Tattoos as weapons

What’s it like to be Asian in non-Asian countries? We spoke to Paris-based model Adilack and LA-based artist Park Hyungi about the process of trying to work out their true identities – and how tattoos help.

A Chinese saying goes: “No ancestor, no identity”. While many first-generation Asians in the West revere their countries of origin while working hard to adapt to their new host nations in order to fit in and survive, their children are often left confused.

Which country represents their true identity? As Adilack, a young Paris-based Asian model, puts it: “We didn’t come into the country with an understanding of our [parents’] home country strong enough to call it our identity.” The question he asks is fundamental. Where does our ancestral cultural heritage end and our host culture begin?

Adilack and Park Hyungi, a Korean-American artist, grew up in different countries, have different nationalities and cultural backgrounds. And yet they both share the same perspective on their Asian identity. They also happen to be heavily covered in tattoos.

Kelly: Can you tell us a little about yourself and the environment you grew up in?

Adilack: I grew up in a Parisian suburb. My family is pretty religious and I was raised with Buddhism beliefs. My house is heavily decorated with many Buddha statues and an altar in my parents’ room. I would often visit the shrine with them. I’m Chinese, Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese. So my family cherishes our cultural heritage – a lot.

Park Hyungi: I am the first American born in my family. My parents immigrated from Korea and I was born in Texas… My parents and I don’t get along very well; they assimilated into white culture really quickly and religion never played a big role in our household. I didn’t know much about Korean culture. I left my hometown to study sculpture in Virginia and that’s when my relationship with my parents deteriorated.

What was it like growing up Asian in the USA and France? With the rise of Asian hate crimes nowadays, have reactions towards you in your host country changed?

Adilack: It was mentally draining for a kid to grow up being pointed at constantly. All I remember is wanting to disappear, to be unnoticeable. I thought loneliness was my only escape. I never really identified as French, although I legally am, because I was never accepted by society. Last year, when Covid started to be threatening, I was attacked by a group of people in the street purely because I look the way I do. That was when I realised that, over 20 years, France’s perspective towards Asian people hasn’t changed at all.

Park Hyungi: There wasn’t anything such as a Korean community in Texas, so my family and I were among the very few Asians in the area. I identify myself as Asian American. Being American is a part of my identity although I do embrace my Korean side more than when I was much younger… When it comes to Asian hate crimes, you know there are problematic cities in the US. I live in Los Angeles now. I would say I had a pretty bad experience in Europe, in Paris, but mostly in London. Being an Asian woman, I was targeted by men who had Asian fetishes and was called out in the streets.

You could easily be overwhelmed by negativity and fear. However, you both have looks that could be considered very extreme and exude confidence. When and what was your first tattoo?

Adilack: I was always connected to my Asian heritage, I just wasn’t confident in myself. I grew up watching a lot of Yakuza and gang movies and always looked up to the main characters because they were “super cool Asians” [he laughs]. I started to gain confidence when I took my first dancing lessons. I had my first tattoo at 18 years old and it all went downhill from there. I got the Laotian currency on my finger.

Park Hyungi: My grandparents would always send me talismans every lunar new year. But I got my first tattoo in college, when I was part of an art performance. It is a bad omen in Korean culture to write your own name in red ink because it is for the deceased. So I got my Korean name tattooed in red [she laughs]. It’s probably why I have a thing for black and red tattoos now. To me, this tattoo was about killing my old self to freely be who I want to be. It was also about regaining control over my body from society and from my parents.

Have you ever had the chance to visit your home countries? One would think that you would fit in better but your tattoos might make you a centre of attention.

Adilack: I did visit my home countries, most of them. Tattoos are definitely affiliated with gangs still but I felt in my element for the most part. I did get some funny looks from time to time because my vibe is different to theirs. I do have some occidental manners I suppose. I did not necessarily feel ‘at home’. Despite everything, I still grew up in France so it remains my ‘home’.  In a way it was comforting to understand the culture but to not exactly fit in. I grew to appreciate the feeling of being different wherever I go.

Park Hyungi: I remember my parents forbidding me to go back to South Korea. They didn’t like the idea of people seeing me like that and associating me with them. I went by myself when I was already pretty tattooed and my experience was totally different from how I had imagined. Korean people did not believe I was Korean. Although we shared the same culture, I felt like an outsider because of my appearance but also because they saw and treated me like one.

How many tattoos do you have now? What is your thought process whenever you get a new one? What does it mean to you to be tattooed?

Adilack: I currently have 25 tattoos. I am going to have a head piece very soon and as many as I can in the future. I used to wish to be transparent but as I grew older I realised I should be proud of who I am. Getting them means being stared at, feared, appear intimidating – and those reactions make me feel alive. Other people’s looks reminds me that I exist. So far my right leg is covered with symbols I grew up seeing in my Asian household. A dragon, a tiger… my left leg is for fun. I let my friends experiment on it. My left arm is for things I am passionate about such as fashion, mangas… and my torso is for everything that I think resembles my personality such as a three headed Oni (Japanese demons) [he laughs].

Park Hyungi: I have lost count, especially because I tattoo too. I often do trades with other artists or tattoo myself. I probably have over a hundred by now. I used to get one at every significant moment in my life, such as my neck tattoo which is a huge talisman in red that I got when my parents disowned me for the fourth or fifth time. It was my way of revolting. I thought “there is nothing you can do about it” [she laughs]. Now I just want to fill up the space. I am an all-or-nothing kind of person. Most, if not all of them, are things I identify with. In either black or red. Many of them are related to Korean shamanism. As a tattoo artist, I have about 80 per cent of my clients that are Asians. I think that’s because there weren’t many Asian artists, especially women, back when I started getting/doing them. It feels kind of wrong to get an Asian tattoo done by a white dude. To me, it’s just a way of regaining control over my own body. Also, a way to scare off men [she laughs] because I have no desire to be conventionally attractive and do not want their attention.

In a way, they are your weapons against the world?

Adilack: Yes, totally.

Park Hyungi: I would say so, yes.

The page could not be loaded!