The skin artist

Wong Yat-hei
Wong Yat-hei |

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For the average Hongkonger, tattoos belong the to the underworld, but they actually have a long history, writes Wong Yat-hei.

Wu Wing-kui has been working as a tattoo artist for 15 years. Tastes, he says, have changed immensely over that time - and in a way that allow him to be more of an artist.

'Thirty years ago, people just wanted a tattoo to demonstrate that they fear no pain - dragons, tigers and phoenixes were the most popular patterns,' the shaven-headed artist says.

'Now people come to get tattoos to express themselves and to save memories - there is a story behind every tattoo. Young people might get tattoos of their ex-lovers to remember them or patterns that in some way express their feelings.'

Wong Kin-yuen, a professor at Hong Kong Shue Yan University who specialises in intercultural studies and literary theory, says even though tattoos are a subculture in Hong Kong, it is actually a practice with deep cultural roots.

He says tattooing is practised worldwide for countless reasons - as a sign of unity or a way of self-expression or religious expression.

In ancient China, says Wong, men had tattoos to catch attention of the opposite sex and also to display social status.

'Hongkongers see people with tattoos as gangsters or people with bad backgrounds, but tattoos have been around for thousands of years in China and in other cultures around the world for thousands of years,' he says, pointing out in many cultures it is normal.

He notes that today people might still get tattoos to show they are tough or they are the member of a certain group, but most do it as a way of expressing themselves.

Tattooist Wu agrees, saying he has done tattoos for people from all walks of life.

'You would be surprised by the backgrounds of some of the people that come to get tattoos. People used to think tattoos are for triad members, but I have had doctors, nurses and school teachers in here.'

Wu was a graphic designer before becoming a tattooist, and suggests beginners start by sketching their tattoo designs on paper.

'After that they can move on to doing tattoos on fruit for practice. Their first encounter with skin should be when they help an experienced tattooist apply colour to a tattoo.'

Wu says everybody reacts differently to the pain of getting a tattoo.

'I have seen people ... give up halfway because the pain was unbearable. There are also customers who casually read a magazine while getting a tattoo.'

'And some girls are able to withstand the pain better than guys,' he says.