Tattoo artists Sun Kang and Charlie Han ink designs at Phnom Penh’s BlackStar Tattoo Studio. Seth Emmanuel Rinoza and photographer Conor Wall meet the South Korean duo, and discover how they turned an initial dislike for body art into their careers.
About 16 to 17 years ago, I had no interest in tattoos at all. It just wasn’t interesting to me. Add in the fact that it can be quite expensive, painful, and people’s perception of tattoos as a sign of being a ‘bad’ person or a menace. I didn’t want any part of it.
After visiting my friends’ tattoo shops a couple of times, I suddenly realised that it was beautiful. And that’s where it all started. It wasn’t really hard to transition to it because, as a kid, I had always been good at drawing. Drawing and tattooing are two different things in terms of the texture and techniques involved though.
Prior to coming here to Cambodia, I had a tattoo shop in Korea. It had to be kept secret because in South Korea, you can’t just open a tattoo shop and start inking. Back home, males are required to serve the army for two years because of the North and South Korean conflict. Males with very visible or large tattoos, however, are not allowed to go to the army. And because some teenagers want to bypass that [the army], they get large tattoos instead. This made the government very angry and started raiding shops looking for licences.
Three years ago, I came here to visit and, after getting a feel of the city, I decided that I wanted to stay longer. I first opened a tattoo shop at the [Boeung Kak] lakeside and it ran for about a year, but we had to move out. I then opened another tattoo shop in Sihanoukville. It was then that Eddy, Paul and I came up with an idea to move it back to Phnom Penh and open a shop together.
Getting a tattoo is a commitment. Whenever a customer walks in, the first question I ask is the approximate percentage of actually wanting that tattoo. When I feel that they are not very sure of what they are saying, I ask them to just come back and think about it first. That way, I can make sure that when they do get the tattoo they want, they will not have any regrets and we will all be happy. That is my goal.
I first met Sun in Busan, a province in South Korea and our hometown. It was a very short meeting — I really just got acquainted with him with a hello. About a year ago, I came here to Cambodia alone, just travelling. To my surprise, I met Sun here again. After talking for a bit with him, all my plans changed. I ripped my return ticket in half. It was totally not expected at all. I had no money, no job and I didn’t even know how to speak English.
Not knowing how to speak English made the whole thing even more difficult. The only words I knew were “hello”, “thank you”, “sorry” and “bye bye”. That was it. I didn’t know how to speak Khmer either. It was just so difficult.
Sun Kang and I are two very different people. Maybe the one thing that makes us similar is our initial dislike for tattoos. Like Sun, I never liked tattoos. I had no interest in it whatsoever. But because of my tough situation, Sun insisted on helping me. He asked me if I wanted to learn tattooing from him.
I thought it was my only choice. He is a great person. He has always wanted to help take care of me and help me anyway he can. I had no experience in it whatsoever. Sun taught me everything I know.
I remember the first time I tried tattooing — it was one of the most difficult times of my life. My hands were shaking and it was really tough, even when trying to merely trace a straight line. Sun Kang told me that I shouldn’t practise on other people because tattoos should be respected, because people will carry them for the rest of their lives. Sun told me to practise with my own body, and to this day, my right calf is a testament to that specific part of my life.
I have been working with Sun Kang for about a year now and I have grown to love tattooing. I definitely enjoy working with Sun Kang, and even though I have only been here for a year, I definitely intend to stay longer.