Tattoo Styling with Jimmy Wong

I got my first tattoo in December 1976 when I was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Panama, but it would be over 20 years later before I would get some more ink done and another eight years before I would meet the Thailand’s legendary tattoo artist, Jimmy Wong.

I wrote this a few years ago (it was two different posts) and thought I would edit them into one.

If there was one name synonymous with tattooing in Southeast Asia it would have to be Jimmy Wong who has been pushing ink and leaving behind a legacy of tattoo stylings for over 35 years.

I first stumbled across Jimmy’s shop in Bangkok in March 2004 by chance when I was looking to have some ink done while I was on holiday.

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 in 1991 and wanted one of Jimmy’s business cards.
Thunders was Jimmy’s most famous customer. It was also to be Thunders last tattoo. A few weeks after he had gotten that tattoo, Thunders was found dead in a New Orleans hotel room.

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.

“It was a lot of marijuana leafs, peace symbols, and rock and roll designs back then,” he said. “Every generation is tattooed differently.”

Old school (Sailor Jerry, Don Hardy) New School (Paul Booth) Tribal, Japanese—it makes no difference to Jimmy who can take any design someone gives him and transform it into a work of art.

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 one night back June 2005. “At night there aren’t as many distractions and I can focus more on what I am doing.”

When I’ve gone to his shop to have work done, I would usually get to his shop right around 10:00. If Jimmy hadn’t arrived at his shop yet, I usually hang out at this small coffee shop near the entrance to his shop or in the lobby of the Fortuna Hotel. The hotel is one of those hotels, which have definitely seen better times, and now, the terms seedy and sleazy seem more apropos.

Jimmy is supposed to get to his shop around 10:00-10:30, but it usually ends up being later (if you are thinking about getting inked, make an appointment and call a few times to reconfirm). Most of the time he already has an appointment or two lined up for the evening. In the past, when I knew that I was going to be in Bangkok I called and booked a few nights just to be on the safe side.

On one such hot, humid night, Jimmy was running a little late. I order some coffee 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 coffee 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 was 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.

Ever since then I have been the recipient of a trove of Jimmy’s tattoo stylings created especially for me. From a mythical Chinese-style lion and Japanese Geisha to some cover-up work (what was I thinking when I got those other tattoos?) and a more ambitious undertaking—a traditional Thai-style design on my chest—Jimmy has left his own tattoo legacy on my body.

One of my personal favorites that Jimmy has done is the one of a Thai Mermaid, a mythical Thai-style design on the inside of my right arm. I had all these oriental-style tattoos already—koi, tiger, dragon, and two Japanese Geisha, but what was missing was a Thai-style tattoo. I wanted something special that would be uniquely Jimmy Wong. And that’s exactly what I got.

Jimmy is famous for these kinds of tattoos, which he has often told me, are quite hard to do given the intricate detail of these designs. The outline took nearly five hours to do and it took just as long to color it in. We still need to add some background highlights, which will also incorporate some more Thai designs like lotus and water.

Since then, Jimmy has done a few more Thai-style designs including the outline of a major chest piece of mythical characters from the Thai epic poem Ramayana all of which are a testament to his tattooing expertise.

It’s been a year since I last was at his shop and having some more ink done. I am not sure when I will have the chance to go back there again. I hope soon. My body is just itching for some new ink.

And I also miss seeing my old friend.

Once, when I was at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport in the departure lounge waiting for my flight back to Seoul, a fellow traveler sporting some ink took notice of the tattoos on my arm—one of them a most recent addition from Jimmy.

“That’s some really cool ink,’’ he said. “Get them done in Bangkok?”

Yes, I told him.

“Looks like something Jimmy Wong would do,” he said.

I smiled.

4 Responses to “Tattoo Styling with Jimmy Wong”

  1. misslolatattoo August 30, 2009 at 12:38 pm # Reply

    hey jimmy is my adopted tattoo father, and a true legend! im finally back in Bangkok, and looking forward to working with him and joy! what a wonderful man!

  2. Gail Searfoss October 17, 2009 at 12:36 pm # Reply

    Just got back from Bangkok and Jimmy did his rendition of “The Great Wave” on my back. It is awesome and he even bought me some beer to drink while he was hard at work!!

    • Jeffrey October 17, 2009 at 2:36 pm # Reply

      Congrats on your ink from the master!

  3. Jamie November 22, 2009 at 8:07 am # Reply

    Hi, can anybody help me with Jimmy’s e-mail or number. I want to get a tattoo i’m really not happy with reworked. I’m in Thailand but not Bangkok yet so i’d like to try and make an appointment.
    Cheers
    Jamie

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