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Tattoos—A Map Of Life

We look into the history and culture of tattooing, a craft that has transcended stigmas and has become widely accepted as an art form with designs serving as status symbols, declarations of love and vows of empowerment.

September 24, 2021

“How do you judge a book?” As I recently rewatched Zombie Boy’s (aka Rick Genest) 2011 commercial video for Dermablend, I still remember the initial shock I felt. The creativity, the visuals, and the message are so striking that it forever changed my view on tattoos as a form of art. Humans have been tattooing their bodies for thousands of years, with designs serving as everything from status symbols to declarations of love, and to forms of punishment. In most societies, tattoos have always had a negative stigma and it’s only recently that the art form has started to gain wider acceptance. Let’s discover the history of this craft and uncover the many stories beneath the ink. 

Photo: Zombie Boy


Tattoos are an inherent part of some cultures, and the evidence of it across ancient civilisations is fascinating. Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in 1991, embedded in glacial ice in the Ötztal Alps (hence his nickname) along the border between Austria and Italy, and was dated to 3250 BCE. Ötzi’s body has a total of 61 tattoos, with the majority of these being ink inscriptions on his legs. The distribution of the tattooed dots and small crosses on his lower spine, right knee, and ankle joints correspond to areas of degeneration, suggesting that they may have been therapeutically applied to alleviate joint pain. 

There have also been discoveries of tattooed mummies from ancient Egypt, which date to at least 2000 BCE. It appears that this practice was only carried out on the skin of women, functioning as a permanent form of amulets during the very difficult time of pregnancy and birth. Small figures of Bes, a household-protecting deity, have been found, usually on the breasts, abdomen, or thighs—which suggest they were used to safeguard births. Tattooing was strictly a female custom during this period of time. 

In ancient China, tattooing was considered to be barbaric and was highly stigmatised. Slaves were sometimes marked to display ownership and it was common for convicted criminals to be branded with a tattoo on their face—a visual warning to other members of society that this person was not to be trusted. More than any other, it could be this piece of history that formed the negative stigma in Chinese culture. Similarly, Christianity also considered tattooing a barbaric tradition and it faded out of favour in Europe in tandem with transoceanic travels in the 16th century. 

It was in 1769, during James Cook’s first expedition to Tahiti, that the British captain and explorer came across the Samoan word “tatau” (meaning to mark, hit, or strike)—which was then brought back to the West and ultimately led to the modern term “tattoo”. In Samoa, the tradition of applying tattoos by hand has been unbroken for more than 2,000 years and is often passed on from father to son. Their tools were made from sharpened boar teeth and turtle shells. Tattoos were used to signify a young chief’s ascendance to leadership. The pain was extreme and the risk of death by infection was high; however, to back down from a tattoo was to risk being labelled a coward and feeling shame for the rest of their lives.  



At the beginning of the 20th century, tattoos were associated with circus performers or sailors, and within those communities this art form was a mark of belonging. Tattoos were also used for identification purposes if a sailor fell overboard or drowned. Sailors would also get tattoos from the different ports they sailed to. This inked souvenir, ranging from a swallow (indicating a journey of 5,000 miles) to a turtle (meaning the sailor had crossed the equator), symbolised the length of their journey. 

James Ho's Rose Tattoo Studio, the first tattoo shop in Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, the first official tattoo shop wasn’t opened until 1946 by Shanghainese marine engineer James Ho, whose ship was destroyed by the Japanese navy on his journey across the Indian Ocean. He was picked up by an American warship and brought to Calcutta (now Kolkata), where he came across hand-poked tattoos. Fascinated by the craft, he brought his new passion back to Shanghai, where he made a machine with bike chains and other spare parts.  

Ho eventually fled Shanghai and came to Hong Kong, where Rose Tattoo Studio was born in Tsim Sha Tsui’s Rose Hotel. He brought with him a quintessentially American genre of tattooing that featured the likes of eagles, flags, pin-ups, and daggers, all with thick lines and bold hues, while incorporating other culturally significant Chinese iconography. This marked the beginning of Hong Kong’s tattoo culture. 

Rose Tattoo Studio thrived through the decades, serving American soldiers and sailors passing through and looking for souvenirs during the Korean and Vietnam wars, and Ho took on four apprentices—Ricky Lo, Pinky Yun, Benny Tsoi, and Swallow, who are still celebrated names in today’s tattoo world—just to keep up. After the wars ended, a distinct group of customers emerged, as tattoo artists began working more and more with the triads, who got tattoos as a symbol of masculinity. Back then, only the bosses could get tattoos.  

Dragons are the most frequently inked. “The dragons we tattoo usually have four claws,” according to Kui, a third-generation tattoo artist and owner of one of the oldest tattoo studios in Hong Kong. “Since Imperial times, only the king can have a five-clawed dragon. It represents his superior power. Back then, anyone who was arrogant enough to have their dragon five-clawed would be considered disrespectful and beheaded, and I’ve had some customers who had to come back to remove them.” Thus, during this period, this art form was associated with aggressive gangsters, giving the culture both a mystical and a menacing aura. 

The decade of rebellion that was the 1980s saw tattoos getting bigger and brighter. The rock and roll music scene also impacted the booming industry. New generations of tattoo artists emerged, and with them came their distinctive style of Chinese mythology, with stories like Journey to the West and Romance of the Three Kingdoms being popular inspirations. Slowly, tattooing became more socially acceptable, with numerous newcomers calling this craft their career. “We lost count of how many generations [of tattoo artists] there are right now,” says Kui. “Unlike in Japan, Hong Kong doesn’t have a strict rule on the succession of the craft. All my students have to pay to learn at the beginning. During their learning, I observe them to see who has the potential—not just skill, but also mentality. Once I identify them, I will ask them to stop paying and become my apprentices. I will then pass on my practical skills and more importantly, how to respect this form of art and to be a good tattoo artist.” 



With the commodification and redefinition of tattoos in modern society, they’re no longer reserved for society’s outcasts. Regular people, especially the young, want to get them, too. The meanings of tattoos thus function as storytelling and symbols of personal growth.  

Photo: Geisha Ink by Reka Nyari

A beautifully posed nude female shows off her body, which is almost entirely covered with countless tattoos of ominous imagery. This powerful shot, captured by renowned photographer Reka Nyari, features a geisha named Ginzilla, whose tattoos narrate her inner world. Born into a traditional family of uncompromisingly strict conservative values, the only thing Ginzilla seems to have control of is her body. Her first lover was a tattoo artist—and in fact, all her body art was composed and executed by different lovers. “They have chosen to express their life experiences through the very visual and often rebellious art of tattooing,” says Nyari. “For them, tattooing is like therapy, helping them get over life’s trauma and negative experiences, or celebrate achievements. It’s taking control over your own body and transforming your skin.” This sentiment is echoed by Kui. “In recent years, there has been an increased number of middle-aged female customers,” he says. “During their tattoo sessions, they are able to express their feelings and stories—the physical pain actually helps to heal their mental stress. It’s almost therapeutic.” According to Hayson, one of Kui’s students, “Everyone walks out of the studio anew—because they have a new body and a new beginning!” 

Some may see tattoos as an act of rebellion against society, but that’s only one of the many reasons why people have worn them on their bodies for centuries. In fact, tattoos express a surprisingly wide range of positive sentiments. The new generation of tattoo aficionados is no longer ashamed—they’re proud to show off their ink. Take Marcus Yuen, a millennial tattoo artist who loves the craft so much that he incorporates it into his lifestyle. He adores Hong Kong’s classical-style tattooing and is on a mission to keep this tradition going. “Not many places have their own history of tattoos like Hong Kong does, and we certainly need to protect this culture,” says Yuen. As for drummer and TV/YouTube personality Kevin Li aka KB, tattoos helped him choose his path and gave him the determination to become a musician. “The first of my tattoos was on my upper arm and they gradually moved downwards,” he recalls. “Once they reached my forearm, where they no longer could be hidden by my T-shirt, I knew that was the point of no return.” 

The ink on these people’s skin empowers their spirit as acts of defiance, vows of empowerment, and means of transformation of the mind through the physical body. Apart from holding personal meanings, it also provides a veritable map of their life. So, how do you judge a book? Go beyond the cover.