As people become more aware of the importance of fostering diverse spaces and developing a culture of inclusivity, many tattoo artists have made it a goal to ensure their studios are welcoming to everyone regardless of heritage or gender. However, the fact remains that tattooing in the United States, despite its cultured history, has been historically dominated by white men.
Tattooing is an ancient art with unique histories across many cultures. In America, tattooing largely gained recognition when American servicemen returned from their trips to Japan. Initially, Asian artists lacked a foothold in the American tattoo world despite the heavy influence Asian art had on the inception of the American traditional style. Art rooted in Asian cultures also plays a major role in the styles of many American tattoo artists, providing the foundation upon which many artists have built their portfolios and developed their own personal styles. Browsing through Tattoodo, a sort of social media site for tattoos, reveals that the majority of their most searched artists are primarily white. Even among those specializing in Japanese art, none of the top names listed are those of Japanese artists. Moreover, few, if any, of their top artists are Asian American. A few Asians artists populate the list, but none are based in America.
Why, if Japanese traditional tattoos are so influential and remain popular, are Asian American tattoo artists so hard to track down? Asian art saturates the tattoo industry, but Asian artists remain relatively scarce. During the month of May, we celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Below are a few Asian tattoo artists. Some of these artists have broken free from the traditional styles of their heritage, choosing to forge their own path. Others have embraced the traditional styles, choosing to keep their history alive with a new generation of Asian artists.
Dr. Woo: Combining geometric work, hyperrealism, and minimalism, Los Angeles-based Brian Woo tattoos intricate black and grey work on celebrity clients and devoted fans. Working alongside Mark Mahoney at Shamrock Social Club, Dr. Woo learned from tattoo veterans and developed his own style to become one of the most in-demand Asian American tattoo artists.
Hannah Kang: Although much of Asian tattoo history seems maximalist--bold, bright, body-spanning depictions of spirits, animals, and demons, many Asian American artists working today have turned to a minimalist style. Hannah Kang of New York tattoos clients with small, intricate works of art. Tiny depictions of flowers, animals, and food make up the bulk of her work. Depicting the beautiful details of more mundane aspects of life, Kang, and many other Asian American artists, forge a new path for themselves in the tattoo industry.
Nha Nguyen: While some Asian American artists have made a name for themselves through their minimalist response to traditional tattooing, Nha Nguyen keeps the traditional style alive in Philadelphia. Specializing in massive portraits of spirits, animals, and gods Nguyen typically tattoos full arm and leg sleeves or full back pieces. A true maximalist, Nguyen revels in major projects.
K Wong: In New York, K. Wong revives the Asian influence on the American traditional style. Working with bold lines, heavy shading, and familiar imagery, K. Wong gravitates towards a darker style of American traditional with clear references to the style’s Asian roots. Dragons are a favorite subject for Wong whose work has evolved from primarily black ink to include pops of color, and most notably Wong’s clients display a range of skin colors, thus depicting his own inclusivity and ability to work with all canvases.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of PainfulPleasures.