Urban Explorer Series: Interview with Gabe Shum
“As a tattoo artist and someone who has an appreciation for the art of tattooing, all my tattoos are a representation of who I am and my life’s journey. Every important experience I have encountered, memories made and meaning in my exploration in life are all illustrated on my skin. At the end of the day, we are all explorers and go through many experiences that give us joy and pain that make us who we are. We bring only to our graves these intangible things that are near and dear to us, so all my tattoos vividly depict these crucial moments in my life.”
Tattoo Artist & Owner of Freedom Tattoo
Our Urban Explorer
Could you please introduce yourself to our guests?
I’m Gabe, a Tattoo Artist and the Owner of Freedom Tattoo, a tattoo studio in Hong Kong. My given name is Gabriel but my friends call me Gabby.
How did you get into the art of tattooing?
When I was very young, I used to live in the Tsuen Wan district of Hong Kong and I would always look up to these middle school kids in my neighbourhood because they were very hip and played in a band. I spent a lot of time with them, listening to them jam music and observing what they did. Then one day, one of the middle school kids were going to get a tattoo and asked me to come along to watch. I was about 13 years old then and it was my first time entering into a tattoo parlour. Back then, my father would draw all the time and I would sit there just admiring his work so I thought going to see my friend get a tattoo would be quite an interesting experience. As I watched, I remember being completely fascinated by the way the tattoo artist created his masterpiece on bareskin. Moreover, I was intrigued by the tattoo ink machine he was using because the sounds emitting from it resembled that of a motorbike – another hobby that I shared with my father. Over the next few years, I kept going back to that very tattoo parlour to marvel at the craftsmanship of these tattoo artists and would refer friends as well. Then one day, a tattoo artist offered to give me a free tattoo. After my very first tattoo, I continued to do a lot of research about the history and origins of tattooing and I knew then that I wanted to become a tattoo artist.
What was your very first tattoo?
As mentioned, my very first tattoo was offered to me by a tattoo artist because we were friends and he knew how much I enjoyed observing the process of tattooing. He originally offered to draw two giant-size dragons on my back but I instantly rejected it as I did not want to commit myself to a tattoo so big in case something went wrong. Instead, I saw a unique dragon design on the wall that was about the size of my index finger so I asked the tattoo artist to have it on my thigh so it was easy enough to hide!
You grew up in an era that highly stigmatized tattooing. How did your parents react when they found out you have a tattoo?
When I was about 16 years old, I wanted to get another tattoo on my arm and had already gone to the tattoo parlour to get an initial star design on my arm. I made a point of showing it off as I wanted my father to take notice without me having to bring it up in conversation. At the first glance, he was absolutely furious and started yelling around the house. I asked him why he wouldn’t let me get a tattoo and his immediate response was that only members of the triad had them. He was adamant that I remove the tattoo and wouldn’t have it any other way, so in the heat of our argument I went to the bathroom and poured boiling water on my star tattoo and scraped it with a tooth brush as hard as I could to remove it. It was pain like I had never felt before! The rebellion within me wanted to fight back and prove my father wrong so I went to the library and did lots of research on tattooing to let him know that not only triad members got tattoos. Times have changed from then and now, and the stigmatization of tattoos has slowly subsided over the years. Today, my father has not only accepted it but has embraced my line of work and who I am.
How do you think you fit into the term”Urban Explorer”?
As a tattoo artist and someone who has an appreciation for the art of tattooing, all my tattoos are a representation of who I am and my life’s journey. Every important experience I have encountered, memories made and meaning in my exploration in life are all illustrated on my skin. At the end of the day, we are all explorers and go through many experiences that give us joy and pain that make us who we are. We bring only to our graves these intangible things that are near and dear to us, so all my tattoos vividly depict these crucial moments in my life.
The Art of Tattooing
What does a tattoo mean to you?
To me, a tattoo always has some significant meaning tied to it. A lot of the time, people thinks it’s just cool to have a tattoo because it looks nice or they follow what other celebrities are doing, but it’s not just about being on trend. As a tattoo artist, I can only provide suggestions for design and include artistic elements and styles that my clients want in a tattoo, but at the end of the day they need to choose a design or pattern that resonates with them internally. Tattoos that have meaning will always have a special place in your heart and remain with you forever.
When a client comes to you for a tattoo, what are the general steps and processes required to bring the art to life?
Generally, I would meet with the client and converse with them to learn more about their personality, their reason for getting a tattoo and what emblems and designs they like. After speaking with them, I generally get a good idea of what the client would like and consult them on current tattoo trends in the industry, what may or may not suit their personality, and will be completely honest if I don’t think they should get a certain design. I actually had an instance many years ago where I refused to give a girl a tattoo because I did not felt it suited her personality and exterior. We got into an argument and she ended up leaving my tattoo parlour in anger and frustration. Then a few years ago, she came up to me at a restaurant and thanked me for refusing to give her a tattoo because back then she was in a punk phase and subconsciously wanted to please her boyfriend at the time who was in a punk band. Hence, I think it is important part of the process to see my clients face-to-face before I proceed with the tattooing.
How would you describe into words your artistic style?
Tattoo is a representation and self-expression of who you are. With the tattoo community continuously growing, everyone has their own preference of what they like – just like some people prefer dressing more punk while others may prefer a preppy look. With tattooing, there is a wide range and variation of styles and characters that tattoo artists specialize in. For me, I consider myself well-versed in various genres of tattooing, from old school, new school, Japanese traditional, Chinese traditional and oriental traditional to darkside, realistic, and portrait. But I must admit that my favourite styles are darkside, focusing on dark and heavy imagery like skulls and demons, and biomechanical, a style of tattooing that melds parts of the body with a tattoo imagery of robotic or machine parts, as it allows me the freedom to be artistically creative.
We have noticed that a lot of your tattoo work has focused on a lot of beautiful imagery resembling the orient, like Chinese calligraphy, the iconic dragon symbol, etc. Do you think it is a reflection of your life in Asia?
I think these types of imagery manifested from my childhood. When I was young, I was always very close to my father. He would always sketch these beautiful detailed depictions of dragons and I would just watch him in amazement as he brought these characters to life. Perhaps, through his influence and our natural “artistic” spirit that runs in the family, I started picking up drawing myself and back then, I would enjoy copying Japanese anime. Throughout my childhood, I would craft these images in my head of what I thought a dragon would look like. I had my own imaginary world and I would just let my creativity roam free.
How do you think tattoo culture has evolved from when you first started till now?
To be honest, many years ago when I first started traveling abroad for business, attending various tattoo exhibitions, I would encounter a lot of racism because of my race – being Asian. I remember going to the States for a tattoo convention when I first started out in the industry and other tattoo artists would make fun of me for the colour of my skin or would completely ignore me. It was a very hostile environment back then but fast-forward to now, the tattoo community is much more accepting and embracing of various cultures and races.
So what inspires your creations?
I draw inspiration from all the things around me – from music and news to architecture and nature. Inspiration can strike at any time really. I tend to focus on the little details around me that others wouldn’t particularly notice. For instance, I can come across an oddly shaped rock and be inspired to create a tattoo design drawing inspiration from its shape, but then bring it to life with eyes as if it was a monster from another planet. In that moment, my imagination takes over me and I can instantly sketch something out onto paper.
Your work is renowned in many parts of the world with many international celebrity clients. Could you share with us any interesting stories of past clients you have worked with that are most memorable to you?
I have worked with many clients from around the world and many people always ask me how cool it must be to work with household names like David Beckham and LeBron James. To me, I view them as just nice, regular folks that I am having a casual chit-chat with but it just so happens that their line of work puts them in the spotlight. With that said, it really was a pleasure to work with David Beckham. He was a super nice, down-to-earth British gentleman, and he was fascinated with Chinese calligraphy so I tattooed some Chinese characters on the side of his body. I also had the chance to tattoo LeBron James many years back. He walked in with Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony and exuded such poise and confidence. I am lucky to get the opportunity to work with these fine talents in their industry but at the end of the day, my clients are still people like you and I.
An Artist’s Inspiration
What inspires you to travel?
My motivation for traveling usually comes from trying to get away from the tedious, repetitive cycle of daily life. It can be quite boring to be stuck in the same place for an excessive period of time, so when I go on vacation I like to go further away to places I’ve never been to experience something new. For travel, I will usually have a destination in mind already that I want to visit based on my interest in its culture, sightsees and landscapes. My schedule is always so hectic so my trips are really about relaxation and vacating from daily life.
What other destinations are on your bucket list?
South America is at the top of my list, namely Machu Picchu. I have a strong fascination in the culture. Another destination I have always wanted to visit is Cambodia!
Do you get any work inspiration from traveling?
Most certainly. When I go travel to a place I’ve never been before, I will tend to encounter a bit of culture shock. The locals may do things differently and the architectural landscape may be very unique to the place. With these new encounters, I find myself asking a lot of questions. For instance, when I first visited London, I would wonder why the telephone booths are all red. I would then study the design and draw inspiration from the details that could be potentially used as a tattoo.
How long have you been living in Hong Kong? Do you consider Hong Kong your home?
I was born in Malaysia, then moved to Hong Kong at a very young age and lived here for most of my life before going to the States to live for a few years before returning to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is just the perfect place for me, in terms of its size. To me, I always feel very safe in the city and I have not encountered any racism or corruption. You can go out drinking till 5AM in the morning and be super intoxicated sitting on the sidewalk and someone will ask you if you are okay. Our city is efficient, tidy, and safe and not to mention, we have the most variety of cuisines from around the world right here in Hong Kong. Even a quaint open air food stall around the corner can taste delicious!
In 3 words, how would you describe Hong Kong?
Efficient, Quality, Safe