Tattoos have long been considered a taboo art form in Hong Kong. In recent years though, a new generation of tattoo aficionados have started to battle the stigma that surrounds them. Previously tattoos were reserved for sailors and members of Chinese criminal organizations, who would mark themselves with dragons, phoenixes, and gods in traditional black line-work to show their allegiance to specific groups known as triads. Still, these huge pieces of art were often hidden to avoid attracting attention — keeping tattoos a disreputable secret.
As tattoos are normalized in celebrity and pop culture around the world today, more young people in Hong Kong are embracing body art, though tattoos are often still frowned upon by the older generation. i-D spoke to five men and women who are proudly showing off their ink.
Clara Jade / Model and tattoo artist
What was your first tattoo?
"Handle with care" because when I came back from Canada to go to high school, I enrolled in art school for two years, but then I dropped out. I have ADHD. I don't think there's enough awareness about that in Hong Kong, so people just think you're crazy or lazy. My mom would get so angry with me. Like many other Asian parents, she used to kick my ass a lot, so I was like no — “handle with care.” I understand why she was strict because she didn’t want me to grow up like her. She had a bad life before and walked 20 miles to school everyday because she wasn't well off. She put a lot of pressure on me because she wanted me to have something she never really achieved. I was also in a really bad place because growing up there were seven of us, all girls, and I never had to learn to talk to other people. I only knew how to talk to my sisters.
How did your mom respond to your first tattoo?
She got her wire hangers out. I swear I couldn't walk. Me and her are perfectly fine now. She's like you're really cute without the tattoos, you're just so cute.
What’s it like being completely covered with tattoos in Hong Kong?
It's getting more acceptable, but sometimes people don't want to sit next to you in the MTR [Mass Transit Railway], or people speak loudly about you to their children. Once, I was inside the tunnel and I walked past an old lady, she had her shopping and clutched it tighter. I'm an asshole, so I went, “Boo!” And she ran away.
What kind of style are your tattoos?
It's called blackwork or line-work. There are so many sub-genres. The ones that I have are neo-traditional Japanese. It's Japanese-style with a modern twist. It's like a project. I got all these peonies to symbolize that I'm such a princess. But I also got this doll because when you buy them, they have no eyes. You have to make a wish or a goal and then you paint an eye and then when you complete it you paint the other eye. So, I haven't done it yet. I do have a goal, I guess it's changed since I got it but the main purpose was always to be the most beautiful I am, not just physically, but in every way. I don't know if I'm there yet. I’m going to grow out my hair a little bit more, get a face lift…[laughs].
Is Japanese style something you like a lot?
It's so dynamic and also it's speaking to being Asian. There's a lot of popular tattoos in American traditional styles, but I just wanted to stay more oriental, and I think it's cooler, it looks more gangster.
Where do you look for inspiration when you're tattooing?
My overactive brain. I'm inspired by many things, textures and sounds and colors, so I don't know where to start. For me, everything is Dada. Art doesn't have to be profound, it doesn't even need to be appealing. I guess that translates to how I dress. It's campy. I learned that word from the Met Gala, but I've put a meaning to it.
Do you feel like the attitude towards tattooing in Hong Kong is changing?
Yes, but of course there are still problems. A lingerie brand recently booked me to do their ad with a bunch of girls because they wanted to have diversity, but then they dropped me when they thought I would ruin the image. It's also a sexism thing. It's okay to have tattoos if you're a man, but if it's on a woman you get put in that category of Kat Von D, like Suicide Girl, and I'm not into that. I remember my first film role was in Mob Fathers, they had me topless in the background dancing around a poll while the gangsters were having a meeting.
What’s it like being a model with tattoos?
I’m actually the only model in Hong Kong that's signed right now that has tattoos like this. In New York and London they like it, but not here. Hong Kong is not ready yet. It’s so metal, so rock to have tattoos. But they're not ready for tattoos as high fashion. People are very afraid of the different. It's not cool to stand out, it's not cool to do anything that's different.
Lily Cash / Tattoo artist
What’s your story?
I was born in China, but I came to Hong Kong when I was 12 years old. I studied in both places so I understand how Hong Kong is different, the mindset is very different. Chinese people used to think straight, they were not very open-minded, but now the situation has changed. Chinese people are more open-minded and Hong Kong people are less, because the younger people in China are more willing to go to the Western countries, but Hong Kong people are afraid of failure, so they prefer to stay close to home.
Do you think the Hong Kong tattoo scene has changed much?
It has changed a lot in recent years because of hip hop culture, which has become more popular in Hong Kong. That's the trend, so people want to get more tattoos like the celebrities. There is still not a big hip hop scene in Hong Kong, but we are very influenced by Western culture, especially American pop culture. Hong Kong is still very conservative, but it’s definitely opening up. Now, people are much more interested in exposing their tattoos, they like to show them off a lot more. But before tattoos were very much associated with the bad guys and gangsters because of the Hong Kong movies.
In Hong Kong tattooing is still not regulated, why do you think that is?
The Hong Kong government doesn't see tattooing as culture. They have their view of culture, which might include drawing or music, but they don’t see tattooing as their own. They think there are other more valuable forms of art like music, which can draw in big profits. Tattooing for them is not profit-making, so it’s not important.
When did you start tattooing?
Four years ago. For me it was not enough just to have tattoos, I wanted to start tattooing too. The first person I ever tattooed was a friend's boyfriend, but I didn't know him. I think he just wanted a free tattoo, so whatever. He actually disappeared after, and is now an ex-boyfriend. Maybe it was my fault…
What inspires you?
Everything inspires me, different things — agriculture, plants, a floor, this plate. I have inspiration from all kinds of elements. I think my strength is about color and geometric things, but you don't need a high-level of drawing skills. It's just your mind, how you design things, how you prepare the colors.
How many tattoos do you have?
I can’t tell you how many, but I think about 60-70 percent of my body is covered.
Do you have a favorite?
I like them all, but there’s one on my leg that’s in a Japanese design, and if you look carefully it’s a pussy.
What did your parents think when you first got a tattoo?
My mom was worried that I was hurting myself and she was very sad, because she was still in the conservative mindset. She's very traditional. Now, they support me. I tattooed my neck about three years ago, but when I go and see my grandma I always put my hair around my neck to cover it. She's much more open about it now, but she does keep asking why I keep on getting more and more. I told her it was an old one, but she doesn't believe me.
Hueson Chu / Bartender and gamer
What was your first tattoo?
The first tattoo I got is the one behind my neck, which says, "Life ain't perfect.” When I was in high school, I was a bit of an emo-like person. I was quite active and naughty at that time. I switched to nine different schools, so I was moving around. I kept getting expelled, and I’d have to take my aunt with me to my parents meeting because my parents already felt like they'd lost face. At one point, I couldn't find any more schools that would take me, so I just stayed in my uncle’s tattoo shop in Lan Kwai Fong and hung out there from when I was 16. I became his assistant, answering the phone, taking down times, and talking to customers. It was more for bookings, but one time a customer cancelled an appointment and my boss was like, "I'm free today if you want any tattoos." I got one on my body and then just kept slowly getting more, it's kind of addictive and I never stopped. I have a pig on my head because my last name is Chu, which sounds like “pig” in Chinese and I just got my face tats early in the year. It says "ungrateful" and it's a reminder not to be that way.
Are face tattoos becoming more popular?
Not in Hong Kong.
Because Hong Kong is still quite conservative?
Yes, but that's changing. In old people's minds it is still more acceptable for boys to have tattoos than women, but today I think that's slowly getting better, my girlfriend also has tattoos.
How did your parents respond?
My mom wasn't very happy about it, she kept on crying. She thought that at least with the first one there's some meaning, but for the others no. We didn't talk for two weeks, she needed to cool down. My family relationship is much better now.
What style are your tattoos?
They’re a mix. I have a lot of neo-traditional, mid-century stuff, and then I have random ones. I’m the kind of person that will just say okay a lot of the time, as I'm a very chill person. I quite like animals, I have bears and lions, but I wouldn’t get the tigers or the dragons. I'm not really into those kinds of animals because they still have that triad meaning. On Western people it's fine, but on Chinese people, because of the background and history, if I get those in the Chinese style it would be bad. The one on my arm was a birthday gift from my uncle when I turned 22. He’s been tattooing for 13-14 years but he's in the mid-generation of tattoo artists in Hong Kong. Not the beginning but not the latest ones.
How many tattoos do you have?
I still haven't finished my body. I want a big piece on my back, but I think I have maybe 50 or 60. When I run out I will just go over the top of the other ones, it’s great because you can keep on going.
Julian Leung / Barber
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
I was born in Taiwan and moved to Hong Kong with my family when I was 16. It was then that I left school and became an apprentice at a salon. I received my first promotion at 21, and finally became a barber when I was 25. I’m now a pretty famous barber in Hong Kong and work at 59 Tattoo and Barber Shop in Kowloon.
Why did you decide to get tattoos?
I was really inspired by the pinup girl of the 50s and 60s because my friends and I are really obsessed with vintage things. I like everything that is retro and like to dress up in my spare time. My male friends love motorcycle culture, they’re total oil heads in their leather jackets, and then the ladies just like pinup culture. I’ve seen lots of foreign girls who really embrace that style and I really liked their tattoos. I feel like your skin can be a beautiful canvas that is fun to play around with and I can print on it whatever I want. I started by tattooing my whole arm in a folk-style, but now that I’ve covered more of my body I realize it’s just the patterns that I like. So, now I'm starting another kind of tattoo style. My neck tattoos are new.
When did you get your first tattoo? What was it?
I got my first tattoo when I was 16, it was a star.
Hong Kong is quite conservative, how do people react when they see your tattoos?
Most people look at me in a weird way, it might be because of my tattoos or my face piercings or my hairstyle. Most people judge a person simply by his or her looks, and assume people with tattoos are unfriendly. But I think tattoos are becoming more and more common in Hong Kong. A lot of teenagers have full sleeve tattoos on their arms. Plus, I was lucky because my family responded well to my tattoos. They think they are art. My family really understands me!
Jimmy Yuen / Tattoo artist
When did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing more than 13 years ago in Taiwan, where I was studying advertising. It took me three years to become a tattoo artist, and I would draw every day, particularly mandalas.
Why the mandalas?
Back in the day, there wasn't anyone doing the mandalas yet. I really like geometrics and balancing so I felt like I could bring this style to Hong Kong. When I first started, it was three years ago, around the time my shop Ring The Bell began. I'm a Buddhist, so I really felt like I wanted to embrace that part of my life, and was inspired by the mandalas from Nepal and Thailand. What’s most important about the mandala is that it’s actually a lotus, the shape of it. It has a starting point, which is meant to symbolize life and us, then it spreads out to become what we are. So even though they all look different there's always that starting point.
What are you influenced by?
I like going outdoors and traveling to different destinations, temples have always been a huge source of inspiration.
Do you think the way tattoos are being perceived in Hong Kong is changing?
Tattoos have now changed into an art. People are slowly accepting tattooing as they have a different perspective. Dragons, phoenix, and tigers were the traditional tattoos seen in Hong Kong, but now people are influenced by the rest of the world and the trends there. Nowadays people are more flexible, they want to make decisions quickly and they're more open to tattoos as art rather than them having to have a meaning.
How does the Hong Kong government see tattooing?
Tattooing is still not recognized by the government. It's still in the underground, but it's not illegal. They know tattooing goes on but they don't want to touch it. When I first set up my shop, I had a lot of needles that needed to be disposed of safely. There was one time when I called up the government to ask if someone could come and collect them and they said no. Dentists and doctors use needles and they will be collected, but tattoo artists can’t. It’s very dangerous. But the Hong Kong government doesn't really know how many people have tattoos because most of the time people have them covered, so they just ignore the issue.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.