Tattooer Jimmy Shy is Reviving Pinky Yun’s Legacy

pinky yun bald eagle, tattooed by Jimmy shy

Taiwanese Jimmy Shy’s vibrant dragon and tiger artwork is essential to the present and the past of tattooing. Takahiro Kitamura’s 2023 book “Tattoo Master Pinky Yun: The Don Ed Hardy Flash Collection” featured his rebirth of Yun’s (1927-2010) iconic artwork. According to Jimmy Shy’s remark for that publication, “Pinky Yun (…) is the godfather of the Asian sailor-tattoo style,” and he intends to resurrect his heritage and distinctive style.

Above: Brighter version of Pinky Yun’s bald eagle design by Jimmy Shy.
mermaid in fish can, tattoo by jimmy shy
The sardines with the smallest size are the most desirable.

What inspired you to become a tattoo artist?

Like all youth, media, and popular culture greatly impacted me as a kid. I was very impressionable at that age. Growing up in Taiwan, I watched a lot of MTV and Hong Kong gangster movies. Seeing those music performers in videos and the gangsters in films with all their tattoos was cool and exposed me to that imagery. Then when I turned 15, one of my friends got a tattoo. My first time seeing it in person made me even more curious about tattoos—it became even more real. So I asked the guy who tattooed my friend, Benjamin Lee (who would later become my mentor) if you could make money tattooing, and he said you could make even more than the average office worker. And from there, that became my goal because working in an office would be like a continuation of school. I knew I didn’t want that life, so I started taking drawing more seriously.

tiger and sun, color tattoo by jimmy shy on stomach
A consistent color scheme of yellow, crimson, brown, and black.

Tell me more about your mentor.

That summer (when I was 15), after school let out, I became an unofficial apprentice, and Benjamin became like my older brother. Later on, I decided to apply to art school. At the time, I thought it would be a good way to help me become a better tattoo artist if I took drawing seriously (it didn’t, but that’s another conversation). After a few years, right before I graduated from college, I asked Benjamin if I could become an official apprentice at his shop. I was 22.

bull riding tattoo by jimmy shy
In some of the tattoo art, the Western influence is evident.

You mentioned that you do traditional tattoos with the influence of the legend Pinky Yun, a blend of East and West. Is that accurate?

I think so. That’s how I see it. Pinky is my favorite tattoo artist, with his unique approach to blending Western and Eastern traditional styles. Most folks know American traditional and Japanese tattoo styles, like biker, sailor, and irezumi. But what should Pinky’s style be called? A friend of mine who grew up in the Bay Area, California, where Pinky was active into the 90s and 00s, told me the kids out there used just to call it “that Asian gangster shit,” they all wanted that style and would go down to San Jose to get their first tattoos.

woman and dragon tattoo by jimmy shy
During the time of sailor tattoos, pin-up models were commonplace.

What characteristics define “gangster shit”?

Pinky blended Chinese motifs, Japanese stylistic influence, sailor stuff, outlaw biker, and Chicano imagery. He started in Hong Kong, which was a major melting pot. Historically, it was a Cantonese port city with a huge influx of Shanghainese people. It was colonized by the British and became a British and American naval port. That’s where the blend of Chinese motifs and sailor art styles started to mix. Japan was a big influence because many American Navy sailors would get stationed out there too. Hong Kong and Japan at those times had a heavy triad and Yakuza presence. So one can understand how this made for the perfect situation for various art styles to get mixed.

Then later in Pinky’s life, he was in the Bay Area, California, so his story continues to make perfect sense. The Bay Area was also a vital tattoo mecca. And in that context, especially in San Jose, there was a large population of Asians; it was a Hells Angels’ stronghold with a historic Mexican American population. So you see a lot of this in his later work, with more biker and Chicano styles integrated into his works.

Pinky Yun dragon, tattoo by jimmy shy, color on chest
Pinky Yun influences Jimmy Shy’s fiery, aggressive dragon.

Did you get a chance to meet Pinky Yun?

I never met Pinky in person. My tattooer friend Chad Koeplinger showed me the Pinky book [“Pinky Yun Line Drawing Volumes One and Two”] in 2015, which Mav Mess published. My life changed after that. And I tracked Mav to meet him; then I tracked down Pinky’s nephew and son.

battle between panther and dragon
Artwork depicting the myth of the panther versus the dragon.

What did you learn from meeting his family?

Pinky’s nephew told me no one in Hong Kong knows Pinky Yun anymore. It’s a lost history and style in Asia. It should be a part of my mission to revive it and teach people the lineage. Initially, I tried to remove “myself” and remake it as close as possible to Pinky’s style. Just like a cook has to learn the original recipes first to get it right. And only once you’ve mastered those original recipes should you start adjusting them and adding in your touch. That’s how you continue the craft in an honorable way. You have to respect the origin to understand how you will evolve it. In this way, I can understand why I make the changes that I do and why in certain other respects, I should not change it and keep it traditional.

ornate, east asian tattoo on back, bright and color by jimmy shy
A back piece that is highly ornate and East Asian.

You consistently use vibrant colors in your work. Please explain what else influenced it.

First, I studied the color combinations that Pinky Yun would use with his contemporaries like Ricky [Pinky’s apprentice and business partner] and Swallow Tattoo. This was the foundation. But of course, I’ve also evolved it based on the colors I naturally see in my head, which is influenced by where I grew up. Taiwan is a colorful place. A friend who visited for the first time recently kept talking about the colors she sees here in the street signs, the lights, and the natural environment. It is a tropical island, and the cities are densely populated. We like vibrant, bright, rich colors. If I bring you to a traditional temple here, you’d instantly see what I mean too—the bright reds, greens, blues, and yellows.

hello tattoo studio, taiwan shop
A glimpse inside Hello Tattoo Studio in Taiwan.

What are your favorite themes to tattoo?

Dragons, tigers, and eagles. They fit best on a person’s chest and back regarding composition and structure. Not only are these powerful symbols, but these are also some of the most iconic images. I also like to do the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. Pinky had done flash depicting all of these animals, and I’ve always wanted to pair the correct animal on a person based on their zodiac sign or in a related way. For example, if the tattoo is a tribute to a parent or a loved one, I recommend that the tattooed client use their loved one’s sign.

tattooer jimmy shy in studio
Tattooing is the medium with which Jimmy Shy is most at ease.

Please tell me about Hello Tattoo Studio.

In 2011, I opened Hello Tattoo Studio alongside my good friend Rice. It is Taiwan’s first traditional tattoo shop. I opened it in the neighborhood I grew up in, which means a lot to me because we are the longest-surviving shop here. The shop is in a classic 1970’s style Taiwanese apartment block, giving it a different feel. So the space is also smaller, which naturally makes it more intimate. Also, no shoes are allowed inside.

Hello tattoo studio in taiwan
A different view of Hello Tattoo Studio, founded by Jimmy Shy and Rice.

So, what tattoo styles are most prevalent in Taiwan?

I made a road trip around the entire island of Taiwan, and I saw a lot of older guys with Japanese-influenced tattoo styles. I would talk to them, and many of those tattoos were done in jail, by fellow gang members, or sometimes even by themselves. 

I have a tattoo book [失落的紋身藝術, translation of the title “The Lost Tattoo Art,”] it’s probably the earliest one published in Taiwan. It’s by a guy named Ho-Nan Hwan, published in 1983. I first found out about him when I was an apprentice. He’s one of the very first guys in the business in Taiwan, and he later became a billionaire by starting a body beauty clinic. In his book, he says his mentor was the Japanese tattooer who taught him Tebori. On one of the first pages, there’s a photo of him and Pinky in his shop drinking tea.

I also saw this magazine photo once with Pinky watching people doing Tebori in Taiwan. Pinky’s nephew Matt told me when he was a kid, he came to Taiwan with his uncle selling many American tattoo machines.

Photos © Jimmy Shy