All it took was a step inside a tattoo parlour in South Korea’s second largest city, Busan, for Sun Kang to decide to dedicate his life to an art that can lead to arrest in his home country.
He was 24 when he followed a friend into the hidden shop, where he was immediately captivated by tattooing. He started studying immediately from other tattooists practicing at various sites around the port city, spending about two years to master the basics.
Fifteen years since his first exposure to tattooing he’s now running a thriving shop near Phnom Penh’s Riverside, after arriving in Cambodia about three years ago without speaking English or Khmer. “I like it here because there is no stress about tattooing. I like the relaxed lifestyle,” he says.
Tattooists are far from free in South Korea. Although there are no laws specifically condemning tattooing, medical law stipulates that only a doctor can penetrate someone’s skin with a needle. As a result, most tattooing is done illegally.
“I was looking for opportunities when I arrived [in Cambodia], so I went to the lakeside until it dried up, and then to Sihanoukville where I ran into Eddy, the owner of Pontoon, who organised the place we have now,” Sun explains.
“I had all my equipment transferred here from Korea, and I am very concerned with hygiene, which is something that Cambodian tattooists often lack.”
“At Black Star, the customer’s skin is the most important thing, and I treat it like my own. I say that if they are not happy with the tattoo I will give the money back. I am concerned about quality,” he adds.
“When a customer comes I want to really understand why they want to get the tattoo. I ask them about the meaning behind it and why they are getting it.
“When I am convinced that they want the tattoo I sit down and work out the design with them. After tattooing for so long I feel like I can read into what people really want from sketches and pictures. I always try to enhance anything people bring in and make sure they get exactly what they want. I don’t mind spending the time to get it right.” Sun said.
Sun is interested in Japanese Irazumi tattoos and his body is covered in the elegant lines characteristic of the style. The most popular styles here are usually tribal for foreigners and tourists, but Khmers who come to Black Star are increasingly leaving with Irazumi designs. A tattoo with Sun will usually cost around $80, or around $50 from one of his Khmer co-workers.
Black Star Tattoo Studio at 5A Street 90 is open daily from 10am to 11pm. Tel: 077 220 233.