A desire to share the real meaning behind the Chinese characters gradually saw Hong Kong tattoo artist Joey Pang immerse herself in calligraphy and Chinese watercolours—a style that has since become her body art signature
Photos: Albert Tan and Tattoo Temple
The waiting time for a tattoo appointment with Hong Kong artist Joey Pang is approximately four years. And that’s only after the soft-spoken 35-year-old has agreed to take on the commission and work together with you on a drawing that will be permanently be worn on your body’s canvas. “Firstly, it has to be my style,” she explains, when asked how she decides whether or not to take up a commission. “Then, the direction will come from the client as he or she will be carrying the tattoo for the rest of his or her life. With that, I’d need 100 per cent freedom to draw and create the design and then achieve the final vision.” The process is that simple, and equally open-ended. And in the same way an artist requires full creative freedom to bring an image to life, Pang rolls in the same way, and her clients respect that.
Obviously, the results speak for themselves. And the tattoos she ‘paints’ look exactly like what you’d see on a scroll of Chinese calligraphy or watercolour painting. The same controlled strokes, fluid lines and vibrant colours augmented by distinct details. Describing her process, Pang says, “I know the writing and how the brush moves. That allows me to create the feeling, likewise in the paintings. It then becomes about how you mix the ink and how you draw. I’m drawing when I’m tattooing, so I only work with a draft, and the final vision happens there and then. The tattoo machine then becomes my ‘brush’.”
Drawing on paper and tattooing on skin are obviously different experiences, but “you can tattoo what you can draw because the tools are similar. It’s really based on what you draw and it’s about your skill as an artist,” shares Pang, before adding, “the single reason I do tattoos is because I love drawing.”
Catching up with Pang in her studio in Hong Kong, she tells Gallery & Studio a little more about her inspirations, cultural experience as a Chinese artist and the tattoos she collects.
How did your love for watercolours and calligraphy develop?
Watercolour is the only material I can draw with as oils and acrylic paints would give me a headache. I can’t take the smell. My interest in calligraphy started in the first three years of my tattoo journey, when I had been travelling around learning how to tattoo. I was in Switzerland, when an artist there told me that Europeans loved Chinese characters and symbols, but they sometimes used them wrongly. I then made it my mission to teach people what the real meanings behind Chinese characters.
And from my understanding, calligraphy or shu fa was the only way to promote that knowledge. That artist also let me incorporate my calligraphy in collaboration with his work. I had learnt some calligraphy back in primary school, and in design school. I eventually got very interested in it as my mother and uncle was very good at it. So when I came back to Hong Kong, I decided to train and learn from a master.
Where does the inspiration for your drawings come from?
Trees are one of my favourite images to draw. I just love drawing them because I love Nature. Chinese philosophy though, would be my greatest inspiration. I could sense the change when I started learning calligraphy. I then began learning more about Chinese culture because I realised that I wasn’t that ‘Chinese’ as my parents were Indonesian-Chinese. I was born in China but moved down to Hong Kong when I was three.
I realised that to master calligraphy, you had to be a ‘real’ Chinese to represent the culture. I then became versed in philosophy and gradually fell in love with Chinese-style paintings. I like it because of the space, the flow and the mood of the paintings. The calmness resonates with my personality because I’m a rather ‘slow’ person. I can never match up to the pace in Hong Kong, and it always makes me feel awkward. That’s why I stay off Hong Kong on an island. From Calligraphy, I branched into studying Qigong and even traditional Chinese medicine.
So, this interest in calligraphy and culture has become a bit of a way of life?
Calligraphy for me is like meditation because you need to have 100 per cent focus and concentration in a silent environment. Any music could disrupt my flow and pace. Calligraphy is really about the artist’s energy, how it flows, and how it represents the artist. Everything is linked so you have to maintain focus.
What do you think about when you’re in the midst of tattooing?
I’m always concentrating. I follow my needle quite a lot because I want to ensure that I follow the lines properly and fill in the details. Like calligraphy and meditation, I’m always focused. That’s how you get good. When clients share their life stories, you really feel touched. Sharing life’s experiences with your clients and sharing their emotions is one way of ‘getting into it’.
What kinds of tattoos do you ‘collect’ for yourself?
They were all done by different artists from all over the world. I like tattoos that look like drawings. For now, I would choose which part of my body that I’d like to get a tattoo for. Then, I’d think about which artist and style which I’d like to have, and then I’ll get to know the artist, share my idea and give him or her freedom to work on the space.
Did you need to have tattoos to be a tattoo artist?
When I first started, I did not have any tattoos. I had joined the industry just wanted to do tattoo drawings. I wasn’t much of a tattoo lover at the start. But since I got my first one, then I gradually fell in love with getting tattoos.
Can you tell us a little more about the young apprentices that you have here at Tattoo Temple?
The other artists here have to come in with no prior experience. They have to love drawing and come with a portfolio and attitude that is up to my standard. The reason I started this studio is because I wanted to do something different. Tattoo parlours can be very intimidating. But in tattooing, you’d need a lot of interaction with the client. And I wanted to build a comfortable environment for my clients so that they can be open up to me and feel free to express themselves and what they want.
The tattoo artists here then need to be grounded and open. I also really care about the quality of the service. I really appreciate my clients letting me tattoo them. So that appreciation has to be extended both ways, including the customer service. And sometimes, accomplished artists may not be able to understand this as they might have got their own habits and different working styles. This way, everyone here can have the same standards.
To see more about Joey Pang’s work, or find out more about Tattoo Temple, please visit Tattootemple.hk
The article first appeared in Vol 6 of Gallery & Studio.