When Jimmy Wong told me last September that there was going to be the first international tattoo festival in Bangkok, there was no way that I was going to miss it. I have never had the chance to attend a tattoo convention before and because Jimmy is one of the organizers of this seminal event, attending it would be all that more special for me, not to mention all the people who have known Jimmy and his family over the years.

Day 1

Feels Like A Dream

I arrive in Bangkok just a little after 2:00 after a five-and-a-half hour flight from Seoul. I breeze through immigration, collect my luggage, exchange some money and I am out of the airport and on my way to the Montien Hotel on Surawong Road within an hour. At the hotel it is time for a quick shower and phone call to Jimmy to let him know that I am in town and then it’s off to the festival site at the BEC Tero Hall in the Suan-Lum Night Bazaar—about a 10-minute taxi ride from the hotel.

By the time I get to the festival around 4:00, BEC Tero Hall is buzzing with activity and excitement as hundreds of visitors weaved their way past numerous booths of the participating tattoo artists from China, Japan, Thailand, and other countries. For this first major tattoo festival to be held in Thailand, Jimmy, his daughter Joy, and son Jukkoo had gone all out to bring together a coterie of some superb tattoo artists to showcase their talents as well as accentuate the art of tattooing as a whole.

Although the festival was not without its first-day glitches (it didn’t begin as scheduled), it was quite apparent judging from the lively atmosphere and excitement throughout the hall as I walked inside that this festival was going to be a big success. (As for those glitches, I am sure that when this festival is held again next year, those kinks will be worked out.)

As far as venues go for such a convention (and not having attended any other conventions to use as a benchmark) I thought the organizers did a really good job with the layout of the booths and stages inside the convention hall. Most impressive was how—as soon as you walked into the convention hall—there were these large display boards about the history of tattooing in Asia (written in Thai and English). To be sure, one of the things that Jimmy wanted to do with this convention was to educate and inform visitors about tattooing and perhaps even remove some of the stigmas that some people might have with tattoos in general.

As soon as I walked inside, I was overwhelmed with the lively, carnival-like atmosphere, which filled the convention hall. As conventions and exhibitions come and go in Bangkok, there’s no question that this one lived up to all the hype from its organizers. Having never been to a tattoo convention before, I couldn’t believe all the incredible ink that many people had on their bodies. I have my prized collection of tattoos, but I felt a bit naked when I saw some of the more detailed and elegant tattoos that some of the visitors and participants were sporting.

I spotted Jimmy immediately who was being interviewed by some local TV station. He was gleaming with joy as he talked about the festival and its significance. I know when Jimmy first told me about this festival last September he was really excited about holding this festival in Bangkok and showcasing the talents of tattoo artists, not only from Thailand, but also artists from countries like China, Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan. Without question, this first tattoo arts festival and exhibition in Bangkok was going to turn out to be a very big event.

For the past six months Jimmy, Joy, and Jukkoo, as well as Suphatchaya Lattisuphonkul (a.k.a. Permanent Bell from the pop group Bell China Dolls) had been working non-stop to bring this festival to fruition and now they could bask in the glory of all those hard, tireless efforts. To be sure, in recent months, Jimmy and Joy had been busy flying around Asia attending conventions and lining up some of the artists to attend this convention in Bangkok.

In many ways, it was like the Wong family was throwing a big tattoo party for all their friends and people interested in the world of tattooing with a lot of Thai culture and fun thrown in for good measure.

With much of the first-day spotlight on Jimmy—everyone it seemed wanted to talk to him about one thing or another or to congratulate him—we didn’t have a chance to talk much. He told me to walk around and meet some of the people I knew who were already there. He would catch up with me later.

Making good use of the space inside the cavernous, narrow hall, the layout of the booths and stages ran the entire length of BEC Tero Hall. On either side of the hall were the numerous booths for the tattoo artists while in the center five small stages (actually platforms) allowed visitors to watch tattoo artists create their works of art. In the center of the hall was a much larger stage where musical performances and the awards ceremonies were to be held.

As soon as one walked into the hall and passed the display boards about the history of tattoos in Asia, there was a small stage where a Thai tattoo artist demonstrated Thai magical tattoos. Believed by many Thais to bring good luck, these tattoos are normally done at Buddhist temples throughout Thailand. Unlike the electric needle-gun buzz of your typical tattoo parlor, Thai religious tattooing is generally a serene and silent process and in many ways is a spiritual rather than a cosmetic exercise.

Visitors to the festival, who might not have a chance to go to a temple where these tattoos are done, could get an up close and personal glimpse into this unique Thai tattoo tradition. To be sure whenever someone got one of these tattoos during the festival, curious onlookers surrounded the stage with dozens of cameras flashing. These Thai magic tattoos were definitely one of the many highlights of the festival.

For many people who had never been to a festival or convention like this before (including myself) it was quite obvious as one made their way from one end of the hall to the other, that there was plenty to see—and do for those looking to get inked. Although the festival had only been opened for about three hours by the time I got there, many people were already getting inked by some of the very talented artists who were participating in the festival including legendary Japanese tattoo artists Hori Waka and Hori Ken.

It was a pretty good first-day crowd that filled BEC Tero Hall late Friday afternoon and early evening. Despite having only opened the doors a few hours before, I am sure the organizers were pleased with this first-day turnout. I bumped into Joy a few times, and like her father, was busy greeting people and handling whatever requests or minor problems that arose. I could tell that she was just as ecstatic as her father with how the festival was going on the first day.

Toward the back of the hall, I saw Ron (a regular at Jimmy’s tattoo parlor, it seems that whenever I am in Thailand I always run into him) who had wasted no time getting inked at the festival. He was having a traditional Japanese-style demon inked on his leg by Hori Ken. It was nice to see another familiar face at the festival besides Jimmy and Joy. There would be others who I would eventually meet up with—many who I have gotten to know over the past two years in Jimmy’s shop. For those of us who have been regulars at Jimmy’s, Joy’s, and Jukkoo’s tattoo shops in Bangkok over the years, the festival brought a lot us together.

When Jimmy finally caught up with me, he suggested that I get a tattoo from Hori Waka or Hori Ken. Actually, Jimmy wanted to do some work on one of my tattoos that he started to do last October to show off his tattooing expertise during the festival. However, with so many people wanting to talk to him or have their photo taken with him, it was going to be hard for him to set aside a few hours for some tattooing.

It didn’t take me long to set up an appointment with Hori Ken through his assistant (who I had often talked to at Jimmy’s shop when he was in Thailand) as well as choose a design. I was lucky to get an appointment when I did because there were a lot of people interested in getting a tattoo from him or Hori Waka.

As for the design, I chose a traditional one of a mythical Japanese lion for my back, which Hori Ken would do first thing in the morning when the second day of the festival got underway. I had already been planning on a going with a traditional Japanese-style design for my back with Jimmy—so this would be a nice start to this major piece—which Jimmy would add to later.

Considering the festival’s late start and a few logistics problems (there were no trophies to hand out for the “Best Design of the Day” tattoo contest in the evening), the first day of the festival was a success in my assessment. The fact that Jimmy and the other organizers had made this happen—bringing together all this talent—was testament enough for how successful the festival was going to be during its three-day run.

Everyone I talked to thought the first day had gone well and for those first-day glitches, they were confident that those kinks would be worked out the next time this festival is held.

In the meantime, there were still two days of festival on tap. With plenty of media coverage on the first day, one thing was for certain—word was going to get out about this festival and the second day promised to be even more successful.