Tattoo artist Marcus Yuen has been creating these colorful designs for over 12 years. His parlor, 59 Tattoo in Kowloon, is decorated with an array of historical images.
Adorning the walls are vintage dragon drafts by earlier generations of Hong Kong tattoo artists.
“The dragon always comes with a lot of good meanings, especially for Asian people. Even emperors would use dragons in the imagery,” Yuen said.
“The feeling is that it’s the most superior of all creatures. So, if you are going to have a tattoo, you’re not going to choose a mouse to begin with. You want the best image and something that’s going to give you self-confidence.”
Lunar New Year holidays begin February 10, ushering in the Year of the Dragon.
Australian Evan McCarthy, who’s been living in Hong Kong for six years, already has several other tattoos. But he’s chosen this month to get a big new dragon tattoo on his left arm.
Yuen said the process would take three sessions. From outlining to coloring, there’s lots of detail, and the skin needs to rest a while after hours of being under the needle.
McCarthy said he’s visited many of Hong Kong’s temples and sacred sites and spotted a spiraling dragon at one of them.
“I like the design – it’s the Chinese dragon … so I decided to get a tattoo of a dragon,” he said.
Yuen started with a six-month apprenticeship in a traditional Hong Kong tattoo parlor. He then branched out on his own. He started his own business eight years ago, and now, at 33, has six junior artists under his apprenticeship.
Yuen said his style embodies everything he’s learned of Hong Kong-style dragon illustration. He’s working to keep the territory’s traditional style of tattoo culture alive.
He cares about every detail – from the scales on the skin to the structure of the claws and, of course, the expression on the creature’s face.
In the past, dragon tattoos were often associated with gangsters, but now they’re popular and don’t have those same connections.
There are hundreds of tattoo studios in the city, ranging from small ones with a single tattooist to larger studios with five or six artists.
With the Year of the Dragon fast approaching, dragons are in demand.
British-born artist John Dougall has run his “Dragon’s Lair” tattoo parlor for more than 10 years. Dragons are one of his signature designs.
Dougall learned his craft in Hong Kong from Jimmy Ho, one of the territory’s best-known and most respected ink artists.
For him, the dragon is a timeless symbol and will never go out of fashion.
“I just think aesthetically they look really, really cool. And they’re sort of made to go on the body, really. You know, you put them anywhere and they’ll look good,” he said.
“I think dragon tattoos are … kind of timeless, really. They’ll look good when you’re 20 and they’ll still look good when you’re 60,” he said. “You know, it’s not something that’s going to go out of fashion.”
On a recent day, Dougall was working on a special dragon design. Customer Kathryn Cheeseman flew to Hong Kong as the last stop in a yearlong travel sabbatical, and she wanted a black-and-white dragon on her left hip.
There’s a rich mythology surrounding dragons, “particularly here in Hong Kong, which is one of the reasons I wanted to come here,” Cheeseman said. Her father, who died a few months ago, “was the one that kind of introduced me to that sort of fantasy context, and so it’s like a connection to him.”
The Lunar New Year, also known as Spring Festival, marks the beginning of the lunisolar calendar. Each year is named after one of 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac in a repeating cycle.
The Year of the Dragon follows the Year of the Rabbit.