Tattoo artist goes freestyle on flesh
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
At the end of a walk through Amsterdam’s China Town, right on the border of the city’s famed Red Light District, is a South African tattoo artist building a global reputation for his unique body inking style.
Jonathan Hong, 29, goes by the artist name JayFreestyle. Although he has been a tattoo artist for only six years, he has already gained recognition via international tattoo conventions for his freestyle tattoo art.
He explains of his style: “Everything is spontaneous, done on the day. There’s no pre-work. I draw a tattoo onto the body and go from there. It’s my preferred method. I like to play around.
“The body is not a piece of paper so it’s easier to draw directly on to it instead of first drawing a tattoo on a piece of paper and seeing if it would fit on the body.”
The interesting part is that Hong had no prior ambition to being a tattoo artist. He was pushed in that direction after his parents opened a fashion accessory shop in Amsterdam.
He started offering body piercings and later tattoos.
“The person who taught me about piercings pushed me into doing tattoos,” he says.
Now the Johannesburg born-and-raised tattoo artist, who moved to the Netherlands a decade ago with his parents, has clients from all over seeking out his creations.
“Clients come in with an idea and then tell me to do it however I see best. I ask them to come in with reference pictures so I know what they like visually,” he says.
“While I’m drawing it up, you get to see how it’s fitting and what it looks like. I sometimes don’t even know what it’s going to look like. The result can be a lot different from the original idea.
“I make stuff up as I go along, and see what works best. It depends what the subject matter is. If it’s something abstract then it’s really just a gamble. It just feels much easier to get the flow and composition correct this way.”
His style has also become known for its watercolour paint effect. His tattoo creations include multi-coloured paint-like splashes over a dark tattoo.
Hong says this style has “no constraints and that’s what I like about it”.
“I’m doing a style that not too many can do. It’s a niche market. Not many people understand this style. It’s difficult for someone to try and copy it,” he says.
“There are not many artists doing what I do so it’s easier to stand out. Most of my jobs then come through referrals.”
Hong says he prefers having a niche in an industry that has shifted from a sub-culture with misperceptions to mainstream acceptability.
“Tattoos are no longer taboo. I tattoo people from all ages and parts of the world. The older generation still associates tattoos with criminals but that stigma is luckily dying,” says Hong.
He adds: “With so many different people coming my way, it’s a great honour when someone travels to Amsterdam just to get a tattoo from me. The amount of people that I meet is one of my favourite things. There are people that I would never have met if I were not a tattoo artist.”
He says taking the risk on someone else’s body has become easier with time because “people know my work”.
“I’ve been showing my work at tattoo conventions. This year I will go to nine conventions and next year I might do one every month,” he says.
“Conventions take a lot of time, energy and money to travel and also to pay for your booth. But you need conventions to build your name. Once people know you, it gets easier.”
Hong has traveled mostly to tattoo conventions in Germany this year and says he tries to get to at least three in the United States in a year. He says tattoo collectors in these two countries “go big”.
“The Germans and Americans are very similar when it comes to tattooing. They love big tattoos and the unusual. Germans travel to my Amsterdam studio often to get tattoos here.”
He is targeting future markets: “Next year I plan on doing the UK and eventually also want to do Australia and Japan.”
“Conventions are the main way of getting your name out there. I am trying to do more conventions to spread my name. People come to you, speak to you and get to know your work.”
Hong says Cape Town tattoo collectors and artists often ask him when he would participate in this city’s convention, but he has not made it there yet.
Hong’s body bears a few tattoos. And he learned the hard way to be selective about choosing an artist to leave their mark on his skin.
“My first tattoo was crappy. It’s covered up now. I learned from that to look at portfolios before deciding on a tattoo artist,” he says.
“You need to take your time. Choose the correct artist. This is something that’s going to be on your body for the rest of your life. Look for the artist that speaks to you. A tattoo is one of the few things that you’ll take with you to your grave.”
He adds: “Don’t just blindly trust the artist. There are a lot of really bad tattoo artists.”