It’s 10:30 on a Tuesday night in late June in Bangkok and I am waiting for Jimmy Wong to arrive at his tattoo shop in Bangkok.
I’ve been coming to Jimmy Wong’s tattoo shop quite regularly (which means every time I am in Bangkok) ever since I first stumbled across his shop by accident in 2004. Back then I was thinking about getting a tattoo when I was in Bangkok (I already had plans to get one in Phuket) and when I spotted his sign outside his shop on Sukhumvit Soi 5 (I was staying at the Bel Aire Princess at the end of the soi) I stopped to take a look.
It was early on a Sunday morning and when I peered into his dark studio, I could see a man who appeared to be busily drawing a sketch for a tattoo design. Little did I know at the time that the man was Jimmy Wong, one of the more famous tattoo artists working in Bangkok, not to mention Southeast Asia. Only later did I find out from his daughter Joy, who also does tattoos (a very good tattooist in her own right) and has a shop just around the corner from her father’s that Jimmy only works at night. I would have to come back later that night.
Actually, I had heard about Jimmy before I went back to his shop that night. Years before, while getting “inked” at a tattoo shop in the Bangkapi Mall, the tattoo artist “Ton” (pronounced like “tone” with a harder “d” than a “t”) told me that there was a famous artist working in Sukhumvit; I didn’t put the two together until I actually met Jimmy later that night.
Jimmy’s tattoo shop which is located behind a 7-11, just off Soi 5 is like most of the tattoo shops that I have seen in Bangkok—very small and crowded. He’s had a couple of shops in Bangkok before moving to this present location which is pretty easy to find.
Walking into Jimmy’s shop was like taking a walk back in time as soon as you see the walls covered with photos of Jimmy, many of his clients and the work he has done over the years. Walk into any tattoo shop and you can pretty much judge the artist’s work by the number of photos the artist has on all the walls. (I feel honored that among all these photos, Jimmy has included one of me posing with him.)
In Jimmy’s case, over 30 years of tattooing has made him one of the more sought after artists for people looking to get inked when they are in Bangkok. Go to Jimmy’s shop any time and you are likely to see people from all around the world stopping in either to say high or to get a tattoo from Jimmy. If someone is in Thailand on holiday and they have heard of Jimmy, you can be assured that they will stop in and see him.
One night back in 2004 when I was getting one of my first tattoos from Jimmy a man from France stopped in. He wasn’t interested in getting a tattoo; he just stopped in to pick up one of Jimmy’s business cards for a friend back home who had heard of Jimmy. Turns out, this friend back in France had heard that Jimmy had once tattooed legendary punk rock icon Johnny Thunders and wanted one of Jimmy’s business cards.
Perhaps a little history of Jimmy Wong is worth sharing to know more about the man and his art. Jimmy got started tattooing back in 1971 during the Vietnam War. It was by chance, in Jimmy’s words during an interview in 2004 with this author, how he came to get interested in tattooing. He had been watching this Chinese tattoo artist do tattoos and decided that was something he wanted to do. Later, this same artist become Jimmy’s mentor and taught him the craft.
Jimmy would later hone his skills by tattooing U.S. service members at an air base near the Thai/Laos border toward the end of the Vietnam War. I suppose if one was ever to become good at their craft, it has to be someone like Jimmy who would go on to do countless tattoos for these service members.
What’s most interesting about Jimmy is that he only works at night. I once asked him why he prefers to work at night and he told me that he works better at night because there are not too many distractions.
“During the day there’s always someone calling me wanting me to do this or that,” he said. “At night there aren’t as many distractions and I can focus more on what I am doing.”
When I am getting more work done by Jimmy I usually get to his shop right around 10:00. If Jimmy hasn’t arrived at his shop yet, I usually hang out at this small coffee shop near the entrance to his shop. He usually gets to his shop between 10:00-10:30 on most nights. Most of the time he already has an appointment or two lined up for the evening. In my case, I usually book a few nights the first night I get into Bangkok.
Tonight Jimmy was running a little late. I order a café latte at the coffee shop and sit near the front so I have a view of the street as I wait for Jimmy to arrive. There’s a steady flow of people walking up and down the street on their way to this sports bar across the street or the 7-11. I am about halfway through my latte when I spot Jimmy walking down the sidewalk. Jimmy sees me immediately and waves as he continues toward his shop.
By the time I get to his shop a few minutes later, Jimmy is already at work preparing his machines and ink for this session. His workspace is a bit cluttered with designs of tattoos he has done or will do hung up around his desk; some taped to a desk lamp over the desk. One of the first things Jimmy does when he comes to work is make himself a cup of coffee, light up a cigarette and then get his machines ready for the evening.
Of all the times I have been there no one has ever walked in and gotten a tattoo without an appointment. Although he has a large sign out in front, he doesn’t seem to get a lot of people walking off the street to get a tattoo. From time to time there might be someone “who is thinking about getting a tattoo’’ after a night of drinking and checking out some of Bangkok’s steamy nightlife, but Jimmy usually sends them on their way. After tattooing for as long as he has Jimmy can easily spot someone who is really interested in getting a tattoo or not.
“I can usually tell when someone wants a tattoo as soon as they walk into my shop,” said Jimmy. “They already have some idea of what they want before they come in here.”
This night it is some young American clutching a bottle of whiskey who staggers in with his Thai girlfriend and asks Jimmy (in very passable Thai) about a tattoo. Jimmy is working on a “Thai” style tattoo (similar to images you would find in the Ramakien) on the inside of my right arm and tells the man to come back later. Chances are he won’t come back that night. Even if he does, Jimmy will tell him to come back the next night if he is still interested in a tattoo.
While Jimmy is carefully doing the outline of this tattoo on my arm we talk about my vacation in Thailand this time and when I will be back here again in September. Jimmy loves to talk when he’s doing a tattoo and the stories that he tells are fascinating especially those about some of the tattoos he has done and the people he has met over the years. It’s no wonder that he is a legend. Of course Jimmy would probably disagree. He’s just happy to be doing what he his has dedicated his entire life to.
On this night I am in the chair for a little over three hours. Tonight Jimmy started working on what is going to be a Thai mermaid from the Ramakien (you can also see similar images in Wat Phra Kaeo). These kinds of tattoos are one of Jimmy’s specialties and you are not going to find many tattoo artists doing similar tattoos of the same quality that only Jimmy can do. We’ve decided on a couple of tattoos from the Ramakien on my chest; the Ramakien-style tattoos inside my right arm (and later my left arm) will blend in with the ones that Jimmy will do later.
I am surprised that this tattoo on the inside of my right arm does not hurt as much as I thought it would. Then again, Jimmy has a pretty light touch when it comes to the delicate and intricate detail of these tattoos. The coloring will have to wait until I am back here in September. Since Jimmy started working on this arm a year ago, he has done six tattoos, not including the one cover-up of a Geisha. This cover-up is taking a little longer to finish and will probably require one or two more sittings to complete it.