Liberal mindset has taken the taboo out of getting a tattoo in Hong Kong, China and Taiwan

International Tattoo Convention attracted more than 10,000 visitors on its first day and is set to break last year’s record of total admissions

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 September, 2017, 8:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 September, 2017, 9:02am

It used to draw a small but dedicated crowd but in the past two decades, body art has grown into a popular and lucrative business, said tattoo masters at the industry’s largest Asian convention.

“When I opened my shop in 1999, it was the fifth in Hong Kong, but now there are up to 200 tattoo parlours in town,” said Gabe Shum, founder and organiser of the International Tattoo Convention which will run from Friday to Sunday in the Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.

Now in its fifth year, the convention featuring more than 300 tattoo artists has attracted more than 10,000 visitors on its first day and is set to break last year’s record of 23,000 total admissions.

Shum, calling himself one of the city’s third generation of tattoo artists, said two more generations have emerged since then, with more young people and more women picking up the needle.

“Now three or four out of 10 tattoo artists are female, which was rarely seen in the old days,” said Shum.

The price of their art has risen too. A tattoo about 100 sq cm used to cost a few hundred dollars in the late 1990s, but now it could be as much as 1,000 to 2,000, Shum said.

Leng Yan, who was one of the first generation of professional tattoo artists in Beijing in 2000, said it was not until the last few years that the trade has seen profits snowball.

“Excluding the impact of inflation, the unit price has increased about three times,” said Leng.

It used to be that making tens of thousands of yuan a month was “a luxury” but friends have told Leng, who once sold his flat and car to support his studio, they can make 10 times that a month now.

Behind the industry’s boom was the liberation of society and the awakening of individualism in mainland China, Leng said.

“I was refused entry into the army even though I tried to burn a small tattoo off my hand with a cigarette when I was 18,” said Leng, who is in his late 40s. “But now a young man can become a soldier as long as his tattoo is no larger than 2cm in diameter.

“Getting a tattoo used to be something like rock 'n' roll, something out of the mainstream, but now it has become a way to show control over one’s own life and to exhibit what one thinks is beautiful.” said Leng.

Increasingly more daring when it comes to showing off their ink are young women and the elderly, Diau An said, who has been a tattoo artist in Taiwan for almost four decades. Women now account for about 60 per cent of his customers and have been increasingly requesting tattoos that cover the whole thigh or back in recent years.

“I also have some customers getting their first tattoos in their 50s and 60s because they dared not have it when they were young.”

As more young people join the industry – which is often deemed cool – both Shum and Diau An said their advice to them would be to strengthen their basic skills in drawing and knowledge in aesthetics, instead of relying on computer software and promotion through social media.

“A real professional tattoo artist should be able to come up with designs a few minutes after he or she meets a new person, so don’t let computers set your creativity back,” Diau An said.