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Becoming A Tattoo Artist Helped Me Connect With My Asian Culture

Georgina Leung, 31, is a London-based tattoo artist whose Instagram account @chop_stick_n_poke became a joyous celebration of Asian culture and diaspora. She tells Maybelle Morgan her story.

My parents met in Northern Ireland, both having emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1980s. Amid the troubles and the obvious language barriers, they set up a Chinese takeaway just outside of Belfast, working seven-day weeks to send money home and provide me and my sister with the best lives they could. There were only two other Chinese people at my school and of course it was racist but I still had my hub at home: my parents both spoke Cantonese to me, I watched a lot of Cantonese TV and ate a lot of home-cooked Chinese food.
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At the age of six I started working at the takeaway so work ethic was drilled into me from a very young age. My sister was intelligent enough to go down the route of every Asian parent’s dream and become a doctor. But I was always creative and started drawing when I was four years old — everything from manga and anime to graffiti and surrealist art. Growing up, I always loved tattoos and the autonomy over our bodies that comes with them. Outside of the clothes we wear and the way we do our hair — which other people see — a tattoo gives you full control of your body and no one has to know except for you. I had a few machine tattoos from when I was 17 but they were always spontaneous and the exchange was very transactional, with no emotion or intimacy. 

I think tattoos are a powerful tool for reframing negative or traumatic events in people's lives and what you're left with at the end is something beautiful on your body.

I first broached the subject of becoming a tattoo artist when I was 18 and the conversation went terribly: lots of crying and smashed plates. My parents understandably had fears that it wasn’t a feasible career, that it would take time to be lucrative and the road would be full of hardships to establish myself. Of course, much of the worry around it was also rooted in the outdated stigma surrounding tattoos in Asia (that if you have tattoos you’re a criminal or deviant). I quickly put it to the back of my mind. 
As a compromise, my parents eventually sent me off to arts college and I did jewellery and silversmithing at university. After I graduated I worked in London in jewellery design, both fine luxury and commercial; it was something palpable my parents could understand and identify with. But over the space of eight years I experienced a series of traumatic racial incidences at a multitude of workplaces, ranging from microaggressions to playground racism, racial slurs, thinly veiled jokes and even mocking eye-pulling. It was systematic and top down — often coming from managers and directors — and because of this, I couldn’t progress. It was an endless battle of pleading for a place at the table and a salary and title that I would never get. In the aftermath of one truly disturbing experience, COVID hit.
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Through celebrating my culture, many young Asian followers took refuge and comfort in my work because all they had been seeing on social media was racism, trauma and violence.

I was furloughed for three months. All I felt was relief because it gave my mental headspace a chance to process and catch up with what had been happening. I decided to start drawing again to rekindle my love of the creative industries, and I found it therapeutic: a source of peace and self-care. I started out experimenting with a few illustrations but didn't feel much towards them. It wasn't until I drew these two tigers — where the inspiration was heavily ingrained in Chinese ornamental design — that something clicked. I started researching colour palettes and reading into Chinese art, traditions and techniques. With my illustrations I established my Instagram account, which now touches upon everything from deep dives into the history of reishi mushrooms to the elegant intricacy of Chinese knots to fighting martial arts figures as an outlet for the anger I had ever suffered at the hands of bullies. I started hand-poking myself, then I did a friend from Hong Kong and east London tattoo parlour Rose of Mercy contacted me on Instagram, inviting me in for a guest spot. I stayed for three days and then I was invited to be a resident. I’ve been there ever since.
With my Instagram account I wanted a place to celebrate all the wonderful things about my culture and my background without judgement, especially because it had been attacked on so many levels. It all came together at the same moment, with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment during the pandemic. Through celebrating my culture, many young Asian followers took refuge and comfort in my work because all they had been seeing on social media was racism, trauma and violence. Through my Instagram I've met a massive community of Asian creatives in London and based in the UK. I'm really lucky; I feel like I've gained a whole family of people.
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At the end of the day, racism isn't gonna go away — let's be real. But if I can, I want to offset that. It's like a carbon footprint.

There was a lot of pent-up guilt and shame around telling my parents. But they know now, and I think they’re proud. Sometimes my dad will message me or leave a voicemail asking how many tattoos I’ve done that day, and my mum will take pictures of my tattoos and send them to my relatives in Hong Kong.
Diversity is scarce in tattooing. I think we're seeing huge change but it's still very white male-dominated. So I have a database on my Instagram where I'm trying to account for as many female (and people that identify as female) Asian artists all over the world. I would say about 80% of my customers are Asian or mixed race but a lot of my customers are also second generation white expat kids who grew up in Singapore or in Hong Kong. I feel it’s important for all of them to have a cultural connection with their artist.
The exchange that I have with my customers is special. We're so used to looking at our phones, reading or doing something with our hands that when you actually ask someone to lie solidly still for two hours, they can finally think. It's freeing and cathartic. I think tattoos are a powerful tool for reframing negative or traumatic events in people’s lives and what you’re left with at the end is something beautiful on your body. It’s a reminder that it happened and it made you who you are but you’ve made an active decision to give it new meaning. I've bonded with people over toxic relationships and all types of trauma: from childhood to racial to workplace. I want to continue to be a safe space for people to be as open and vulnerable as possible. 
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I’ve had Asian diaspora from all across the world — Australia, Europe, Cuba, Hawaii — reach out to me and say: 'Thank you so much for validating my experience.' It makes what I do. I want to continue focusing on being celebratory and bringing people an ounce of happiness. At the end of the day, racism isn't gonna go away – let's be real. But if I can, I want to offset that. It's like a carbon footprint. I want to give people things to celebrate and feel proud of; a tattoo can be a little badge of honour of who you are and where you came from. 
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