Sousyu Hayashi peers at the intricate pattern of sakura blossoms before him, born from 30 hours of deft prodding by his traditional Japanese tattoo needle — and he is not even halfway done.
Surrounded by admiring onlookers, the 47-year-old is among the 130 tattoo artists who have set up stalls at a Hong Kong convention until Sunday. Attendees can pick out designs from an eclectic lineup and get inked on the spot.
Hayashi is a master of tebori, Japanese for “handcrafted, ” a technique in which the skin is pierced by a steel-tipped bamboo rod without mechanical help. He told AFP that only a handful of practitioners are left.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I’ve done this for 24 years and always practising at home.”
Heavyweights like Hayashi brought a much-needed jolt to Hong Kong’s tattoo community, which has increased over the years, according to Gabe Shum, organiser of the Hong Kong China International Tattoo Exhibition.
Tattoos in Chinese cities used to be associated with organised crime, but Shum, 60, said he has witnessed a “growing acceptance” among the public over time.
The Malaysian-born tattoo artist started decorating skin at 19 and enjoyed a storied career that included inking sports legends David Beckham and LeBron James.
“When I returned to Hong Kong to start my business, there were only four tattoo parlours,” Shum told AFP. “Today, there are 300 to 400 tattoo artists.”
“People had misunderstandings and biases… We did a lot to explain and destigmatise.”
The convention, which began a decade ago, also draws fans from mainland China, where tattoos have spiked in popularity even though the ruling communist party has discouraged them.
A man from the Chinese city Chongqing, who gave his surname as Xiang, said he brought his five-year-old daughter to the event as a family outing.
“She’s a kid; she thinks (tattoos) are no different from painting, and she loves to play around with a paintbrush,” he told AFP.
He added that Xiang’s favourite tattoo, a brightly coloured rooster on his chest, was chosen to match his daughter’s Chinese zodiac sign.
“I got that to make myself happy, to express joy.”
Tattoo artists from Hong Kong make up around one-third of this year’s lineup, which organiser Shum said shows the “rapid development” of the local industry.
But they were dealt a heavy blow during the pandemic, as the government forced beauty salons- a category that includes tattoo parlours- to close for months at a time to reduce virus transmission.
Mini Lau began her tattoo business in 2018, bringing techniques she learned in South Korea back to her home city. Her designs featuring fine lines and pastel colours have become a hit with younger women.
She recalled how, in school, her friends would ask her to draw on their arms for fun.
“It gave me a sense of accomplishment, the way it made my classmates happy… If the pictures were real tattoos, that would be cool,” said Lau, 28.
She eventually decided to quit high school and apprentice with a tattoo artist. However, she could only practice drawing until around midnight as she held down a day job in sales.
“I didn’t tell my parents… Until one day, my brother saw an interview of me in the newspaper and showed it to my dad,” Lau said with a laugh.
Learning to be a tattoo artist had been a “bumpy path” for her, and Lau said she hoped the industry would be more accessible to newcomers. She added that the convention was a step in the right direction.
For those without ink, the event proved to be a chance to experiment.
A woman named Jennifer told AFP she decided to get her first tattoo after being wowed by a calligraphy design.
“I had been thinking about it for a while… I know it’s an impulsive decision, but it felt right.”