Tattoos not just for triads, says artist and convention organiser

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 October, 2013, 6:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 October, 2013, 1:47pm

Tattoos are no longer just seen on the forearms and backs of gangsters as more Hongkongers today see the intricate ink designs as art and sport them on their skin, says local tattoo artist Gabe Shum.

The number of tattoo shops in Hong Kong grew from just four in 1998 to over 100 today, said Shum. And to top that off, the city on Friday will host its first tattoo convention, a three-day event that will showcase local and international artists at the Innocentre in Kowloon Bay.

Shum, whose shop Freedom Tattoo is organising the event, made a name for himself by inking tattoos on international stars, such as former England football team captain David Beckham, and two-time NBA champion and finals MVP basketball player LeBron James.

I think people are slowly starting to understand that tattoos aren’t just for triad members, but is art
Gabe Shum

“I think people are slowly starting to understand that tattoos aren’t just for triad members, but is art,” he said. “Hopefully, the convention will put Hong Kong on the map for tattoo lovers. This could even become a tourist attraction.”

Shum said the convention would feature 35 local and international tattoo artists and be packed with tattoo competitions, master artists sharing ideas and opportunities for tattoo aficionados to get inked by their favourite artists. Other activities include music, DJs, art and dance shows.

Shum himself got his first tattoo at aged 16 and immediately knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist, which perfectly meshed with his love for drawing, design and art. But it wasn’t until he was 19 that, with basically no experience, he borrowed a tattoo machine, drew a tattoo outline and inked it on a friend.

In 1998, Shum opened his first tattoo shop after returned to Hong Kong from North America and Europe where he travelled and learnt about the art of tattoos.

His dream was to show that high-quality Hong Kong tattoos can rival those created in the rest of Asia and other developed tattoo communities like the United States, he said.

“Tattoos are my live advertisements,” said Shum, who charges HK$2,000 per hour and is booked up for the next two months. His shop in To Kwan Wan now has five tattoo artists, including himself, with more apprentices in training.

Shum specialises in dragon designs but did the Chinese characters for Beckham and some numbers for James.

Hygiene was the most important thing to look for when selecting a shop, said Shum, adding it was what separated the good shops from the bad. For those wanting to get their first tattoos, it was good to visit the shop just to check it out before booking an appointment.

“Do research. Visit and see if the place is clean. See if they have a disinfectant machine. Check its reputation and reviews. Also, ask the artist to draw a design for you,” he said.

Shum said, with the growing popularity of tattoos, it would be good to have some sort of licensing system for the protection of the public.

“Hong Kong is an international city, I hope the freedom attributed to it as one of its core values can be extended to expression through tattoos as well,” he said.

“The convention is a way to showcase local talent, and tell the international community that we’re here, and to break the Chinese stereotypes that tattoos are only for the bad guys.”