Namiko is a Hong Kong-based tattooist whose singular, often monochromatic tattoos are rooted in an immense passion for Asian cultures and concurrent practices of drawing and illustration. Namiko currently works out of a private studio in Hong Kong called Alchemink.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
I go by the name Namiko (Nami most of the time). Even though it’s not my real name, it became so much a part of me that that’s how everyone addresses me in everyday life as well. I was born in 1989, in a little town in the province of Milan, from a Calabrian/Apulian family. I was reborn in Asia, where I currently live and keep on growing.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
The small town I grew up in almost felt like living in the countryside when I was a kid. It was surrounded by wheat fields and small streams. Nowadays, everything has changed of course.
When I went to Milan with my family as a kid I almost felt like a tourist. I only really began to live the metropolitan city life when I was in high school. When I was about 20 years old, I moved to Milan by myself. Previously, I was tattooing in the living room of my mother’s place and I didn’t feel comfortable encroaching on her and my sisters’ privacy for my own purposes.
It was kind of hard in the beginning, as often happens. Paying the rent and all with just my “tattoo income” (if we can call it this) wasn’t enough, so I started to work in other places, mostly as bartender and all-rounder in a café/restaurant. I was still tattooing in my free time but it was always quite difficult to find people in my circles who were interested in getting tattooed.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I work with my master and husband, Leon, in a private workshop called Alchemink in a fishermens village in Hong Kong. Our workshop is our home as well.
Prior to that, I worked in different places and experienced different personalities and ways of seeing and living tattooing. There was no tattoo artist in my town and tattooed people in general weren’t very common there, especially girls. That’s also why in the beginning I struggled to understand how to even start approaching the tattoo world. It was also difficult to find resources on technical elements such as running a tattoo machine properly.
Long story short: I thought the best way to understanding tattooing more was to get tattooed by different artists and observe their diverse ways of tattooing. I started getting tattooed in Milan, then started traveling here and there to visit the tattoo conventions I could afford to reach.
At one of those conventions, I met the team from Taiwan’s East Tattoo. They were very nice to me from the beginning. We became friends and I traveled with them around Europe a few times to help them with translations. They were the first ones to open the door to the ‘tattoo world’ I so longed for. Through them I met Trafficanti d’Arte from Milan and started to work there for a couple of years as an assistant. And that’s where I met Leon.
The rest of the time in between and after, I was working in my apartment or taking my tools to friends’ places to tattoo them. I was a home tattoo delivery service.
How long have you been tattooing?
If we count from the moment I started tattooing at home when I was 19, it would be about ten years. But there were many up and down periods—so, professionally speaking, I would say about five years.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
Since I was a child, drawing has always been the easiest way for me to express myself. I always felt an impulsion to translate my thoughts onto paper, or to just get lost in another world. In tattooing, the idea of seeing my work literally living on with the person tattooed fascinated me. Seeing my work come to life blew my mind.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I started by myself and then for years learned different things from different people who I’d cross paths with. But what really changed my way of understanding tattooing—and I would even say my life itself—was meeting Leon. I wouldn’t call the apprenticeship with Leon Lam a “formal” one. It was more like in a Buddhist monk temple. We were sleeping, eating, cleaning, building, and creating in the workshop 24/7.
It was absolutely the most efficient and life-changing way of learning to tattoo through things that any other person in the tattoo world would probably see as unrelated. He ‘destroyed’ and made me unlearn whatever I thought I learned in my whole life, and made me rebuild myself piece by piece, in a stronger way.
It would be almost impossible to summarize all of that so that people would understand it.
Only Travi and Julien, the people who were living this apprenticeship adventure with me at that time, know what I mean! All of this took me to what I am now and what I’m currently creating and producing. My path is still a long one to walk, anyways.
"We were sleeping, eating, cleaning, building, and creating in the workshop 24/7. It was absolutely the most efficient and life-changing way of learning to tattoo through things that any other person in the tattoo world would probably see as unrelated. [Leon Lam] ‘destroyed’ and made me unlearn whatever I thought I learned in my whole life, and made me rebuild myself piece by piece, in a stronger way."
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
No, I haven’t studied art. All I know I learned watching and copying any cartoon, manga, and art book, or even just advertisements on magazines, since I was a child.
Even though I momentarily wanted to attend art school, I ended up deciding to study in a language school instead, so that I would be able to travel. It’s probably the smartest decision I made at that time: thanks, past me.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I wouldn’t really know how to define my “style.” I even feel uncomfortable calling it a style.
Sometimes they’re sketches but not exactly sketches, drawings but not completely drawings, and some other times they’re abstract movements—where the person wearing them becomes the subject itself.
I feel like the ink has a power analogous to the Japanese kintsugi technique, which is used in pottery. Once a pottery item breaks into pieces, instead of throwing those pieces away and giving up on them, this technique is used to glue them back together with liquid gold. The gold enhances and beautifies the cracks and renders the pieces whole again. Something that was considered useless and worthless acquires a new life, a new story: its scars are now actually its beauty; they make it more valuable and precious. That’s exactly what the ink does for me:
humans are often broken souls, with scars that are not especially visible to the eye. The ink fills in these cracks and keeps the pieces together, creating a new skin that makes us face our scars—making us whole again.
I often also add eyes in my work and illustrations. That’s a reminder to stop watching the world with only our ‘normal’ eyes, and to start opening the eye hidden in our mind—to really begin seeing what surrounds us more deeply and truly.
My biggest influence is of course Leon. He gave me the chance to develop his style in my own way and lately we make many collaborations together as well. Seeing his work 24/7 always pushes me to challenge myself and to try to constantly improve. He has a never-ending, genuine imagination. He sees beauty in the simplicity, modesty, impermanence, or roughness of things and is able to recreate all of that in his work. What comes out from his hands always has an incredible power.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I really don’t think I’m the right person to have an apprentice! I’m still in an everlasting learning process myself.
What do you look for in a shop?
Well, having tried both the tattoo street shop and private shop experience, I can say I prefer stay in a more private environment. This helps me keep my energy in place, giving me the chance to concentrate it on the work. In our workshop, we usually take only one customer per day. In this way, we can dedicate all our time to them and put them in a comfortable situation where they don’t feel rushed. This also helps us find a design that best fits their personality and body shape.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Besides tattooing, my biggest interests are in drawing and books. I love spending time filling sketchbook pages with illustrations and sketches, and sometimes painting too. You can find this work on a separate Instagram account: @namiko_illustration. The only shopping I’m really interested in is for books and stationary. I love reading, learning, and researching
I also fold origami cranes that I then leave everywhere I go, hoping that someone will find them.
It’s a small project that I started one year ago, that has a meaning behind, called #worldsenbazuru.
What inspires you generally?
Hong Kong by itself is already a great inspiration for me. The incredible variety of humans in a so small a place, the completely different landscapes that can be seen from just an hour distance from one place to another—it’s just unique. Asia in general has a great inspiration and impact on my work. Also, whenever I read a new book or listen to music, I get a new wave of ideas and inspiration.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I suppose trying to survive in this huge fashion wave that tattooing has become. There is a general saturation of tattooing and people tend to don’t see it or value it in the ways that they used to. In the end, I’ll just keep on doing what I always do, some people will appreciate it, some others won’t. And that’s ok. The important thing for me is that the ‘message’ of my work passes to the people that understand it. That’s all.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I guess in maybe ten years from now tattooing won’t be the huge trend that it is now. I don’t know if consider it an evolution or not; it is more of a selection. But I might be wrong as well. I don’t know myself where I will be ten years from now. If there is dedication and love in the job you do, then it doesn’t matter what you do—your work will always talk to the eyes of some.