A lot of people ask me how I got started doing tattoos. Considering there are thousands of artists out there who have more talent in their pinky toe than I have in my entire body, yet have not chosen or even given a thought to working with a tattoo machine, I’d say that’s a fair question.
Through years of being an active member of the expatriate community in Taiwan, I’d had plenty of opportunities to show people my artistic side. Year after year I’d tried to outdo myself with extravagant Halloween costumes, and no theme party would pass without me going all out with my outfit. I’d painted murals in friends’ restaurants and pet hotels. I’d even had a solo exhibition of a collection of large pieces I’d done, called “Life in the Shadows.”
Meanwhile, all around me, people had tattoos on the brain. Everyone had one, or was thinking of getting one, or, in rare cases, remarking that they were pleased about not having one because this set them apart. Either way, it wasn’t long before I was approached by a friend who wanted me to help him design his tattoo. Before we’d even come up with a final draft, other requests had started pouring in. Not surprisingly, in a society where English-speaking tattoo artists were next to impossible to find, there was no shortage of expats looking for an artist who could hear them out and help them put their ideas down on paper, and eventually, on their skin.
I spent more and more of my time drawing other people’s tattoos, sometimes putting upwards of ten or fifteen hours into the designs. In the end, I had many a happy customer, but none were too happy to pay more than $1000NTD (about $30USD) for my work. After all, it was only a drawing. And yet they were all too happy when they came back from the tattoo shop with a quote of $30,000NTD to get that same design tattooed on their skin…
It was time for me to find a way to get a bigger piece of the cake.
As an artist, I’d used a variety of tools throughout my life to create all sorts of works of art. I’d drawn and painted with a dozen different media. I’d done as well in wood working as I had in metal shops. I could use a spatula to ice a cake as well as I could use a hammer to a shape metal bowl, or a knife to spread oil paint on a canvas. A tattoo machine was just another tool, and I was sure I could learn how to use it as well as any other.
So I went to the tattoo shop with my sister, who was going in to book an appointment to get a large tattoo done on the side of her torso (my design, of course). When she’d finished with her business, I asked Ping, the tattoo artist she’d been speaking with (whose English was pretty good) what I had to do to become a tattoo artist myself. Knowing full well what people have to do to get an apprenticeship in North America (sign away their first-born child, cough up a half-year’s salary, make a deal with the devil…) I was pleasantly surprised when he said he’d sell me a “tattoo beginner kit,” with all the bits and pieces I’d need to learn how to tattoo at home. The kit had a machine with all the necessary accessories, a tiny bottle of ink, some needles, some transfer paper – you name it. He even showed me how to set it all up. But there was one more hurdle that needed to be crossed before I could set out on my way…
My friends had told me that the best way to get a feel for skin when learning to tattoo was to practice on pigs. Dead ones, preferably. I was vegan at the time. Needless to say, the prospect of having to tattoo pig skin was pretty unappealing to me. But I needed to practice on something, so reluctantly, I asked Ping: “Do I need to practice on pig ears, or something?” He looked at me blankly for a few seconds, then a small smile came to his lips. It was as if I’d just asked him if he still used a typewriter to send letters to his friends. “No,” he replied. “You can practice on latex.” He went to a drawer and pulled them out. Thin gray latex sheets, about the size of an A4 piece of paper. $100NT per sheet and I was saved from having to desecrate a poor dead pig’s hide…
I went home with my new tattoo beginner kit and got started right away. I drew a hibiscus flower onto some transfer paper, applied it to the latex sheet, then draped the latex over my thigh and got to work with my new toy. I tried varying the speed of the needle’s thrusts, using different kinds of needles, watering down the ink to see what effect that would have. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I had a pretty good handle on how to handle a tattoo machine. By the time I’d finished my fourth latex tattoo and shown it to Ping, my one and only consultant and advisor, he said: “Ok. I think you’re ready for real skin. Now you just have to find someone.”
Luckily I had a strong network of friends who were eager to support me, and who had faith in my abilities as an artist (if not as a tattooist!) A few volunteers were waiting for me to be ready, and lucky for me, my first customer was soon on my sofa, ready for action. The rest is history, written, or drawn rather, on the bodies of the people whom I’ve had the honour of tattooing since my humble beginnings as a tattoo artist. I was by no means great then, and I still have a long way to go. But I’ve come a long way, and I look forward to seeing just how far I’ll go from here!