Hong Kong, a fascinating city with an equally fascinating history and culture. Tattoos are becoming more and more popular as they enter into the mainstream, making it hard to walk around the downtown area without spotting a tattoo either on a tourist or a local. But for a long time tattoos were seen as something only for criminals, mainly the triads (the Chinese mafia that also operates in Hong Kong and Taiwan among other places).

Tattooist James Ho, Hong Kong, 1961. Photo by Burt Glinn from vintage tattoo archive.
U.S. Navy officer getting a dragon tattoo at Ho Gee tattoo shop near Fenwick Pier, Hong Kong, September, 1957. Photo by Hank Walker from vintage tattoo archive.

While tattoos of course existed in the area long before the 1940’s, the first official tattoo shop wasn’t opened until 1946 by the famous James Ho (father of Jimmy Ho). James Ho was a Shanghainese marine engineer in the navy in 1940 and was sailing on a ship in the Indian Ocean when it was hit by a Japanese torpedo. James was lucky and survived by clinging to wreckage and was picked up by an American warship and brought to Calcutta where he first came in contact with tattoos; hand poked tattoos to be specific. James brought his new passion home to Shanghai where he made a machine from bike chains and other spare parts. He fled Shanghai towards the end of WW11 because of political conflict and went to Hong Kong, where he opened the first shop; Rose Tattoo Studio. James had seen mainly old school tattoos on sailors, so that’s what he brought back both to Shanghai and Hong Kong, and why old school Hong Kong tattoos follow similar tropes of hearts, flags, pin-ups and more, all with thick bold lines and vibrant colours. The shop did very well, mainly working on those in the Navy during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Along with these American designs, tattooers in Asia were adding imagery such as dragons, koi, and tigers, among other culturally significant iconography.

A full back piece done by Jimmy Ho.
Jimmy Ho still tattooing, from 2016.

To keep up with the high demand, James took on four apprentices; Ricky Lo, Pinky Yun, Benny Tsoi, and Swallow, and later eventually his own son, Jimmy. Jimmy started officially working for his father at the age of 14 after already tattooing clients after hours from around the age of 12. His mother didn’t want him working there but he insisted, and when he showed his father James the earnings, he was finally gifted two tattoo machines of his own. Pinky eventually moved to the US in the 70’s and became very popular after first working with Ricky at “Ricky and Pinky Tattoo”, Benny has a shop still in Hong Kong run by an apprentice (his daughter also tattoos and runs her own shop), and Jimmy’s shop is also still being run by an apprentice in Hong Kong.

Marcus Yuen dragon on the left, based on Ricky’s design on the right.
A Ricky chest piece from the 1970’s. Photo from Marcus Yuen.

When business declined for all tattooers in Hong Kong after the Korean and Vietnam wars, tattooers were working more and more with triads. Only a “大佬” or, “boss” could get tattooed then, and some of the main designs included dragons on the arms or back, or eagles on the chest. Now triads are tattooed less and less, similar to the yakuza in Japan. But when they do opt to get tattoos they are more likely to get them in mainland China where they are significantly cheaper.

Unfinished eagle around 1975 Ricky and Pinky’s shop, picture from Marcus Yuen.
An old sign from Rose Tattoo. Photo from Marcus Yuen.

Apart from gangsters, the most common people getting tattooed from the 70’s-90’s were construction workers and truck drivers. These developed their own kind of style which consisted of only an outline without any shading, often because they would run out of money. As long as you could tell what the design was supposed to be, it was good enough.

A Hong Kong protestor piece done by Samantha Fung.
Rose Tattoo that unfortunately no longer exists. The area is now all shopping malls. photo from Marcus Yuen.

Hong Kong style is also compared to Japanese, particularly for full bodied work with backgrounds such as waves and clouds. This is largely due to Japanese tattooers visiting Hong Kong, and vice versa. For example, James’ son, Jimmy Ho was visited numerous times by Horiyoshi in the 1990’s. Jimmy then borrowed Japanese ideas of tattooing but made them his own.

A dragon by Dave Ryo Lau.
A dragon done by Samantha Fung.

Today, artists such as Marcus Yuen and Samantha Fung, both working out of 59 tattoo alongside other great artists, and Dave Ryo Lau working out of The Company Tattoo, are all keeping Hong Kong style tattoos alive by continuing to tattoo in the unique style. Marcus in particular works hard to keep Hong Kong style tattoos alive by also sharing information about the old legends, and many historic pictures on his Instagram account.

An eagle by Dave Ryo Lau.
A tiger done by Marcus Yuen.

Have you been tattooed in Hong Kong yet?

To read more about Hong Kong’s tattoo history check out https://zolimacitymag.com/not-just-for-triads-hong-kongs-unique-style-of-tattoos/ and https://www.the4thwall.net/blog/2016/8/13/hong-kong, where a lot of my information came from. Special thanks also to Marcus Yuen for sharing information and photos and to Samantha Fung for pointing me in his direction.

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