The tattoo space of Hong Kong has its roots in the colours and ink of colonial British times when sailors passed through the marine city and the influence of tattoo-heavy Korea and Japan.
The post-handover years of the city has seen heavyweights cater to clients local and abroad and master a hand on ink on skin. Veteran tattooist Rob Kelly has made waves in Hong Kong as a master artist with his studio located on the streets of Sheung Wan.
Rob Kelly operates out of a cosy ink parlour Blackout Tattoo, based in Sheung Wan opposite the area’s Cooked Food Market in Wing Lok Street, his 12th year running his own studio following its founding in 2010 in Causeway Bay.
Beyond his lengthy life in Hong Kong, Rob has a storied history with his love for ink and commitment to painting on people’s bodies.
Originally from his “small town in the U.K.” bordering Wales, Rob emigrated to Hong Kong in September 1994 with his parents and siblings. In a place where prospects for children were dim, Rob’s father jumped at the opportunity to move across the world. Arriving at the age of 14, Rob spent his formative teenage years in the city, before returning in 2001 “full-time” after studies in Brighton, U.K.
“The U.K. was fine,” Rob told The Beat Asia, “but it was too quiet. Brighton was not the same as Hong Kong. I came back with a few friends here and set up my life.”
Rob’s magnetic draw to tattooing spruced in his early teenage years but had not become a definitive career path until his mid- 20s. “I’ve always been into tattoos. I just always liked them.”
“I like the imagery [of tattoos]. I like that, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they were for weirdos and outsiders. I liked [the subculture] that came with that.”
“When I started getting tattooed at 14, the thrill of being in the tattoo shop felt almost illicit, we weren't technically supposed to be there. There was something about it. Tattooing at the time felt like it wasn't for everyone. So anytime you went in and got a tattoo, or you walk into a tattoo shop and hang out with the artists, it felt like you had this key to a secret society. And I really liked that.”
“I was getting tattooed more and I was drawing for myself on the side. I just thought why don’t I put these two things together. Everything I loved about tattooing, if I were in it and making a living, that's got to be the best thing in the world.”
Soon enough, in 2006, Rob took up an apprenticeship at Star Crossed Tattoo in Wan Chai’s Starstreet Precinct, under the authority and tutorship of British owners Julia Wilson and Ross Fury.
Rob recalls his regular tattoo appointments with Julia, having his sleeve inked. “I would show her a book of drawings and hound her saying, ‘what do you think of these, I really think you should show me how to do this.’” She was persistent, Rob said, with her “no’s”.
“I think I just wore her down at the end over three months of badgering her asking, ‘what's this, how does this work, what’s this machine do, what colour is that.’ She said to me, ‘I’ll just f***ing teach him how to tattoo.’"
Rob’s journey to actualising his teenage dream began at 26 years old under Julia’s rule. He would travel to Star Crossed Tattoo five times a week and learn the basics: linemanship, colouring, safety protocols, payments, service. On his days off, he would stay at the studio and breathe the culture of tattooing.
"That [addiction for tattooing] was immediate the second I got my foot in the door and started that apprenticeship. I knew it was all I was ever going to do. Everything about tattooing had me excited. The longer I was in the shop, the more I got a handle on what I was doing.”
When the couple left for London in 2010, Rob took the leap and opened his first studio in Causeway Bay.
With tattooing, Rob describes the craft holding two sides: the artistic side, which can be “nailed down” easily, and the craftsmanship side, requiring hours of training and a skilled arm.
“You could be a wizard with a pencil, but to learn how to translate that into a tattoo machine, it is an entirely different piece of machinery. The more I started to get better and better, the satisfaction became more] immense. You start watching your work get tighter, you start being that little bit faster, everything becomes a little bit more intuitive.”
At Star Crossed, Rob matured his favoured artistic style that has marked his studio unique in the industry: traditional and portrait tattoos featuring “big, thick, bold, heavy lines, and bright colours.”
He shared a fondness for Japanese tattoos, elegant, detailed, and highly symbolic, and old-school sailor tattoos. “There was something really powerful about these styles. During my apprenticeship, I was always told, every tattoo must have an outline, every tattoo must have shading in it, and every tattoo must have colour in it.”
With his tattoos today, Rob emphasises longevity and professionalism.
“If you do a tattoo and then look at it after a month, it looks great. If you do a tattoo and you look at it after 10 years, it can go either way, it can look great or it can just fall apart. One of the really nice things about having been a [tattooist] for so long is I'm privileged to be able to look back at work I did 15 years ago, and go okay, this worked, or this didn't work, and then apply that to the work that I do now.”
"It's a personal choice for me because I want my work to reflect upon me as well as it possibly can. Nobody gets a tattoo thinking, ‘I'll just cover it in two years.’ People get a tattoo, in some cases, because it's the most important thing they'll ever do.”
“I know that being a guy who is heavily tattooed, I want my tattoos to continue to look good. If I were to do tattoos that I knew in my heart when not going to last, I would feel like I was selling snake oil to someone.”
Rob told The Beat Asia that professionalism matters a lot in the tattooing business: Iit is the quality of the work reflecting the cost, providing a safe, clean environment, and delivering a good experience when one gets a tattoo.
"If you are an asshole when you tattoo someone, people will remember that. I have always made a big effort to be professional, courteous, and friendly with the guys in the shop and my clients. We try to make a really fun, safe, comfortable environment for people to get stabbed in.”
Rob returns to the tattoo business following Hong Kong’s vicious fifth wave of COVID-19 infections with a new sense of optimism for the future of his studio, the industry, and Hong Kong. “I'd like to just continue doing good work,” he told The Beat Asia.
“I have a really good relationship with the other two artists [in my studio], and we all bounce ideas off each other. We give feedback on tattoos that we've done, so that we can continue to get better."
“If you plateau in tattooing, then that's the end of you. Having us all continue to push ourselves is probably number one.”
“I’d like to try and progress, honing in on my craft. I don't think it ever ends. You know, people that tell you, ‘yeah, I'm out of my apprenticeship. I've gone as far as I can in tattooing.’ I think that's nonsense. There's always something that you can learn.”
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