"I have an idea of what it is I want to get, but I can't draw so I can't put it down on paper... And I don't speak Chinese so I can't convey what I'm looking for to the guys at the shop. Think you could help me?"
That's how it all began.
I'd been living in Taiwan about four years already, and many people in the expat community were by now more or less aware of my artistic abilities. So when people found out I was helping my friend with his tattoo design, it wasn't long before others who were also hampered by language barriers with their tattoo artists came along and asked for some help too. It was tough but rewarding work; though it sometimes took several redraws to get it just right, my heart swelled every time I succeeded in giving people what they wanted.
More requests kept coming in, and soon what had begun with a favour for a friend had morphed into a budding small business. But the whole thing was a bit overshadowed by the realisation that when it comes to artwork on a piece of white paper, there's a kind of psychological effect that makes it difficult for a lot of people to appreciate the true value of that artwork. (I get it. It's a drawing on a piece of paper. Kids can do that.) So I sometimes spent fifteen, twenty hours on an elaborate design, but was then met with expressions of utter shock when I asked for, say, 3000NT as compensation for my time. And yet people were all too happy to pay literally ten times that amount to get that very design put on them at the tattoo shop in the same amount of hours...
I thought to myself: "I can draw, I can paint, I can sculpt, I can work metal... Surely this is just about learning how to use another tool?" Thus I decided I would no longer be the middle man. The logical next step would be to learn how to use a tattoo machine, and in time, I'd put my designs on people's skin myself.
The next day I walked into the famous Night Action Tattoo shop in Taichung and spoke with Ping, an amazing artist who speaks English infinitely better than I speak Mandarin. I asked him point blank how one could become a tattoo artist. "How do I get started?" And while he made it clear that they were in no way interested in taking on a foreigner as an apprentice, he was nonetheless quite helpful in giving me a 20-minute crash course on how to get started. He sold me a starter kit, showed me how to load the needle onto the machine, showed me which holes to plug which cables in... and told me to go home and practice.
But there was one more thing I needed his help with. I'd always heard that novices practice on pieces of pig skin because it's pretty close to what human skin feels like. (I was a vegan at the time. Needless to say this wasn't something I was too excited about...) When I asked Ping where I could get pig skin to practice on, he looked at me like I was out of my mind. "Here we just practice on latex," he plainly said. Relieved, I went home with my little black tattoo case and my newly-acquired latex skins. I set up a little work station, took a deep breath, and got started on what would set me on a path that would lead to a life I'd never dreamed I could have.
For the next three years I essentially spent my days teaching English to Taiwanese children, and my evenings tattooing Taiwanese children's English teachers. I'd progressed from tattooing latex to human skin within a month, soon after Ping, having inspected my latest fake-skin tattoo, had said: "Ok. You're ready. Now you have to find someone who will let you tattoo them." Luckily I had several supportive and trusting friends who were happy to let me put my new skills to the test on them. (Such bravery! Or altruism? Lunacy?...) I tell ya, that first tattoo... I was freakin' nervous! But once that first one was out of the way (it was a frog - not my best work but it was my first tattoo...) the rest fell into place quite comfortably, and before long I knew this would be more than a temporary pastime.
In my seventh year of living in Taiwan, I decided it was time to move on and explore different parts of the world, to seek out new experiences. I wasn't sure what would come next; I only knew that I didn't want to go back to living in Canada quite yet. There was talk of moving to Turkey with my boyfriend at the time, but then we broke up and Turkey was out. So I was left with two choices: Go home, or do something even more awesome than moving to Turkey. The decision was easy. I'd go all out and do a year-long bicycle tour around Europe.
But wait! The tattooing. I loved doing it, and the idea of not tattooing people for a whole year was a real bummer... No sooner did that thought cross my mind than it was replaced by another: I'd simply bring my machines with me. I'd already travelled with my equipment, bringing it with me to Canada during my visit home for the holidays so I could tattoo my siblings and friends. I knew it could be done, so why not on a bicycle tour?
And that was just the beginning. One idea led to another and soon the domino effect was gaining momentum. I thought about how cool it would be to tattoo all sorts of different people from one place to the next. How interesting it could be to document how I met would-be customers along the way, what tattoos people got from country to country, and the stories behind people's choices. I decided I would stay with locals or camp; no hotels or hostels. What better way is there to get to know a country and its people? As the potential of this trip began to come into focus, I got more and more excited about my new project. My mission was set: I'd become The Travelling Tattoo Artist, and I'd do it in a way no other tattoo artist had ever done it before.
I spent the last few months of my time in Taiwan preparing for the big trip. I enlisted the help of friends to build a touring bike. I got myself some ultra-lightweight camping gear and minimalist tattoo equipment. I went on weekend cycling trips to build up my endurance and test my gear. I set up a Facebook page, a blog, and a Couchsurfing account with the_travelling_tattoo_artist as my profile name, and hosted fellow travellers to see how it all worked. And when I finally did leave Taiwan, it was to fly directly to Athens, which would be the starting point of my tour. It was the end of an era, and the beginning of my new adventure...
When all was said and done, I'd cycled through eleven European countries in just under a year, covering just over 5000 km. I'd done over 110 tattoos - some small, some large - and had made enough money from my work to pay for the entire trip. I'd stayed with dozens of couchsurfing hosts; families, single women, single men, straight couples, gay couples, people old enough to be my parents, others almost young enough to be my kids. I'd camped under an overpass, behind a pub, in corn fields, an abandoned factory, various construction sites and some of the most enchanting forests... I'd put on a surprising amount of weight from eating as many of the 'local specialties' as I could everywhere I went. I'd faced a few challenges, including a flash flood that left me stranded for a few hours, some pretty hectic storms (everything got wet), and having my bicycle stolen along with hundreds of dollars worth of gear only three weeks into my tour... (Thanks again Taichung for the tremendous role you played in helping me through that one! So grateful...) But mostly I'd had one great day after another, which made me decide to keep moving around the world for as long as it was something I enjoyed doing.
Since my Europe tour I've cycled through Louisiana and Texas with my sister Kristine, and I've continued to move around the world using other means of transportation (always with my tattoo equipment in tow, just in case). The Balkans, South Africa, various Canadian cities, and now I'm back in Asia for a few months. When I'm home I work from a little home studio in the house I grew up in. The rest of the time, I'm exploring new places, returning to favourite areas, or visiting old friends. It may not be a lifestyle that suits everybody, but for me, for now, it works. I guess we'll see what the universe has in store for me for the future, but either way, I'll forever be grateful for what it's given me so far. As an artist who loves to travel, I couldn't have imagined a better way to combine both and make a living out of it...
By Melissa H.
Published in Guan Xi Magazine- Summer 2017 Issue