• Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample
  • Swallow tattoo sample

The Torpedo and the Rose

The story of how 'electric tattooing' started in Hong-Kong reads like a real-life war drama, and starts with the exploits of a young engineer, James Ho. Born in Shanghai, China in 1903, James completed his formal education and decided on a life of travel. The young adventurer joined the merchant navy as apprentice engineer, and his enthusiasm and diligence were rewarded with steady promotion.

After a few years, James settled comfortably into a life on the high seas, taking care of the massive cargo ships that ferried supplies to ports throughout Southeast Asia.
In 1940 however, all that changed when his ship was blown up by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine while crossing the Indian ocean. Despite the ship's total destruction – with the loss of many crew members, James managed to cling to a piece of floating wreckage, and was rescued by an American warship and taken to Calcutta. There he recuperated. in a British military hospital. It was during his convalescence that James became fascinated by the tattoos worn by many servicemen, and once he had regained his health, he decided to go along with a group of soldiers on a visit to a local Indian tattooist. The tattooing machines used at the time were constructed largely out of scrap: a bakelite board, ripped out of a radio or television set, was cut into a rough square, onto which a couple of electromagnetic coils were bolted. This was connected to a metal tube attached to a bicycle valve, and hooked up to a set of batteries. To an engineer like James, it all seemed rather crude and cumbersome, and he decided to see if he could refine these archaic contraptions, and make something better. By the time James returned to Shanghai, he'd not only improved and redesigned the machines to work using mains electricity, but also decided on a radical change in his life. He now wanted to be a tattooist, and soon he managed to get together the materials to start his new career. Unfortunately however, Shanghai had became an increasingly dangerous place since the end of the war, so he gathered his family and moved to Hong Kong, where he found himself once again in the company of British and American servicemen.

James opened the Rose Tattoo Studio in 1946, and it didn't take him long to make contact with the troops and get his new studio's name circulating at the garrisons and naval ports. By the time the Korean war started in 1950, the studio was working non-stop to meet the huge demand. Unable to do it all himself, James took on four apprentice tattooists at the Rose Studio: Ricky, Benny Tsoi, Pinky Yun, and a young teenager, named Lai Shue Keung, who later became known as Swallow. As business continued to expand, new studios opened, particularly in the harbor area of Wanchai. The famous Lockhart Road became home to Ricky Tattoo, started by Jame's apprentice Ricky, and a year later Swallow decided to follow Ricky's example and opened a studio of his own just a few blocks away. When the original Rose Tattoo Studio ceased to operate in the late 1960's, James's son Jimmy Ho continued his father's profession, opening up his own studio in Kowloon. Benny Tsoi likewise started a business in Kowloon, and Pinky Yun travelled to America, where he still works as a tattooist today.

The Swallow's artwork lives on From 1950 until the late 1970s, Hong Kong 's importance as a strategic port meant that there would never be a shortage of fighting men arriving here for brief periods of rest and recreation before going back, in many cases, to meet their death. Wanchai became an international playground for the thousands of newly arrived troops, full of massage parlors, street girls, and speakeasy bars (which stayed open after the official bars had closed). And with tattooing as popular as ever among American, British and Australian servicemen, the district's tattoo parlors did a roaring trade.

Having thus made a great deal of money while the troops were in town, Hong

Kong's tattooists were greatly disappointed when the last American naval fleets left Hong Kong and British troops vacated their garrisons. Their incomes fell dramatically, and their only customers now seemed to be local youths wanting cheap, monochromatic designs for low prices. Some tattooists relied for business on the increasing interest in cosmetic tattooing. This had been practiced in hairdressing salons for decades, but the modern electric machine's speedier application led many women to start visiting tattooists for their beauty marks instead. But none of this was enough to prevent the near collapse of Hong Kong's tattoo industry in the period after the Vietnam war, and until the early 1990s. Interestingly, the same thing happened in the West during the 1960s, when public interest in tattoo art nosedived, and tattooists were left in a cultural limbo for the next couple of decades.

It's easy to see why the public's imagination was not inspired by tattoo art during this period. To begin with, most tattooists couldn't draw or tattoo without the aid of a stencil, and their walls still advertised military icons and patriotic emblems, suitable for fighting men, but hardly a choice for the suburban citizen hoping to acquire a work of art, or something suitable to impress their peers.

Hong Kong's Chinese population, meanwhile, was still quite conservative, and many strongly adhered to Confucian teachings, including the one stating that the human body was sacred and not to be tampered with. So from the late 1970s until the early 1990s, tattooing stagnated and was hidden from public sight. The only people interested seemed to be triad gangsters, who required their identification insignias, and housewives, who wanted permanent drawn-on eyebrows. When Swallow realized that his tattooing days were over, he quietly returned to his Buddhist religion and became a recluse. His health had deteriorated because, after many years of inhaling second-hand smoke from the sailors and soldiers crammed into his tiny studio, his lungs had finally given way; he ended his days in a hospital, breathing through a respirator.

After Swallow's death, his family ignored the studio and their intention, once they had redecorated their apartment, was to burn its contents. For ten years, the framed pictures and countless bundles of artwork were left to rot, and get eaten by termites. Luckily the designs didn't fade (Swallow had used tattoo pigments to draw them), and although many of his paintings have deteriorated, consumed by worms and termites, they still brightly illustrate the atavistic imagery that dominated Hong Kong's tattooing in those war-torn decades. Like Europe's Bayeux tapestry, which depicts medieval soldiers going to war, these designs provide a unique record of the prevailing cultural symbols of nations and their soldiers going to war, symbols so powerful that men wanted them indelibly engraved on their skin for life.