful. You can all go do it now.”
His wife came to see what was going on. He convinced her to get one as well. They were really happy with the result.
I’m incredibly happy when people who didn’t accept tattoos change their mind.
Which piece am I most proud of? It’s always the piece I’m doing next.
When you look back at a difficult piece, it’s not that big a deal anymore. You want to do things that are even more special.
Gabe Shum is usually booked up two to three months ahead. Looking to get inked? Check out Freedom Tattoo, Unit 11A, Tung Nam Factory Building, 40 Ma Tau Kok Rd., To Kwa Wan, 2712-2332, www.freedomtattoo.hk.