A Master in New School Oriental and Realism Oriental tattoos, Jess Yen gave HeartbeatInk an interview about his journey through the art of tattooing, his perspective on Oriental tattoos and the tattoo family he has created.

You were awarded a special trophy at the 16th New York tattoo Convention. What does it stand for?

First of all, it was a surprise and a great honour. This trophy is about contribution, influence and tattoo style. It means that throughout the years I've been in the US my tattooing, has influenced people. That is the reason they made that trophy for me, to show their appreciation. I feel very honoured and happy to have that trophy. All the hard work I have done over the past years was finally recognised. For me tattoo is my lifetime. It is not just a job and a career; it my life's commitment. It is my destiny.

Furthermore, this special trophy was given to you in America, which is not where you were born is it?

I was born in Taiwan. My grandfather is Japanese, my father is Taiwanese and we also have Chinese blood and blood from the native islanders. I came to the States to fend for myself; I opened up my shops and started my tattoo family. I have a great love for the country I originally come from, Taiwan. However, America gave me everything; family, career, clients, money, house and great support. America was the land of Indians and it became a country full of immigrants. Some people came here two hundred years ago and some people came here two years ago. We all love this land. I love this land, it made me what I am today. Therefore, at every convention I attend I don't use the Taiwanese flag anymore, but the American one. It took me a long time to decide, to swear... Now I say that I am an Asian – American; a Taiwanese- American.


How were you originally introduced to the tattoo world?

My initiation into the tattoo world was a long time ago in Taipei city. I was sixteen, I was already drawing a lot and wanted to learn form a local tattooer. But he wouldn't take me as an apprentice because I was underage. However, he was ok to tattoo me. I got a Japanese dragon tattoo. The design was by Horiyoshi the 3rd. That's when I started looking up Horiyoshi the 3rd's work. After I got tattooed and saw many photos in the tattoo studio showing the Tebori tattoo technique, I thought “I can do this”.
In 1989 I started doing hand – poked tattoos with chopsticks. I tied a sewing needle on a ramen chopstick with a fishing thread and used ink. The first tattoo I ever did was a Kanji character for a classmate of mine. I was a bad boy back then... I kept tattooing friends and neighbours, until I started tattooing professionally; meaning charging people for my work, in 1992. The first time I ever used a tattoo machine was in 1998 and it was a coil tattoo machine. Until then all my tattoos were hand – made (Tebori).

How come you decided to come to the States?

I came to California as a student. I wanted to attain a Master degree in interior design. Tattooing was a part - time job for me back then. It hadn't crossed my mind about the future, about what I would be today. I still love interior design. I have remodelled my new tattoo shop in Huntington beach myself. So, back then I applied to Long Island University and I got in, but I had no money to attend the Masters; therefore I had to work. After a couple of other jobs, I ordered a tattoo set online and started tattooing people. In 1999 I started working at “Mine Tattoo” (in Japanese it means the top of the mountain) in Alhambra and in 2001 I took over the shop and changed the name to “My Tattoo” and I remodelled it. Then I opened a second private shop, again, in Alhambra and this year my third tattoo shop opened in Huntington beach.


How many apprentices do you have?

I have four apprentices. All four of them have my name tattooed on their skin. This is because I am creating a tattoo family and each person has to redeem the family's name in order to be part of the family. Those four apprentices have been recognized as part of the family. They are my second generation. The family system means that the art of tattoo is inherited from generation to generation; I pass all my skills to the next generation. There is a strong bond. We become a real family. Student and master is like father and daughter or son. Therefore, I don't teach people in general or do seminars. I only teach my own students. All my skills and style are a secret. Having a family system, my shop is completely different from all the other street shops.

What does it take to become an apprentice of yours?

All my students must show a lot of respect and do their time; three years apprenticeship. The first year they do all kind of jobs. It's not easy. They have a “rough” time; from cleaning toilets and moping floors to more tasks I ask them to do. The next two years they practice drawing and they study my work. After those three years are completed, then they start tattooing. Lucy Hu, for instance, has been tattooing for ten years now. I first train their mentality; I want them to have a strong mentality. I tell my apprentices that if they want to become better tattooers, they first need to become better persons. You must learn to appreciate and respect. This is very important. If you don't respect people's skin, how can you do a great tattoo? The right mentality comes before any skills. There are many tattoo artists, but it doesn't mean that everyone will cherish or appreciate the costumer's skin and ideas. A lot of people have talent, however it doesn't mean that they do a good job.


It appears that your tattoo style varies. In what way is that?

I have four different styles. One is traditional hand-pocked; meaning I don't do the traditional design anymore, but I still do Tebori tattoo. Then I do different realistic styles for colour and different for black and grey. I also do New School Oriental. And I use Tebori style for some parts of all these styles. You could call my overall work Realism Oriental. People tend to recognize my tattoos. I believe that every artist has a signature.

Apart from tattooing do you also create artwork in general?

I do all kind of drawings; colour pencils, oil, acrylic and more. My major was “Multimedia Arts”, so when I draw portraits, animals and realistic themes in general, I find it easy.

What is the most difficult then?

The bodysuits. Oriental tattooing is really hard. You need to understand the culture, the history, the meaning behind the stories in order to create each character. For instance there are no dragons to draw their portraits. You have to draw them from a book description and use your imagination to make them exist. Therefore, it also becomes creative. Tigers and elephants, for instance, are easy to draw. You can see them at the zoo or you can find photos online. So for me whatever you can see and then draw it, it's easy. It's like copy work. You have a clear picture and then with the stencil you stencil it, you place it on the skin and you tattoo it. And if you have good tattoo skills, it's going to look great and exactly the same. Custom tattoos are more difficult and demanding. You need to be creative, imaginative, draw while taking into consideration the body shape and flow.


So do you believe that it is necessary to be familiar with the culture in order to do Oriental tattoos?

In my opinion, if you want to do this style of tattooing, you should first visit Asia. You should shake hands with the people, drink the water, breath the air, feel the vibe. If you want to do for instance Japanese tattoos, you should go to Japan to see the temples and visit the museums. That would be a great and important help and a potential influence also. At the same time, I highly recommend studying the history, reading books and studying the paintings in order to get ideas and of course practicing a lot.

We come across Japanese tattoos all over the world, but we don't see tattooed people in the streets of Japan. At least I didn't see any when I visited Tokyo. How come?

Japan has a very deep culture. People are modest and keep to themselves. They don't want to bother people. They are very polite and have courtesy. They also have a lot of rules and regulations. Even those who have tattoos, they keep them personal and to themselves by wearing long sleeves. The tattoo scene is not “open” to the public. However, I find it is getting better now. I visit the Tokyo tattoo convention every October. There are about a hundred booths; Nikko Hurtado's, Robert Hernandez's, Bob Tyrell's and mine are among them. We all go every year.

From your description, it seems that it is the opposite in the West, where people tend to show their tattoos openly...

In western cultures people want to be or look different. They want to stand out. Uniqueness is considered to be a positive thing. In Asia people tend to act and behave the same way, in order to blend in. If you stand out, you might be taken as a “bad” person. People behave as groups and not individually. Therefore an Asian person with a body suit will hide it. He doesn't want others to know. He will keep it to himself.


Photos & Interview by Ino Mei.