May 26th, 2023
Against All Odds, Asian-American Tattooers Rise to the Top
When it comes to deconstructing the taboo art form in the Asian-American diaspora, these tattoo artists are lighting the way
Asian-Americans have long carried the weight of being the “model minority”—a group forced to play it safe, which definitely doesn’t entail becoming a tattoo artist. Members of this community are often pressured by outside society and within families to fit into the stereotype of high-achieving, law-abiding citizens. Fearful to stray from these paths, many Asian-Americans often don’t get a chance to pursue what fulfills their soul. Those who’ve plunged into the world of tattooing head-on and emerged as successful artists hold stories worthy of being talked about. By following their passions, these artists have not only set the standard for Asian-Americans in the tattoo industry, but gracefully lit the way for future generations in the creative space.
Asian history is no stranger to tattooing, as many of today’s captivating styles originated from East Asian countries and symbolized things like social status or spiritual enlightenment. These include tribal tattoos from Polynesia, Japanese Irezumi, the ancient Chinese art of “Chi Shen” or “puncturing the body,” and Thailand’s religious script tattoos known as Sak Yant. In Japan specifically, inked skin possesses heavy connotations to crime and the yakuza. In China, tattoos were historically used to identify ethnic minorities, punish criminals and brand slaves. Though sentiments have progressed significantly in recent years, lasting taboos surrounding tattoos still manage to pervade in Asia, and linger in Asian-American households.
Rachel Song, a first generation Chinese-American, remembers her mom’s reaction to her first tattoo. “She refused to speak to me,” she shares. “I don’t think she thought I was being serious when I told her [I was getting a tattoo]. I showed it to her and she made an ‘ugh’ sound—she was like, ‘don’t get any more, one is enough.’” Spoiler alert—tattoos would eventually become her life’s work.
Dayi Novas, a Brooklyn-based tattoo artist, couldn’t refuse the innate pull she felt towards tattooing. “Like many other first gen kids, I grew up in an extremely traditional household,” she says, “where ‘intactness’ of the body was valued.” Having endured an abusive past, Novas saw tattoos as a way to reclaim body autonomy. Her first piece was a drawing of her own. “The process felt so transformative that I was hooked,” she recalls. “My body is mine and I can protect myself, I need to be able to do this, too.”
Like Novas, Song knew art was her destiny, but there was nonetheless a lingering thought in the back of her mind, which became more pressing as she took a year off of school for her apprenticeship. “Because my parents are immigrants, I felt like my entire life, I didn’t want to stray from this one path, this kind of fast-track path into getting a job,” she says. “I think they always envisioned me working a corporate nine-to-five because they viewed that as security. By not doing that, I felt like I couldn’t offer them an ease of mind.”
Jonboy, an NYC-based Filipino-American tattooer looks back on similar memories of his upbringing. “I think it has always kind of been instilled in us that we’re a poor country,” he says. As a result, Jonboy’s ingrained perception of success was becoming a doctor, lawyer or another form of high-earning professional who could provide for their family. Beyond feelings of filial piety, Jonboy cites the circumstances he was raised in as an incentive to strive for excellence in an unconventional path. “I think [it’s] maybe the OCD in us, and just the tiger parents that are behind us, judging us,” Jonboy adds. “[It] makes us wanna make sure that [our work] is perfect.”
Artists like Novas, Song and Jonboy have used these pressures to fuel their drive. When their work started gaining recognition and paying bills, their parents were able to wrap their heads around the legitimacy of their craft. “My parents were covering my tuition [at first], but by maybe a year into tattooing, I was able to pay off my student debts and start taking my parents out,” Song says. “I think because of that, my parents didn’t pester me into going back to school anymore. At that point I was like, okay, I’m safe.”
“Though my mother still asks if my most recent tattoo will be the last,” Novas adds, “she made an Instagram account to like and comment on all of my posts, often tells me how much she loves my drawings, and even got her first tattoo from me last Christmas.”
Zhi, a resident artist of queer-owned, Asian-owned shop Long Time Tattoo, remembers when they first showed their mom pictures of their work, to which she’d respond with, “People pay for that?” After a while, their parents “started to see how much other people were loving [their] art and how many media outlets were covering it,” and were able to accept it as a sustainable career. “What parent doesn’t want their kid to be successful doing what they’re passionate about?” Zhi adds. “If my parents, who grew up in a small town in Shanghai, can accept that their kid is tattooing, then I’m very optimistic that others’ can, too.”
Having similar experiences growing up and finding their footing in the tattoo world, it only seems natural that Asian-American tattooers would find each other and strive to build together. “I think the Asian diaspora community founded itself very organically,” says Gabrielle Widjaja, co-founder of Long Time Tattoo. “Instagram wreaks havoc on your well-being, but the one thing it is good for is connecting folks from around the world. You start noticing who on your explore page or in your mutuals is doing similar work or has a similar mission, and you link up.”
More than acting as a connecting agent for artists to each other, many artists view tattoos as a way to connect with their identity. Widjaja’s work encompasses whimsical images like flowers in the wind, clasping hands and Asian motifs such as porcelain patterns, custom Chinese calligraphy and dragons. ”It is really special to be able to help others realize their connections to their estranged culture as children of the diaspora,” says Widjaja. Zhi carries a similar mission, showcasing a style inspired by folktales and fantastical imagery. “I’m really into queer tattoo stories and tattooing mythical creatures,” they say. “I see them as a way for others to connect with their migration stories and ancestry.”
Finally finding themselves at a good place, Asian-American tattooers are able to look back and see how they got to where they’re at. For many of them, drowning out the naysayers was the only option for moving forward. ”It’s the feeling inside that you have to just go against what everyone else is saying or what you think other people are thinking,” Jonboy says. In terms of finding your place in the industry and making work that stands out, Song comments that it’s important to just keep creating. “People envision tattooing to be a certain way—maybe they think you can make a lot of money off of it, or that they’ll have a lot of clients if they do XYZ,” she says. “I feel like those things are not sustainable. At the core of it, what makes you stand out as an artist and keeps you in the game for long, is just that you like to draw, you draw well and you have something [unique] to offer.”
If anyone in the Asian-American community is reluctant to pursue a career in tattooing or get their first tattoo, they can rest easy knowing so many others have already taken that leap of faith and found that things worked out for them. “I feel like there are a lot of Asian-Americans in the creative space now,” Song says enthusiastically. “Just seeing that there are people who can sustain a living, they have money to put a roof over their heads—it makes [aspiring artists] feel okay to give it a shot, because why would others be doing it if they couldn’t provide for themselves?” “I think it’s important for even more people who look like myself to get into the industry,” Gabrielle echoes. “What you see is what you realize is possible in this world.”
In a battle between familial and societal pressures against an unrelenting conviction to create, these Asian-American artists and so many more chose the road less traveled. In their eyes, the ship to becoming the “model minority” figure, in the most traditional sense of the phrase, has sailed. Instead, Asian-American tattoo artists have proven that both success and happiness can be derived from doing what they love and embracing the truest forms of themselves. In doing so, they’ve shown others who fight the same battles that their dreams are within reach, too.
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