By JONATHAN PEREIRA
Traditional Asian tattoos are becoming more specialized in Toronto, while some tattoo shops in Markham only create Asian themes due to the demographic in the area. But for some artists, Asian-themed tattoos are all they know, and for others, it’s a style that they need to know.
For 35-year-old tattoo artist Phillip Yee, it is important to bring a certain amount of flair to each masterpiece he designs. Yee started school as an artist and proceeded to be a portrait sketcher at parties as well as funerals. It allowed him to slowly learn the ways of the pen, and then in turn, the way of the ink.
Traditional Asian tattoos is just one of several styles Yee is able to do, but out of them all, it’s the one he’s most comfortable with.
“I know my style and I love doing it. If I could do a Koi fish a day, I’ll probably be a happy camper. I’m a versatile artist…that is what I’m known for, but the main thing I like to really do is traditional Japanese styles,” Yee said.
Yee has lived in the Scarborough-Markham area for years now, and currently works at Phat Buddha Tattoos located in Pacific Mall.
In Chinese and Japanese folklore, the story of the Koi fish is very well known. The story encompasses the perseverance of a Koi fish, where the fish defies all odds and swims upstream against the mighty Yellow River in China.
After fighting the current, the fish slowly gets stronger, until it reaches a waterfall. When all the other fish turned away, the Koi attempted for over a hundred years to leap over the waterfall and after making it to the top, the gods recognized the Koi for its effort. They turned the Koi into a golden dragon, which represents prosperity, wealth and good luck.
Yee said clients come in for the Koi-Dragon tattoo often. “The Koi is usually swimming up the client’s arm, with the waterfall and clouds located on their upper arm. The dragon then extends on their other arm, completing a dual tattoo sleeve.”
Mikhail Hohlov, a 30-year-old artist at Painted People Tattoo in Toronto, has been perfecting his style of traditional Asian tattoos for the last four years. Originally from Siberia, he spoke about how the culture there affected the traditional tattoo designs he does now.
“Thirteen years ago, tattoos in Russia were associated with the criminal society,” said Hohlov, who moved to Toronto when he was 17. However, an influx of Asian movies into Russia introduced him to a different type of tattoo – those with Asian themes.
“Back in the ‘90s, when the Soviet Union fell apart, we started getting those movies with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and everyone was going crazy about them,” Hohlov said. “It was something new for Russian culture. Asian-themed tattoos are definitely popular in Russia.”
Through working on Asian-themed tattoos for the past four years, Hohlov has tailored his style to work with and around different forms. At the moment, he is working on a traditional Hindu piece depicting the Hindu God Ganesh.
The piece spans his client’s full back, where the addition of geometrics and realism have been incorporated. Hohlov feels that in order to be a great tattoo artist, you have to have a proper foundation and from there you can grow as an artist.
“I do believe that artists need to explore more sides, and they need to try new things. But at the end we need to concentrate on our foundation,” he said. He added that you cannot just be a “Jack of all trades, master of none.” There needs to be an overall balance.
Matthew Tam, age 22, is currently studying kinesiology at the University of Waterloo. When he graduates, he plans to go into a career within the automotive industry as an ergonomist.
He got his first sleeve tattoo, which depicts a Koi swimming up his arm with peonies and waves wrapped around it in November.
“I’m getting the tattoo because to me it’s symbolistic of overcoming obstacles,” Tam said. “I felt like this would be the perfect time to get this piece, and once I land my dream job I will for sure continue onto the dragon tattoo on my other arm as another milestone in my life.”