Only bad girls have tattoos, is the common notion in Cambodia. Does that explain why there is a dearth of female tattoo artists in the country? Anith Adilah Othman tries to answer this gender-sensitive question.
Phnom Penh is the true melting pot of arts. It is where talents collide and magic happens. Take the tattoo scene, for instance. A quick Google search would reveal a long list of parlours, scattered all over the Kingdom’s capital, ever so ready to immortalise any piece of art on one’s skin.
Unfortunately, in an age where professions know no gender, it is still considered taboo here for females to arm themselves with a tattoo gun, what more to have hopes of becoming the next Kat Von D.
“As a society, we are not open to the idea. Females and tattoos do not go together. The preconceived notion is that if you’re a girl and you have tattoos, you must be a ‘bad’ girl. Especially if it is a butterfly tattoo. Generally, we would just assume that you’re a prostitute,” a Khmer girl who is very much interested in tattoos, but never had the courage to get one, told Good Times2.
This was echoed by owner of Karu Tattoo Studio on Street 278, Karu Prom who has had first-hand experience of being discriminated by his own people for the many inks he wears on his body. This, fortunately, did not pull the 28-year-old away from learning more about the traditional Khmer tattoo style which he now specialises in.
“Khmer people still believe that those with tattoos are not nice. That is just the way people in Cambodia think. The stigma is there. But now most people are okay with me because they are already familiar with what kind of person I am,” he said during an interview last week.
Karu, who first picked up a gun at the age of 15 to ‘fix’ his brother’s lacklustrous tattoos, has been operating his own shop for the past six years. Business has been great, he said. And this was evident in the number of foreign and local folks just casually hanging out at his parlour, discussing tattoos over cigarettes and drinks.
The lack of female representation, however, did not seem to bother Karu so much. In fact, the tattoo enthusiast himself said he would not encourage his own daughter to take up the art when she grows up.
“I want her to go to a good school and become a lawyer, not a tattoo artist,” he said, unfazed.
This, of course, brings us to the question: “Where do females belong in Phnom Penh tattoo industry?” The answer is perhaps nowhere. After vigorous searches over the course of two weeks and multiple visits to a handful of parlours, Good Times2 was able to find one female artist who takes pride in what she does.
Firstly, there is nothing conventional or boring about French national Flori Green. Walking into her private studio near Street 466, it is hard not to get swayed by the various art decors and murals embellishing the second-floor flat. The studio lacks the whirring noise of a machine gun or the rugged masculinity of a classic parlour, but only in the best way possible.
The self-taught hand-poke tattooist may not have had vast experience under her belt, but she sees tattoos as an art form that allows the wearer to fully express him or herself.
“Getting tattooed, to me, is therapeutic. You can think of it as a way to relax – it is something you do for your own satisfaction, it’s just like going to the hairdresser or getting your nails done,” Green said as she sits in her chair with Daughter’s Youth faintly playing in the background.
She said she understands that cultural difference may be a major factor of the society’s poor reception of women and tattoos. She, however, thinks there is still hope for Phnom Penh because the art scene is constantly evolving for the better.
“It would actually be awesome to see more women in the industry. The stigma, involving gender difference especially, is real. Cambodia perhaps has a long way to go before we could see more Khmer female tattoo artists here but hey, that might change tomorrow,” she said, adding that she has recruited another female apprentice at her studio, who goes by the name Manu.
Green said she has big plans for 2019 and this might include adding more female tattoo artists to the mix.
“At the end of the day, what matters is not your gender but your works and their quality. As for me, I don’t see myself ever giving up tattooing or arts in general…as long as my hands still work, at least,” she quipped.
While female tattoo artists may be scarce, the city is not short of its supplies of brilliant tattoo artists offering 1,001 varieties for tattoo aficionados.
There is of course the legendary South Korean artist Sun Kang who originates from Busan. The owner of Black Star Tattoo Studio is the best at Japanese style – yes, he is the master of intricate designs, fine lines, vibrant colours and illustrations revolving around nature.
The 46-year-old, however, restrained from commenting much about Phnom Penh’s tattoo industry. Being a resident of the Kingdom for over 10 years, Kang just wished to focus on his own arts and how he can continue to improve as an artist.
Coming from another Asian country, Kang also had his fair share of challenges due to the ever-present stigma surrounding the arts.
“My parents only found out about my job some 5 years ago. I figured I was getting old so one day I just decided to be frank. My mother called me crazy. So I flew them out here to see for themselves that I was not up to no good. At first they were shocked but over the years they started to take pride in my works,” he said.
Kang now works out of his own house at Street CW52 – a temporary venue after moving out of his Riverside studio where he has been for years. Having been featured in countless publications and conventions, he is always booked up in advance.
Good Times2 also spoke to Salty Dog Tattoo owner Brit-born Harry Harvey who has been tattooing for over 10 years. The heavily-inked chap proved to be an excellent multi-tasker as he was able to maintain a witty banter whilst working on a huge Hanuman-inspired piece on Canadian traveler Nolan McEwen.
Harvey, who specialises in classic tattoo style with a penchant for free-hand drawings, expressed his regrets over the low number of female tattoo artists in the region. He called on the public to be more open to tattoos instead of being prejudiced.
“Having tattoos does not necessarily mean someone is involved in gangsterism. It is actually a very geeky interest. There are a lot of researches involved, as an artist especially, you commit so much time to just drawing and making preparations. It is a lot of hard work,” he said.
The 29-year-old, who is also a father to an eight-year-old girl, said he would not deter his daughter from following his footsteps.
“She does take after my artistic side. She should be able to express herself in any ways she deems best. I will not force her to take up tattooing but I will support her if she wants to do this too. I mean, why not,” he said.
The future is looking big for Harvey, as he was in the midst of forming a business venture with Karu at the latter’s existing studio. The duo will now work as a team, with their own apprentices, to continue spreading tattoo love in Phnom Penh.
One of the latest additions to the city’s tattoo industry is a Russian couple Evgeniy “John” Koshelkov and Olesya Zakharova, who are the proud owner of Pushkin Tattoo on Bassac Lane. They had just recently moved from Sihanoukville where they operated a studio for several years.
While the current studio is only two-month-old, Koshelkov is not at all new to the arts. He has been doing this for over 20 years, focusing mostly on realistic designs with a mix of everything else in the book.
He fits perfectly into the classic description of an artist – he is generally quiet, he keeps to himself and he would rather spend his time creating on canvas rather than making small talks. When he is tattooing, he just immerses himself in music which he also self-produced, and stays completely focus in perfecting his crafts.
“Whatever you want, I can do it,” he said, with a smile on his face.
When we met, his partner, Zakharova was in the midst of learning how to tattoo and perhaps someday, she will join Green and many others as the next tattoo queen of Phnom Penh.