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Pinky Yun - My Freehand Dragon Tattoo and other musings

Gia Dobson


I turned 18 in 1988 and got 6 tattoos that year. I was like a junkie who got hooked on the first taste and as we used to say back then about a lot of things... one is too many and a thousand never enough. Somehow by fate I ended up at Pinky Yun's Dragon Tattoo in San Jose for all but one of them. I wish I knew how I first ended up there, but memory fails me on so many levels. I had no idea what direction my tattoos were going back then, knew nothing of different styles or that you could even ask for a design that was not off the wall of flash. So I'd scrape up some money and drive to San Jose and then stare at those walls until something jumped out at me.

On one of these missions I decided I wanted a dragon on my lower leg. I just loved the flow of them and the organic nature of the design. Also, I did have a tiny grain of sense with regard to the human body as a canvass. I knew it was curved (not flat like a piece of paper), and therefor a tattoo design should, if possible, compliment the part of the body it was on. So I tell Pinky I want a dragon on my outer calf. By this time he's tattooed me a couple times before and for some reason had taken a little bit of a shine to me. Honestly, I think he liked me because I wasn't a pain in the ass like 90% of the customers I saw in there. I was quiet and respectful, never drunk or pushy, I sat politely and waited my turn. I listened when he talked, doing my very best to understand his horrible English, laughed at his corny jokes, and pretty much just let him do his thing. So he asks me "How big?" and makes a gesture like about 4-5 inches from the ankle up. I tell him "BIGGER!" and he laughs. "Ok, ok, bigga, you want bigga." We agreed that it will be the entire calf and I sit in the chair. He then does something that I had never seen before, nor have I seen since. He takes a toothpick, dips it in black ink, and draws a single curvy line on my leg. Next he draws four little curved lines which I could tell would be the legs. And then he picks up a machine... What happened next was totally mind boggling. He busted out that dragon completely freehand in about 45 minutes. I was in awe the entire time. If you know Pinky or have ever even seen a picture of him, then you know his eyes are terrible. By the time I was getting tattooed by him he was already an old man, and his glasses were literally as think as Coke bottles. I'm telling you he could have done this tattoo entirely blindfolded. I knew he had simply done so many dragons in his lifetime that it was as natural as walking or breathing or any other activity one does without thought. While it would take me many years to fully understand and appreciate the impact of that awesome tattoo, I did know that I had experienced something extraordinary. It was at that moment that I knew I was sitting with a legend.

He sent me home without color that day, told me to let it heal and come back. When I did, he had his nephew David color it in. I didn't ask why. I just did what Pinky told me. Now all these years later I am so thankful I spent that time with him.

Other fond moments with him:

I'd gone to LA some time that year and ended up getting a tattoo on the Sunset Strip. I came back to Pinky and showed him the tattoo, told him it was done by a young woman named Joanna. Little did I know that was his daughter. When he saw the tattoo and I told him that my name (Giovanna) meant "Joanna" in English he gave me a huge hug and started tearing up. He just kept chuckling to himself, saying "Joanna" over and over, and patting my cheeks. I think he really missed his daughter and that moment was some small connection to her. After that he always called me Joanna.

On another evening I was at Dragon with a friend who was getting a Japanese warrior on his calf. The design had some night time sky in it. When it came time to color it they agreed to do a "blue moon" at which point Pinky started singing the 50's song "Blue Moon". Of course with his accent it was more like "Brue Moon". That was the only line of the song he knew, so for the rest of the tattoo, about every 10 minutes or so, he would bust out another "Brue Moon" and then hum a little bit, and then we'd all laugh. When I see that friend today we still sing it to each other, with an accent of course.

Lastly I want to mention Pinky's wife for a second. I loved her. She was like 4 foot nothing and definitely the boss. All the money went to her. She spoke no English that I ever remember, but somehow you could always get the gist of what she was saying. Once when I was in there some drunken douche-bags came in and started talking shit to Pinky and David and being really loud and obnoxious. Mrs. Yun chased them out of there like a fucking pit bull. I knew never to fuck with Mrs. Yun.

All these years later, and yes, I know I have "dated" myself in this post, I feel so lucky to have ended up at that shop, for the above reasons and many more. Do I love those first tattoos I got way back when? While they are not necessarily my favorites of all the tattoos on my body, I do love them for the memories, the nostalgia, and for the representation of pure unadulterated lust that I have felt for tattoos from a very young age. That lust has never died and I will likely keep getting them until my days are done, or at least until I run out of room.

Here's an original photo from when I first got it. Do not ask me how I've managed to hang on to this pic all these years...


And here's what it looks like 22 years later. (Sorry for the cell phone pic.)



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Thanks so much for this. Great, great story (and a great dragon, too). Just one correction: Pinky's Chinese, not Japanese. :)

Oh damn! THANK YOU! guess I should edit the piece. I meant no disrespect.

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awesome gia! thanks so much

and fuck yeah! mama san runs the show there!!!!!!!!! everybody knows that hahaha

working in san jose for the better part of ten years i saw alot of his work. most of it was really bad. the better stuff i saw was from the eighties. hes kinda in bad shape right now. last time i saw him, he and his wife were walking into the post office. i was already in line. he was using a shopping cart to help him walk. when they got in, i let them skip me. people behind me were pissed, but fuckem.

old dude always has a smile on his face. i really hope somebody writes his story down before its too late. maybe i should call up taki

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Great story and thanks for the pics. I have several pages of his stuff up at the studio and his sheet of cats is fucking classic, based a 1/2 sleeve of his crawling tiger on it recently as it is such a classic it deserves to be done as often as possible.

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Hot Damn that was great readin!

Thanks so much for sharing that and how much you relish the memory. I was supposed to visit him in March of last year and the chips didn't fall right. To read how much you savor the moments and knew that the company you kept was of greatness is the best compliment someone like Pinky could ever want out of a lifetime of tattooing, to be appreciated. The only person tattooing and otherwise that I knew of who was truly ambidextrous, could draw simultaneously a pair of panthers on paper, panthers facing each other and be exact, always made me wonder if he had a dominant eye or not, what an artist. Early on he could tattoo either hand, then he settled into drawing it left handed and tattooing right handed. And to think how a Veteran could get work from him in Hong Kong and meet up with him again in the Sates is amazing also. When Pinky first came to the States some of the surrounding shops would work on customers with the angle that they shouldn't go down to see him and instead get a tat from an American shop was to deny his obvious talent. The man worked hours that 80% of tattooers today couldn't handle and in smoke filled rooms with the "expected" drunken Sailors of the era's he'd seen, hell if that atmosphere wasn't something out of a Norman Rockwell with a Salvador Dali twist era. He lived a long and happy life doing what he knew best and your post supports what he meant not only to a customer but to the art, you certainly compliment the man and his Family. Thanks again for sharing!

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