Interview with Joey Pang owner of Tattoo Temple in Hong Kong
"I got a very strong feeling the first time I did a tattoo on a person, I felt like there was a fire burning inside of me. I realized it was what I was looking for in my life. Finally I found my path and since that moment my life changed. This is 100% sure. This is my life"
I met and interviewed Joey Pang, one of the best tattoo artists I have ever seen, in her studio Tattoo Temple. They are located in the heart of Hong Kong island. Take a map of Hong Kong, ask anybody to point out the most central area of this amazing city and they won't put their finger too far from the studio.
Actually calling Joey Pang a tattoo artist is - in my opinion - quite restrictive to say the least. Her tattoos are art pieces which happen to be on skin, they are not 'just tattoos'. Should I ever decide to have a tattoo, I think I would patiently wait my turn for the two long years required in order to have one made by Joey. I would have a piece made by her and no one else.
Forget what you think you know about tattoos, preconceptions and prejudices included. Get ready to discover a new form of tattoo art where painting and style mix with 'ink under the skin' techniques - creating a totally new type of body art. Here at Tattoo Temple this process becomes a medium. It is a way to express both the artist's creativity as well as the vision of the person getting the creation on their skin.
Joey is - allow me to say - a very beautiful girl. She is well mannered, very sexy in her quiet and controlled way of talking, laughing and the way she moves her eyes. With long black hair her body is covered in big tattoos. A small piercing graces her chin right under her lower lip. Her studio looks more like a show room of some international fashion brand rather than a tattoo parlor. Be prepared to remove your shoes before you enter.
Joey Pang and tattoos. How did you get into this world?
I was at a makeup school had many chances to try body painting. Because it was a school that specialized in stage makeup it was more of a 'long distance type' and meant that we could try a lot of crazy things. But at that time I was a little upset because what we created would be washed away on the same day. Because I really love drawing I chose to work with makeup as I thought it would allow me to play with colors and designs. Anything that relates to drawing makes me happy. Since I was a kid I have always been looking for a profession that could utilize my hobby. A tattoo is permanent and by getting into tattoo art I would then have a chance to paint on the human body. Meaning my drawings would be permanent. This is how it started.
Are you from Hong Kong?
Yes. I was born in China but we moved to Hong Kong when I was three years old. When I decided to learn tattooing I went on the road and traveled for two years. I went to New Zealand first and while I was there thinking about what I really wanted to do, I saw the Maori tattoos which were really inspiring. Also the Maori tattoos are a very positive cultural practice. They love tattoos, they do not see it as something just for gangsters (as is common in Hong Kong). In New Zealand people respect tattoos. So that changed my understanding of tattooing. From the 'Hong Kong gangster tattoo' I started thinking "I can use tattoo as a medium for drawing". From there I looked for places to learn.
Did you already have tattoos on your body before that time?
None at all. I decided to get into tattooing because I love drawing. I wanted to use my skills as my profession. I wasn't like "I love tattoos, tattoos are the coolest thing..." It wasn't like that. Tattooing was basically a tool for me to draw. So I used tattoos like an art form from the beginning, even before I started getting tattoos myself.
Your tattoos are very artistic, they are totally different...
Yes, I enjoy so much drawing on skin...
You have beautiful tattoos on your body now, did you tattoo them yourself?
No, I never tattoo myself...
What were your first steps in tattoo types after you decided that this would be your life?
I moved to Thailand first. Thai people love tattoos and I stayed at a local studio in Hua Hin. The studio was managed by a European gentleman, they taught me some basic skills and then I started doing free tattoos. So every day I had a lot of skin to use in order to improve my skills...
Images Courtesy of Tattoo Temple, Hong Kong
So are there many "Joey Pang" masterpieces walking around in Thailand...?
No, at that time it was not really art. When I first started they only allowed me to do fresh tattoos like everybody else. I had to copy from a book. So I concentrated on the tattoo skills more than on the drawings.
You have people who come here to Tattoo Temple to make tattoos from overseas and have limited amounts of time to stay in Hong Kong. How do you manage these situations?
Me and the client love to see the finished work as soon as possible. Usually I book one person a day and work on the same person for the full day.
Do you also give your personal advice to the client, like "no, sorry this does not suit you", or "this is the style of tattoo which would look better on you..."
ALWAYS! The personality of the person who gets the tattoo is important.
It is my job to educate people because we can see how the tattoo will look in the future. From our experience we can see this and it is our responsibility to keep people from making mistakes. Why do they want a tattoo? What is the meaning of a tattoo? This is something you have to know before you get a piece.
How does the creative process take place?
I start the custom design by talking to the person, getting their opinions and then we work it out through the discussion.
So you talk and decide the tattoo by talking, but they do not see anything until it is complete...?
Yes, but of course I would show them my design first.
Do you practice a lot with your designs?
Yes every design piece is a completely new topic, a new subject and I have to start from zero. You have to try different things. Every piece is very unique because every person I make it for is unique.
You said that before, in Hong Kong, tattoos had a "gangster image", is it still this way or is the culture changing?
I think more people from every walk of life are getting tattoos but for local Hong Kong people they still do not really understand why they are getting tattoos. They do it by following people or when they see that some interesting person has a tattoo they then want one too...
Images Courtesy of Tattoo Temple, Hong Kong
So what is a good reason to want to have a tattoo? Should it be a way to express yourself, your personality, in a more complete way?
Yes, you got the idea! Do you have any tattoos?
No, not yet...
But you have a good understanding. That is the basic concept. Everybody has a meaning of life and expression of their own thinking... our job is to help people to put the picture, which is inside their mind, on their body. It is just like people and their taste for fashion. Everybody decides on their own style. The most important thing is that there is no trend for tattoos. That is the difference with fashion. There is no trend that can last a lifetime and with a tattoo, if it is old fashioned... you have to keep it...
So we could say that your job is in part psychologist and part technician because you need to master the procedure. And finally a big part is being artistic in the creations, which I find pretty difficult to find in most tattoo artists...
Artists can use any kind of medium to express themselves but tattoo artists express themselves together with the person who gets tattooed. So it is two people's minds coming together... You actually get 'under their skin'. It is an art and a design process together with psychology.
Are you happy about your choice to get into tattoos to express yourself?
Yes! I got a very strong feeling the first time I did a tattoo on a person. I felt like there was a fire burning inside me, that this was what I was looking for in my life. Finally I found my path and since that moment my life changed. This is 100% sure. This is my life.
How does it work, when someone wants your tattoo? A client contacts you... and then...
It's changed a bit now because of the long waiting list (2 years). People who want to come to me have to first talk with the managers or receptionists. I need to talk to the person only when I start the design process. This because you only get the feeling at the last moment when you're working on creating the design. If I talk to the person 2 years before, then after 2 years it all changes. Also because I choose selected people I want to tattoo, simply because there are too many people, I cannot spread my time too much. I have to concentrate on people who are serious, patient and when they come I will talk to them.
Two years waiting list...
Yes... most good artists in Europe also have such a long waiting list. It's not uncommon.
All your artists have the same Tattoo Temple logo tattooed on their skin...
Yes! Did you notice that? One day we decided "let's have a tattoo together!"
Is it your design?
So they belong to you now, they cannot leave Tattoo Temple ;-)
Well, it is a memory; I won't say they cannot go away...
Alessio Cristianini for TRENDYSTYLE HONG KONG
The Tattoo Temple Studio
18/F Tak Woo House
1-3 Wo On Lane, 17-19 DAguilar St., LKF, Central