Leon Lam-Hien is a tattoo artist who operates his studio, Shitoujii, out of an old tenement building in Mong Kok. Born in South Vietnam, Leon grew up in Lyon, France. He worked as an industrial designer before becoming a professional tattoo artist 15 years ago. He’s been working in Hong Kong since 2007.
Tales of a Teenaged Tattoo Artist
Leon received his first tattoo at the tender age of 13, from a classmate’s father, a tattoo-covered former soldier. By 18, Leon had become his apprentice. At the time, most tattoo shops were owned by bikers, and tattoo culture was very insular, so tattooing tools were hard to come by. As soon as Leon managed to find a tattoo gun and some needles, he began practicing his art on himself and his friends.
“When you have the machine, all your friends want a tattoo, even if they don’t know whether you’re good or not,” says Leon. “And even when I travel, I always have my machine with me and I’m always looking for some skin.”
Leon’s Working Method
Leon prefers to work in relative seclusion—eschewing a street shop in favor of working in a tenement building—so he can vet his clientele and create the optimum conditions for his artistry. He’s established an online communication system so that he can make sure that he and his potential clients see eye to eye before meeting in real life.
“I’ve put so much ink on Hong Kong that many people know my name from my work, but they don’t know my face,” he says. Working with people who seek him out specifically means that he has autonomy over his art.
“I don’t want the stress of having random people from the street come in, show you a tiny photo, and say, ‘Oh, can I have a thousand colours?’ or, ‘Put it on the right, on the left.’ This kind of thing takes away your energy. You wouldn’t go to the doctor and say ‘I want to take this medicine’, it’s the same for tattoos. Otherwise, what’s the point in coming to me? I’d just be a machine to that kind of person. There’s no point in that.”
Leon’s artistry is so coveted that while some of Leon’s clients give him references to work from, many are happy to give him free reign, or they even make references to his previous work.
Leon works mostly in black, but sometimes with grey or red. He says, “I don’t go too crazy with colour. It’s just my point of view that some tattoos are too colourful. I prefer to let just one colour, like red, pop up a little bit, and to have most of the structure in black and white.”
It typically takes Leon two or three hours to complete a basic tattoo; however, some tattoos have taken over a year to complete because of their size and complexity. “You can only go for about three hours; then you need to rest for at least a month to let the skin heal before starting again. Some people stop in the summer because the weather is bad for tattoos.”
So what inspires Leon? He says, “I think you arrive at a point where you understand what you are doing and everything is connected. This happens when you cook, or cut hair, or design or whatever, everything can be useful.”
Leon once met an old man who had done many exhibitions, who said something that changed his perception of art. The old man told Leon that he preferred to work with a raw piece of wood than with a piece of paper, because the raw piece of wood was natural and the paper was calculated.
“There are some people who go to school and can produce drawings like photography or whatever, and there’s some people who never go to school and they just draw what they see. He told me that these are the real artists,” says Leon. “Anybody can get technique if you go to school for ten years. But you don’t need to be so technical. I thought this was interesting.”
“So I thought, ‘Yeah. I can draw.’ And after that nothing stopped me because I just interpreted what I thought and felt.”
Leon draws inspiration from Mozart, and all kinds of music and sounds. (He plays the didgeridoo.) He’s also inspired by the mundane.
On a one-month hiatus from tattoos, Leon would visit the wet market and buy things that he’d never seen before for inspiration.
“I would make compositions out of the food before eating it. I was inspired by the colors and the shapes, and that experience came out in my tattoos. I go by textures, like a photograph of a wall in Beijing.”
On Global Tattoo Cultures
Leon has spent years traveling around the world and experiencing different tattoo cultures.
“If you go to Thailand, you see there are monks who do tattoos. You have to bring offerings to get some ink done. In Morocco I found a travelling tattoo shop. They were driving this caravan and in the caravan was a tattoo shop so I just hung out with them. Some places you get tattoos on the hands, some places the mothers tattoo the daughters.”
“Of course, there are some places where tattoos are discriminated against, like in jail. In Japan they used to mark people by writing the idiogram ‘dog’ on prisoners’ faces so that when you got out, everybody would know that you’d been in prison. It’s very difficult to find a tattoo shop in Japan, they’re all private with their own clientele, and they don’t deal with walk-in customers.”
He notes that street shops are an American concept, with these words of caution: “If you only go to places where the tattoo artist sits behind a bar and asks you what you want from a book, then you don’t understand tattoos.”
Working as a tattoo artist in Hong Kong has exposed Leon to a cross-section of Hong Kong society, and he observes that for many HK-dwellers, getting a tattoo is almost a form of therapy.
“While tattoos are fashion, they also have a deeper meaning,” says Leon. “Hong Kong is a very stressful city where everything is packed and fast. Many people who live here only know this kind of life. What they care for is on the outside and not within themselves. Maybe they don’t have time to be with themselves, because when they go home, they’re going back to such a small space.”
“I used to tattoo a lot of girls,” he recalls. “It was very strange—when I looked at their arms they were full of cuts and cigarette burns. Now I see that less, don’t know why but before when I first arrived there were lots of girls like this. I was like, ‘Fuck, what’s wrong with this place?’ because when you see three or four a week, then you understand that there is some problem in the society.”
“There’s a whole human life story,” he says.
“Tattoo is life. Each culture has its own way.”
To see more of Leon’s work, go to shitoujii.com.
Over and out,
Dan Tat Monster