Tattoos have a long tradition in China. But for most of that history they were stigmatized, associated with prisoners, vagrants and the criminal underworld. Po Zhang, aka Popo, was none of those things, in fact, he was a graduate of the Tianjin Academy of Fine Arts where he studied oil painting, and then body painting as an art form.
“Tattooing is in a really grey area – most people get their tattoos in jail, but if you want to get a tattoo (out in public) you’ll need to go to somebody’s home,” Popo says. “In China, they block all of the social media, and you can’t see anything. Little by little, I learned about tattooing by reading magazines and watching videos.”
One way around the grey area associated with tattooing was to have a tattoo “art” convention. That was where Popo was introduced to the photo realism style when legendary black and grey artist Bob Tyrell inked on him a portrait of his mother. When Popo’s father saw the tattoo, he reminded him of his own talents. “He said, you can draw people even better than a picture . . .you have the technique so you just need to transfer it from painting to tattoo.”
In 2002, Popo opened his tattoo studio in Tianjin, a metropolitan hub, in northeastern China. The studio was aptly named WEN SUO WEI WEN; translation: “Popo Tattoo Studio.” Even then tattooing wasn’t totally accepted, but by operating in a professional manner, the authorities would leave the artist alone to practice their craft.
Fast Forward through a trip that includes international tattoo competitions, and many awards, and Popo now has a permanent station at World famous Tattoo Lou’s, in Long Island , New York. He may be more than six thousand miles from home, but his art is still influenced by his native culture.
Popo explains how the new-school “Asian traditional” blends Japanese and Chinese styles; Japanese being identified by bold solid colors whereas in China, the style is more flowing.
“The Chinese style has its rules, but gives you more freedom to make it your own,” Popo says. “A cherry blossom flower is usually red, for example, but you can do it in white or light blue. You can also put in more detail than you can with Japanese which is more simple and bold.”
As an artist at heart, Popo sees tattooing as simply another medium to express his creative vision.
“The difference is the canvas and the tools,” he says. “In drawing, you’re using a pencil, pen or brush, and the canvas is paper. If you want to be a tattoo artist, you only need to know how to use the tools, and technique of how to make the art on the skin. If you know those two parts you can be a tattoo artist.”
Speaking of tools, Popo has partnered with Kuro Sumi to produce a 4-color greywash shading set. One fact that Popo has learned is that because the human body is made up of water, if the mixture of pigment to water isn’t just right, the pigment will have more of a tendency to fade out over time. Kuro Sumi uses a special machine to get the mixture perfect.
“If you use a good greywash set you’re tattoo will heal really well and look very good,” Popo says. “Also, if you do a large piece that requires many many sessions, then a pre-made greywash set not only gives you consistency, but it is also safer because when you mix your own, and put it back in the bottle it will get a lot of germs and cause problems.”
For color pigments, Popo relies on those made by World Famous Tattoo Supply. “It’s amazing ink,” he says of the World Famous brand for which he’s a member of their Pro Team. “It’s especially good for photo realism because it’s not too thick; it goes into the skin so easily. It also heals really well and the colors stay fresh.”
When it comes to mastering the photo realism style for which he has become know, Popo states that it starts with drawing skills. He puts great emphasis on artistic ability.
“Not tracing or copying. . . drawing. If you have that skill, you can start training yourself to be a photo realism artist. If you don’t know that technique then you should go to school and learn to draw,” Popo states.
“If you don’t know about art, and you just know how to make a tattoo, then you’re only a tattooer, not a tattoo artist,” Popo adds. “When you make art, you make it special for one, and don’t copy. . .if you copy, then you’re just a machine; the art must come from your brain. . . if you only make what the customer wants then you’re just a worker. To be an artist it must come from your own soul.”