Hai Yuan Tattoo Studio
Homely Tattoo Studio
When we were invited to former tattoo artist Hishiko Woo’s house for a photo shoot in relation to our ‘Career & Motherhood’ feature story (#168, May ’16 issue), we had no idea that her home was also where her husband and herself ran their tattooing business.
The couple makes the most of their quaint living space that’s at once the couple’s living room and where they run Hai Yuan Tattoo Studio. There is no jarring distinction between work and home, but everything is melded seamlessly. The walls are painted a cool seafoam green and decked in vintage memorabilia, collectables, art, and other fascinating artefacts. There’s a cupboard that’s stocked with a number of religious statues, another corner was dedicated to nautical thingamabobs, and the other cupboard was stocked with a collection of tattoo machines.
The furniture is exquisite too. They seem to be taken from old gentleman’s barbershops or salons. The furniture in which you sit on, specifically, should make you feel fancy as you get the largest organ on your body inked permanently. Actually, being at the homely tattoo studio makes you feel at ease if you happen to get your first tattoo here, and being around these possessions, cats, and very nice tattoo artists just made us didn’t want to leave the premises.
Since Hishiko has stopped tattooing, Hai Yuan Tattoo Studio currently has three tattoo artists – Apoh, Ah Chua, and the main man himself Sun Hai Yuan, who has about a decade of tattooing experience, be it inking art on your skin or teaching you the art of tattooing itself (for a fee, of course). Though Hai Yuan plans to expand his team of artists, for now, they make up a small unit of amiable, hardworking people who take their craft seriously.
Hai Yuan Tattoo Studio operates on an appointment basis only. Contact Hai Yuan at 010 760 2578 or 010 254 4678, or his wife Hishiko Woo at 010 760 5278. Alternatively, you can leave a message on their Facebook page. Operation hours are from 11am to 8pm (closed on Tuesdays).
Hai Yuan + Apoh
Mentor and Mentee
Hai Yuan’s journey from tattooing with a tattoo machine company in Da Lian, China to eventually opening his own store in his Malaysian home is a lengthy one. A multimedia graduate, he grew disinterested with the advertising/design industry and eventually fell into tattooing as he did body art as well as sold the machines that he used back then. Along the way, Hai Yuan started to teach the craft, imparting his wisdom and skills to those who paid and to those who were willing to learn.
At the age of 28, with his life savings of RM500 on him, he made his way down to Malaysia where he ran a tattoo parlour in a beauty shop called Grasse in Berjaya Times Square while continuing to sell the tattoo machines he brought from China. His wife then came into the picture and with that, Hai Yuan Tattoo Studio has been in operations since 2013.
Apoh, on the other hand, has a similar background to her mentor Hai Yuan, but with a smaller relocation trip and lesser experience in the business as her tattooing career is only three years long. The student and teacher duo make up a good professional partnership too, as the Mandarin-speaking Hai Yuan relies on Apoh on translation and other smaller operational matters that allow him and the business to move smoothly. Here, JUICE speaks to the two tattoo artists to learn more about them.
Apoh, how did you come to be a tattoo artist?
Apoh I graduated as a graphic designer and had worked in the design industry. But what I did was super boring because I only did layout and stuff. My main talent was drawing, my lecturer even told me that I was suitable to be a tattoo artist. I had the interest but I wasn’t thinking so much about it then because there weren’t many places in Malaysia that offered lessons. So, I thought maybe becoming a tattoo artist was only a dream. But when I came to KL – I’m originally from Johor – I worked as a designer for a year and half; my friend told me maybe I could be a tattoo artist since my work was so boring and I had so much talent [that hadn’t been exposed.] So, yeah, I quit my job and found Hai Yuan. But I have a different passion for tattoos. It’s not about tattooing – I wanted my work to be exposed in a different kind of way, like help telling people’s stories and to experience life because during the process of talking to customers, I’d learn a lot about their lives. That’s what I like; it’s not just tattooing or making new art. That’s part of it, mostly I want to help people express themselves because I’m not a person who’s good at describing myself or talking to people. So, art and drawing are the main mediums I use to communicate – it’s a way to connect with people.
What was it about Apoh or her drawings that led you to teach her tattooing?
Hai Yuan Although I didn’t know her that well at the time, I thought she was a girl who liked to draw. Going by what my wife had said about her, Apoh would even draw when she’s waiting on someone. I thought she could learn tattooing but I didn’t force the idea on her. But one day when she said she was interested, I thought, “Good.” In my years of tattooing, I thought that her drawings had a lot of potential – it’s definitely something that you can’t find in Malaysia. She just had to adjust a bit, then it would be her own individual style. At that time, I even helped her in how she could save some money while she started her lessons.
A Yeah, because at the time, I just quit my job and I was jobless in KL.
How much were the courses?
A At the time, we had three courses – they were RM1.8k, RM2.8k, and RM3.8k. The first one was teaching the machine, the second one was the theories of everything, and the third, he taught us to draw. But this was when we were in Times Square when he was employed by someone else. Now, it’s different. I took the RM2.8k one, because I already knew how to draw. But on the side, he taught me some other stuff.
What made you decide that you were ready to open your own business in Malaysia?
HY I’ve never really thought about it. I just wanted to travel outside of China. I didn’t even think of coming here to work and have a family here. For me, if I like the boss, I will continue to work for that person, but there are bound to be some small disagreements, so I thought it was time because I wanted to start a family. After meeting my wife and getting married… you’d have to start thinking about the future, so I thought of having my own business here. Also, starting our own business, there are a lot of costs in addition to our own personal ones. So, we took it step by step.
How do you separate work and home when the both of them are integrated?
HY Both have their benefits. But even though we save on rental, we can still feel a bit lazy. One difference about working from home versus working at an office is the process of commuting to work, then maybe hanging with friends, and then returning home. Now, we don’t go through that process anymore, I find the process a bit boring too.
Hai Yuan only speaks Mandarin, but you guys get both Mandarin and English speaking customers. And with getting a tattoo, there’s a lot of communication and storytelling to be done. Do you help him with the translation, Apoh?
A Yeah, I have to help him translate because so far, I’m the only person who can (laughs). Now, it’s a bit difficult because Chua’s (Junior Tattoo Artist) English isn’t that good, so even when I’m busy or when Hishiko is busy, I have to help Hai Yuan. Before this, we had a tattoo artist who can speak English, but now I have to assist him.
Since communicating to customers is part of being a tattoo artist, how do you feel about having a middle person, in a way, to do your job?
HY I feel a bit uncomfortable, a bit handicapped too (laughs).
A Yeah, it’s very hard for him. When we had Japanese guest tattoo artists, they could only speak either Japanese or English only. So even when we’re chatting, I have to translate for him too. It’s hard for him because there’s a lot of thing he wants to say, so it gets a bit frustrating and time consuming.
Do you intend to learn English?
HY Well, language has never been my strong suit. But when I came down to Malaysia, I bought English dictionaries, though eventually I found that there were an increasing number of Chinese people around me, and I thought, “It’s not a bad idea to continue speaking in Mandarin.” It has also become a form of dependency. Last time, my boss translated for me, then it was my wife, now it’s Apoh. I think it’s a bit of a burden for her.
What were some of the requirements you looked for or the potential that you saw in Apoh and Ah Chua when you hired them?
HY I have quite a high standard for who I employ for the tattoo studio. Since I was in China, I have been teaching for almost 10 years, I’ve met all sorts of students. When I teach, I’d give my all, but maybe after the lessons, the students would just discard me. If you’re eager to learn, I’ll teach you everything, but if you’re not, then I’ll only teach you what you paid for. First, I look at how you are as a person – your personality, principles, manners, and such, these are important. Second is your determination; I don’t mind if you can’t learn it well, but as long as you’re willing to learn and you’re hardworking, then I would accept because I believe you can achieve anything if you have hard work. Apoh and Ah Chua are both like that. Even though I need a big team, it doesn’t mean that I’d randomly pick whomever. Also, I can be a bit strict, but I hope they understand that I want to help them be the best they can be.
As his student, what do you think about his teaching methods?
A I was quite okay with it; I can take pressure. But at the time, I thought I wasn’t good enough for him. I wasn’t good at communication, I wasn’t good at expressing myself. Even though I had a design background, I thought I wasn’t good enough. After learning from him for a while, he told me he wanted to hire me. I was like, “Are you sure about this?” because I didn’t think I was qualified enough. I knew he wanted someone who had more knowledge and experience. But as time goes by, it’s getting better and better. From what I heard from his past students, he’s actually become nicer. He was strict and a lot of people in Malaysia can’t handle that, not even me. During that year when I was learning and joining the team, I had a lot of pressure because it was out of my expectation, so I was crying a lot. Hai Yuan didn’t know about all this. I was crying, calling my mom, but I didn’t wanna make him worry. One day, we had a celebration at a friend’s house, someone suggested that we have a talk about what happened this year and what to improve next year. Then, I told everybody about everything. I apologised and that was when he knew I had tried my best.
In your ten years of tattooing, what’s your favourite aspect and what about it has made keep at it for so long?
HY Everyone knows that turning your hobby into your job is a lucky thing to do. So, I like to say I’m living the dream (laughs), and also I love what I do. Everyday we’re meeting lots of different people, so that’s very refreshing. And whenever we do different tattoo designs, we learn new and different things as well. So, I don’t get bored by it even after doing it for so many years. The only thing that I find boring is that once I’m done with work, I’ll be home already.
Do you have a discipline or routine when it comes to work?
HY With our job, we’d work until the night. At night, we’d still have to design for our customers, so the time to have fun is limited. Our job requires us to have lots of rest because tattooing takes a long amount of time and concentration. So yeah, I start work at around 10am or 11am. I don’t even have time to exercise anymore, so I blame the lack of exercise because of my job (laughs).