All Lined Up

Chris Meng leans over his client, working on a bevel gradient running through the lines that loop and curve around her upper back. It circles around like a half mandala, with petals that seem to grasp onto her shoulders for balance and horns that dip down to a point towards her shoulder blades. Teeth, fangs, and a singular eyeball at the dead center suggest an abstract Thai guardian. He creates bold, black linework with thick lines and smooth bends that dip and roll with the body, accentuating the natural shapes and contours of the human form. “Tattoos belong to the body, they don’t exist without it,” explains Ming, who’s currently guesting at Common Ground Tattoo here in Bangkok.

Ming, whose name in Chinese is 萬華, was born and raised in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong. The never-ending grind of his hometown created a serious barrier to finding himself as an artist. As possibly the most expensive city in the world, the constant need for money can make it hard to breathe unless you’re already wealthy. As the son of a construction worker and dishwasher, Ming definitely didn’t have a head start. During high school, he worked part-time in a kitchen for three years, saving up money. When he turned 17, he bought a ticket to Taiwan and while there he saw temporary tattoos that would change the course of his life. “I just never realized tattoos could be so different,” he says, now 24. “You can do anything. It blew my mind. When I got home I decided I wanted to learn.”

After high school, he paid $2,500 for an apprenticeship that would prove to be a waste of money. “Paying to learn is regular in Hong Kong, nothing is free,” he says. “But it’s often just a scam.” The owner he worked for didn’t teach him anything and basically just let him start doing tattoos on his own. “It was so fucked up. A lot of people complained and dragged me online.” So he decided to strap on his backpack again, this time with the goal of learning tattoos. He went to Amsterdam and back to Taiwan to get tattoos and asked a lot of questions. “You can’t even ask questions in Hong Kong, because artists don’t want to share for free and they don’t want the possible competition.” But he returned home and kept trying.

The tattoos Ming was doing were far from creative; he’d basically just do whatever customers would ask for. Sometimes he’d try and take their requests and do it in his style, but they’d always change it. Even the sketches he did were not up to his own standards because he had to bang out customers quickly as possible as directed by his boss. All he did were tattoos he didn’t care about until it was time to sleep, only to wake up and do it again. During this time he was living in a warehouse with no windows since it was the cheapest thing he could find—if you consider $500 a month cheap. “Hong Kong is a place for business, not a place for living.”

Ming found himself trapped in a corner, unable to deal with the state of his life, all while COVID was ravaging the world. He was smoking two grams of weed a day just to get through the day. He even tried to kill himself. Twice. “I was going crazy,” he says. “But I started questioning everything, it made me reevaluate my life. I had to decide what my goals were because I didn’t want my life to revolve around chasing money.” So he committed to tattooing as an art form.

About a year ago Ming started formulating the beginnings of the style he’s now known for. “I knew ornamental drawings were my strength, but I want to get better at characters and then mix them together.” He gravitated towards the thick lines because they’re visible even from far away, with motifs based loosely on the curves and lines of Tibetan art. “Nobody trusted me though, I wasn’t getting customers at first.” He drew daily and posted everything online but nothing brought the clients in. “People there only get tattoos that other people have. They don’t want to try new things.” He even did three full back pieces just to prove he could do it.

Ming had bought some tattoo books with ornamental designs and mandalas for reference and scrolled through Pinterest. But it was his first trip to Common Ground that proved the most influential, where he poured through their library and the books that their international guest artists brought him. “They have so many books full of art from all over Asia, so I was able to really learn about these different designs I’d seen with no context. I was able to understand their background and what they mean.”

After his time here in Bangkok this month, Ming will travel to Amsterdam and then London to do guest tattoo work there. Afterward he’ll jump over to Portugal to buy a bicycle and then he’s off to Nepal, where he hopes to see the Himalayas. The goal is to keep traveling off money from tattooing for three to four years, or until he runs out of money, whichever comes first. “To understand tattoos, you have to understand life. My life philosophy is to keep changing. Life never stays the same, so you can’t either. My style will change a lot too. Depending on where my life goes, my style will go with it.”

Chris Ming (萬華) by Mike Steyels