From his transformation as a disillusioned graphic designer to a passionate tattooist, Sean Wei’s focus lies in leaving a legacy on the skin of those who entrust their bodies to him, crafting pieces that personify their stories, memories, and emotions.
As you walk into Sean Wei’s tattoo studio – which is also his home – you immediately get an impression of his personality. The apartment, located close to Yongan Market in New Taipei’s Zhonghe District, is filled with all sorts of art – from Wei’s own work to calligraphy, paintings, pop culture memorabilia, and replicas of famous art pieces.
The ceiling is covered in white sheets that bulge to resemble clouds, and the room is crammed with plants and other greenery. The fluorescent lights commonly found in Taiwanese apartments are nowhere to be found here. Instead, Wei’s place is lit up with fairy lights and light bulbs that shift colors in a soothing rhythm.
The large carpet in front of his sofa hides a sizeable yoga mat, which Wei uses every day. His black leather tattoo chair stands on a Persian carpet farther in. The place is calming, beautifully eccentric, and a reflection of Wei’s way of life, which is mostly made up of hard training, work, and meditation.
What he describes as “a lifetime ago,” the Taipei native owned an advertisement company in Taiwan when he relocated to Shanghai short-term to work on graphic design and commercial illustration projects. His clients included Tiger Beer and Coca-Cola, and he was doing well – until he lost his spark.
“After a while, I felt almost like a robot,” he says. “I wanted to continue doing art, but in a way that inspires me. So I closed my company, moved back to Taiwan, and spent the next 10 months training myself in tattooing.” The first tattoo Wei inked was on his own body. He’s since tattooed his entire left arm and both thighs himself.
Although far from being the most followed Taiwanese tattooist (some have a few hundred thousand followers), Wei’s social media influence is still substantial, with around 20,000 fans on Instagram (www.instagram.com/seanweitattoo). He says he is simply “lucky” to have managed to build a social media presence. He approaches marketing as a fun endeavor, a way to share his passion and create engaging stories. Wei finds it important to strike a balance between commercial aspects and staying true to the art.
“Capturing people’s attention doesn’t require a large number of followers or superficial marketing tactics,” he says. “Instead, I use Instagram to share my story, my art, and provide a glimpse into the life of an artist, which a lot of people find intriguing. I believe that when I focus on my craft and share my work, people will take notice and appreciate it.”
But at the end of the day, the number of followers is irrelevant to Wei. “I can’t tattoo 20,000 people, anyway,” he says. “I’ve already managed to get a steady income stream, so my focus is on quality, not quantity. I don’t obsess over follower count or rely on popular influencers for value. I have seen talented tattoo artists with fewer than 1,000 followers who are highly respected in their field and booked solid for years in advance.”
Still, Wei has leveraged his background in advertisement and marketing to capture his persona online by telling the story of a dedicated tattoo artist following his own school of Zen (禪, chan). Zen – a school of Mahayana Buddhism originating in China – strongly emphasizes self-control, meditation practice, and the ensuing insight into the nature of the mind and the nature of things. It avoids conceit or egotism and highlights the individual expression of this insight in daily life, particularly for the benefit of others.
“When I became a tattooist, I tried to let go of my commercial mindset and reflect on my own artistic style,” says Wei. “I wanted to promote Taiwanese culture, our essence, through my art. But what is ‘Taiwanese,’ and what is Taiwan style? We have so many influences from Japan, the United States, Korea, and China. Where do they end and we begin?” He describes Taiwan as “a cultural remix” and says his own style is “a bit Eastern, a bit Western, using abstraction to fuse the different elements.”
Wei posits that compared with Japan or Korea, people in Taiwan – particularly those of the younger generation – are progressive, and he doesn’t feel judged walking around the streets of Taipei with his inked neck and arms exposed. “People usually compliment my tattoos, if they comment on them at all.” However, he wishes that Taiwanese artists would share their work more confidently.
“Sometimes, Taiwanese people can be shy,” he says. “We have great skills, great artists here, but we don’t share it enough with the world. We should share the beautiful things we create here with the world, along with our lives and dreams.”
Honoring the canvas
Wei’s tattoo designs often include animals, flora and fauna, smoke, and abstract patterns. Their mystical appearance fits with the Zen school of exploring the nature of the mind and the nature of things. He only tattoos black-and-white art, and won’t touch readily available templates.
Sometimes, Wei will create a piece and sell it to the right customer as-is. But most of the time, his tattoos are the result of a highly collaborative process that involves hours of face-to-face conversation.
“As a client, you invite me to tattoo your body, but you also become a canvas for my artwork,” he says. “I have to enjoy and love what I’m creating – otherwise the job becomes a contract project. I don’t work that way – it should be a collaborative process, a legacy I leave on your skin. Give me your story, your idea, your memory, or emotions, and I’ll create a performance that embodies it.”
Those who are exceptionally particular about what they want should not seek Wei’s services. As a serious professional, he expects a degree of trust from clients. “You tell me what you want, and I’ll give you what you need,” he says with a smile.
Although his decision to become a tattooist was born from passion, Wei’s choice to embrace the artistry of tattooing manifests itself in the meticulous dedication he pours into his job. “When you’re an artist whose canvas is other people’s bodies, you need to make sure your mind is sharp and your body is in ideal condition,” he says. Wei wakes up early most mornings to exercise, follows a healthy diet, and has given up alcohol and cigarettes to ensure his hands are always steady.
Apart from ensuring he can do the best possible job for his clients, Wei’s healthy lifestyle fills two more purposes. Firstly, he views his own body as his most important canvas, and he keeps it lean to “honor the art” that adorns it. The second factor is to fit his “Zen lifestyle,” with the ultimate goal of finding some sort of peace of mind.
Wei says he wants to die happily, knowing he did everything he set out to do and that he lived a good life. His meticulously active and hardworking lifestyle is part of this quest. I ask him if he’s found inner peace yet. He ponders for a moment before he replies:
“Some days, yes, but it’s a lifelong journey. All we can do is keep trying, do our best, and be kind to ourselves and others.”