Interview: Joey Pang, founder of Temple Tattoo

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There’s a three-year waiting list for one of their masterpieces, but an even more elusive appointment lies behind Tattoo Temple’s slick black doors: the apprenticeship. Hundreds have applied, but few have managed to secure a highly coveted spot at one of Hong Kong’s most progressive tattoo art shops. Ahead of Hong Kong’s very first tattoo convention, which seeks to attract burgeoning tattooists, respected ink masters and fans of the medium, Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the Temple’s founder, Joey Pang, about their programme and what it takes to be a true artist. Wannabe rock stars, take note… as Jessie J so aptly said, it’s not about the money. 

Joey, what are your roots in the art of tattooing?
I’ve loved drawing since I was a kid, so I always wanted to find a job related to it. I went to design school and make up school. But it wasn’t until I was 25, when I was in New Zealand and saw the Maori tattoos, that I really got this feeling about tattoos. They were such beautiful things. Tattoos are associated with gangsters in Hong Kong, but for New Zealand they’re traditional and a much respected culture. I began my tattoo journey there and travelled for about two years before coming back to HK. Then, I opened up Tattoo Temple.

I hear you also did an apprenticeship in Thailand while you were travelling.
Yes, I started at a tattoo studio, which they opened for tattoo students. I did a lot of tattoos for free – they love tattoos there. Every day, I got to practice on new skin, but with regards to hygiene and the skill standard, [Thailand] wasn’t there yet. My friend told me that if I wanted to learn the art properly, I should go to Europe. It’s funny, after Europe, I went back to China and Hong Kong to learn in my own language. 

What is the main thing you need in order to be successful or happy as a tattoo artist?
Passion. In any career, if you’ve got passion, you can be the best and you can do your best, because it’s the power behind everything. 

How many applications do you receive for your apprenticeship programme?
We have a lot of people coming in, but we have to select the right person. Some people come in, and then they bail and leave. Right now, I have four artists learning from me. We’re already so busy. We can only take people who will work at our times. There’s a lot involved. It takes the whole team to train one person.

How do you spot potential?
They have to be artists first; they have to be able to draw. If the drawing passes a certain standard – fairly professional – then we train them to become tattoo artists. We don’t have the time to teach people drawing; it’s not a hobby class. They need to work hard. They need to start from the bottom, like doing a lot of cleaning, before they can touch the equipment. You can see their patience and passion from this – they need to be serious about cleaning, too. A lot of people fail at this part! 

They give up at the cleaning stage? 
A lot of young people think, “I just want to do tattooing, why I am cleaning here?” Basically, those people generally don’t stay for long.

How long does a Tattoo Temple apprenticeship last?
It’s different for everyone. Some are faster and some take longer. If they never get into the mood to do things seriously, they will be cleaning for the whole year! It depends on their attitude. If they have the right attitude and show me their passion, they can complete it within three months.

In your opinion, what is the difference between a good tattoo artist and a really, really great one? 
The really great artists are all very humble. They’re super-friendly people even though they look so scary! They’re willing to share their experience with you. They’re really passionate about what they’re doing. They create their own artwork and they don’t copy. 

What if there was someone who came into your shop who had this idea that tattooing was like being a rock star? 
I definitely wouldn’t accept that person! As you can see, our style isn’t rock and roll. Our tattoos have a calm and peaceful vibe, and most of our images are positive, not angry or noisy. We don’t think being a tattoo artist is cool. When I first started, I never thought about how much I could make, because that’s not the way to start. If you love the art you should do it, and if you do it with your heart, you’ll get the money at some point when you get to that level. If you think about the money first, then you’re not an artist. 

Also, tattooing is a service. You serve other people, and you draw for other people. Some artists only draw for themselves. From my experience, there are some apprentices who’ve failed because they still stay in their own artist-mode. They think, “I’m a cool artist; I want to draw what I want.” And it’s hard to stay in this industry when you have that mentality.

Do your apprentices practice tattooing on their own bodies? 
Yes, I need people to tattoo themselves before they can touch other people. They need to know the feeling. 

How does one know what kind of tattoo art is right for their style?
I would say there are two different types of tattooists. The first type is the one that can draw – we call them tattoo artists. The other is called a flash tattoo artist, and I’d say 90% of the studios are full of those people – they don’t draw. They buy flash drawings in bulk and then they apply the transfers on people. They just need to learn how to use the machine and they’re more like technicians. There are different types of people; it depends on which industry you want to go into. For us, we need people who can draw. My advice: if you don’t know how to draw, just don’t tattoo people. It’ll stay on their skin for the rest of their life; it’s a big responsibility. People should learn and develop their drawing first. If you don’t even like to draw, don’t draw on other people!  

Tattoo Temple 1 Wyndham Street, 2801 7300; tattootemple.hk.

1st International Hong Kong China Tattoo Convention InnoCentre 72 Tat Chee Avenue (Festival Walk). Tickets: ticketflap.com.

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