Cover Hong Kong tattoo artist Sweney Chan shares thoughts on how women are using tattoos to celebrate their individuality in modern society (Photo: Courtesy of Sweney Chan)

The local tattoo artist on her creative journey, alopecia recovery through creating art, and how getting inked has gone from taboo to a powerful tool for women to subvert normative ideals of beauty in modern society

Art is a way of seeing our inner world. It’s a form of self-expression, which allows us to express our deepest emotions and thoughts through an aesthetic experience. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Art is the most intense form of individualism the world has ever known.” 

Sweney Chan, a Hong Kong visual artist and tattooist known for her intricate line work and elegant sketch designs, agrees with his sentiments. “Much like other art forms such as photography and music, tattoos are marks of individuality that offer a glimpse into the life and unique experiences of the wearer,” says Chan. “The tattooing process is almost like a ritual where I often see myself as a healer with a mission to help an individual feel alive again. From listening to my client's stories to drawing the right design on the skin, every step is replete with intimacy.” 

Chan also values the healing power the art form offers the creator. Chan was diagnosed with alopecia, a condition that results in hair loss, a few years ago and had been suffering from emotional stress. Helpless and full of doubt after being unable to find a cure, she turned to art for peace and self-care. “I didn’t know how closely I tied my identity, self-esteem and femininity with my hair until that incident happened,” she says. “The act of creating artworks has been given new meaning beyond a sense of satisfaction since then. I'm now able to find an outlet in art for anxiety and depression.” 

In this interview with Tatler, Chan shares more of her story in her own words, as well as her thoughts on the increasing acceptability of tattoos in Asia and the power of ink on female bodies.

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Art is my life, a passion within me

I’ve always loved art since a very young age, but I never thought of a career in the tattoo industry. I studied art, fashion and make-up throughout my school years, where I spent the majority of my time appreciating all forms of art to build up my artistic sense. 

After completing a bachelor’s degree in International Fashion Business at Nottingham Trent University remotely in 2016, I went on a trip to New Zealand the following year where I befriended a tattoo artist in a cafe. My drawings caught her eye and she started a conversation about tattooing with me. It was the first time I'd heard much about this body art. After a few visits to her studio and learning more about the techniques of tattooing, I decided to try it as a profession. She recommended that I contact a Taiwanese tattoo artist for an apprenticeship, and I was able to secure an opportunity even though the artist was known for being selective with her students.

After three months of learning and practising in Taiwan, I moved back to Hong Kong where I continued to hone my craft for more than a year, before I officially set up a studio in Sai Ying Pun and started my tattoo business in 2018. 

“Two roads diverged in a wood—I took the one less travelled”

When I first brought up the idea of becoming a tattoo artist to my parents, they were doubtful of my ability to succeed. While unlike many other traditional families in Asia that often associate tattoos with gangsters and crime, my parents never commented negatively about tattoos, but they were concerned that becoming a tattoo artist wasn't a feasible career with a guaranteed stable income like more “conventional” jobs. They had expected me to become a drawing teacher or gallerist after graduation, but eventually they agreed with my plans after spending some time understanding the art behind tattoos.

Today, I’m confident when I say that they are proud of everything I have achieved so far in my career. I still remember the day they asked me to create designs for them! Their love and words of encouragement are things that constantly motivate me to work harder.

How art helped me through my alopecia journey

I experienced sudden hair loss for unknown reasons a few years ago, and that was probably the most difficult period in my life so far. Over the course of four weeks, I went from having a full head of long hair—something that I had always felt proud of—to a mess of bald patches. I cried any time of the day because I felt like I had lost my identity and even my femininity. I visited countless doctors and tried many different treatments, but nothing worked. There came a point where I gave up trying new therapies and decided to shave my head. 

During the grieving process, I started drawing again with a different purpose. Instead of focusing on creating wonderful art, I was simply hoping to enjoy a relaxing drawing experience. I found the process very therapeutic and I was able to achieve peace of mind, whether it was drawing my favourite subjects or experimenting with new drawing styles. Ultimately, my hair started to grow back. My perception of life changed significantly after the incident—I became more aware of my emotional needs and learnt to let go of things I can’t control. I stopped overthinking about work, and now, whenever I feel stressed, I create art to regain mental clarity. 

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My style of tattooing isn’t static—it’s a timely reflection of my life experiences

My style is sophisticated with a strong focus on intricate details. I love Impressionism and Baroque art, so you will also spot a constant stream of elegant motifs such as flowers and birds, the type seen in historical paintings, throughout my portfolio.

Having practised sketching since high school, I have built up a semi-realistic sketch style that represents me from a technical point of view—but time has played a crucial role in developing my style along the way, too. I realised my style has changed unconsciously over the years with greater use of single needlework, which appears to be more imaginative and aligned with my detailed-oriented personality. I think that's a result of an attitudinal shift caused by major life events such as my alopecia recovery journey.

Purpose keeps me motivated at work

When I had just started out in the tattoo industry, I used to focus solely on polishing my skillset. As much as I enjoy drawing and creating designs for clients, the process can leave me feeling overwhelmed and addicted to progress. I often neglected the need of enjoy the tattooing process, but things have changed over time. I’m now able to fully take in the beauty of body art, constantly expressing my creative vision through providing clients with meaningful tattoos that can offer them empowerment and even closure to trauma. 

I'm very happy and honoured to be a part of my clients’ personal stories. I’m grateful for everyone who has put their trust in me, and there’s nothing more rewarding than hearing positive feedback from clients after a tattoo session. 

Tattoos can heal the mind and promote personal growth

People often come to me for something that would look great on their bodies, but there are also customers asking for designs that hold deep personal meaning. Loving memories of deceased family members, reminders of past struggles, responses to a life-changing event ... each tattoo is unique, which gives the individual a sense of personality. For me, tattoos are not just a product to be sold, but more a meaningful human bonding experience that gives me a chance to step into my clients' inner world of emotions.

After all, it doesn’t really matter what other people think of your tattoos. Whether a certain significance was present in the original design or not, a tattoo a valuable reminder of your past self that will continue to evolve with you, taking you a step closer to who you want to be.

The power of ink on women: “A celebration of self-discovery and natural beauty”

Despite the fact that tattoos are still considered taboo in some parts of Asia, people nowadays are more open-minded towards body art, as evidenced by the increasingly positive representation of tattooed people in media. Tattoos no longer solely appear on gangsters, nor are they exclusively used to represent the evil nature of villains in movies, but are viewed as an artistic expression of individuality with more celebrities flaunting their personal style on-screen with tattoos.

A positive shift in attitude towards tattooed women in modern society is also notable. Behind women’s increasing inclination to get inked, is a desire to reclaim their bodies and challenge mainstream beauty ideals. Whether this is fulfilling an inner urge to decorate the body with unique artwork, or navigating trauma through transforming scars into beautiful designs, the choice to get tattooed is entirely theirs and isn't tied to societal prejudices that tattoos will make you lose flawless skin and look “unfeminine”.

Instead of judging women based on their tattoos, I think we should acknowledge this new era of inked freedom and start re-evaluating the deep-rooted presumptions of what it “means” to be a woman.

Advice for aspiring tattoo artists: “Follow your passion and be prepared to hear the word ‘no’”

Before getting into tattooing, take some time to examine yourself—your skills, desires, and goals. Many people think it's cool to be a tattoo artist and that they can earn a decent amount of money and gain fame easily through drawing, but that’s not the truth. There’s a clear difference between drawing on paper and human skin, and if you don’t have a strong passion for your job, you’ll easily get burned out and possibly even leave people with negative tattooing experiences. Aside from developing your personal style, it’s also important to optimise your techniques to ensure the safety of your clients.

A mastery of tattoo artistry takes years, so keep drawing and practising with patience. There might be voices opposing your career choice and work, but you should always believe in yourself if it's what you want to do. Stay focused, enjoy the process, and keep moving towards your goals.

A resource for women to become their best selves, Front & Female celebrates trailblazers and tackles timely, provocative issues through inspiring content and events. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale


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