A chat with Hayden Strong, of Manus Lux Tattoo

You know when you meet someone, even just briefly, a friend of a friend, and you’re left thinking damn, that person – they leave you feeling curious, happy, interested, a mixture of all these things, about your own life as well as themselves. That’s what it was like meeting Hayden, 26 year old SF based tattoo artist with an attitude towards life so relaxingly positive that I got thinking about why we feel almost surprised when we hear people saying how happy they are with where they are in their lives in any given moment – no complaints, entirely content. Why is that unusual? It shouldn’t be, because it’s what we all thrive for. Anyways, that’s a vain for another post.

Before parting ways (glass of wine at my favourite wine bar, Fools Errand, finished), I asked Hayden if I could have a chat with him some time, do an interview for the blog, and he agreed. So I visited Hayden at the studio, Manus Lux, which means ‘light hand’, beautiful name, yesterday, and not only did I get to sit down for a chat with Hayden, I got a tattoo – myself and Hayden designed it together, and Hayden drew it up in a matter of a few minutes (no easy task, as the design included two of the hardest things to draw – straight lines and a hand). It was exhilarating, deciding on, designing and getting a tattoo all within a few hours, and while some would argue that it’s irrational and impulsive, it didn’t feel like it. It isn’t a random design, it very much means something to me – a floating violin bow over an open palm hand – and it is clear from his work that nothing about Hayden’s art is rushed.

@haydenstrongart

Why tattooing?

“I’ve always been an artist – painting, drawing, traditional art. I went to art school for a little bit but it’s just so expensive, it didn’t work out, so I left that. That was in New York City, I was living there, learning traditional art, but I saw the writing on the wall with money, it’s so hard to make a living in this country as an artist, at least a traditional artist. So I saw tattooing as a good way to support myself – it’s a good job, it’s pretty cush, pretty plush y’know – it’s hard in a lot of ways, like taxing mentally, but physically it’s pretty good. I don’t have to break my back all day to make a living.”

@haydenstrongart

You get to make a living from doing what you love.

“Exactly, and it means so much to the people getting the tattoos – it’s cool dealing with that interaction all day. Most jobs you’re dealing with such a minimal interaction, like thirty seconds, ‘hey how are you doing’, and that’s it – but even if it’s just a little tattoo, we’re getting beyond that, I at least get to know a little nugget of their life. I really appreciate that part of it and the impact it has on people.”

And I imagine it isn’t a nine to five job, you make it work around what suits you?

“I’m pretty flexible. What’s cool about my shop is I just pay rent, whereas in a lot of tattoo shops it is more strict, like you have to be there at exact particular times. I still do like to hold hours, to be there and be available for people if they wanna come in and talk, but yeah, if I really need to take a day off it’s not an issue at all. I definitely don’t like waking up early too, so it’s good because I can sleep in until eleven everyday if I wanted. I don’t start work till noon – I’m never going to be in before that.”

@haydenstrongart

Have you ever tattooed yourself?

“I have. I have what I call a junk leg, it’s just experimental, like my first tattoo I did on there, and I’ve just been layering like crazy abstract black shit all over it – it’s fun to have a leg that you’re not as attached to, like a lot of my other work is really nice and refined but this leg is just like crazy experimental stuff.”

Have you ever regretted a tattoo?

“Not really. I’ve blacked out some stuff, so I have stuff covered up with just intense black, but I don’t regret anything. Every moment has led up to right now, so I can’t live with regret.”

Every moment has led up to right now, so I can’t live with regret.

@haydenstrongart

You just turned 26, happy birthday, and you were telling me that you feel the mid to late 20’s are the best years – why, and how so?

“I would say 25, 26, 27, like those are the best years. I wouldn’t say 23.”

How do you know, if you’re not done them yet?

“I just get a feeling – you get these blips of self awareness, like there was one very hard at 23, I got this blip of reflection, like a separation from my own ego and self – you realise something about your life and where you’re at. I got a lot of that at 23. When you’re 23 you develop this sense of respect for all the adults around you, and you’re old enough where you’re not like 18, when you can’t and are too young to relate to 30 year olds, but at 25, 26, 27 you’re in that nice golden period where you have enough experience with your job where you’re not clueless but you’re also still very young – and you’re still getting better looking everyday, you’re not yet on the decline.”

Have you longer-term plans or goals, are are you totally and completely content with where you’re at and are heading right now?

@haydenstrongart

“I think tattooing is good for now, for where I’m at in my life. I mean, long term I definitely want to keep pushing other artistic projects – I’m not single-facetted. Tattooing isn’t the only way I express myself. I wouldn’t say it’s how I express myself at all; it is a big part of my art but I have so many other projects.”

What are they?

“Basically I use all of my artistic skills for whatever project I’m working on and that could be any scale of painting, what people would call traditional art making, but it also translates to building stuff, so furniture and woodwork. Beyond that, bigger design projects on any scale – it’s limitless, it could be anything.”

@haydenstrongart

Do you think doing some kind of design course is on the cards, or are you not considering going back down the education route at all?

“I might consider it some day, but I’m a little cynical about the art school industrial complex in the US – it’s a little bit of a money scam. I’d have to get a crazy scholarship to the best school ever. I would totally consider it, though – I’m keeping an open mind. I’m concentrating on the present and not tripping out about what’s down the line. I’m a multi-facetted artist – I’m not like ‘tattooing is everything’ – it’s a good medium to work in but it’s not the end-all for me.”

Any general life advice?

“Find the right mentor. Listen to them, and be open to the process. Find something that’s going to work for you. Try and get over your fantasies as quickly as possible. Be ambitious, but be realistic too. There are a lot of fantasies pushed on kids by their parents, parents trying to live vicariously through their children, but you need to find something that’s going to work for you.”

Be ambitious, but be realistic too.

@haydenstrongart

A chat with tattoo artist Tritoan Ly.

As Byline Editor for University Express, University College Cork’s very own student-run newspaper, I get a lot of great opportunities that I know I will always, for the rest of my life, be so grateful for and think back on with the warmest nostalgia.

One of them is the time I got to chat over the phone with my favourite tattoo artist, Tritoan Ly. Tritoan lives in New Zealand with his beautiful wife Holi, where he setup his very own, highly successful tattoo studio, Seventh Day. Tritoan is also a highly skilled photographer, shooting 35mm film as well as digital. His main platform is instagram, with one page dedicated to his tattoo art and another that serves is a visual journal for his photography, both of which are well worth the follow.

Here is my interview with Tritoan, which was originally published in the 2018/2019 University Express, Issue 3, which can be found online here.

Tritoan Ly in his tattoo studio, Seventh Day

Without a doubt a man to watch, Tritoan Ly has gathered himself an international following with his beautiful, intricately detailed floral tattoo designs. Tritoan showcases his work on his Instagram account, where he also demonstrates a clear skill and passion for photography. A master tattooist and photographer at only 27 years of age, I was eager to speak with Tritoan about his work and the set-up of his own tattoo studio, Seventh Day. I had the pleasure of speaking with Tritoan while he was in the studio. I found his story, how he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and has been in full-time work since the age of 13, was just as incredible as his work. Tritoan is a laid-back, easy going and funny guy with an amazing story.

How are you? 

Good, good, just at the studio with my man, Dan.

Hi Dan!

Dan: Hi!

Tritoan: We usually come here and play some ping-pong, some table tennis

The studio functions as a hang-out for you guys as well?

Tritoan: Yeah for sure! Dan, shut up, you’re making too much noise!

(Laughter from myself and Dan)

Tritoan: Sorry about him…

I have to ask; how do you pronounce your name?

There are so many different ways of saying it. I’ve come to accept all ways, but my sister calls me “Tree-ton”. People call me “Try-ton” too. I’m happy with any way of saying!

So, tell me a bit about yourself; about your childhood, your schooling and such.

Well, I was born in Thailand. I was born in a refugee camp, actually. My mum went through that Cambodian war phase where Pol Pot was in reign. I don’t know if you know much about the Cambodian government at that time… it was a massive genocide; he killed like three million of his own people. That was my mum’s era. She had to escape on foot all the way to Thailand. That’s where I was born, in a refugee camp there. My mum was there for like fourteen years, so she’s been through a lot of distress. Me and my brother and sister were born there, waiting for residency to come to New Zealand, and now here we are!

What age were you when you came to New Zealand?

I’d have been like 5 years old, I think, 5 or 6. Still pretty young, so I’m pretty much a Kiwi – a New Zealander. I went to school here. I went to University for 3 weeks, and then decided I didn’t like it so I dropped out.

What were you studying?

I was studying to be a PT (personal trainer), which was completely random.

When did you fall into tattooing?

Aw dude, that just fell on my lap. I was doing a whole heap of shit before that… I was a dance teacher for a good 3 years, then I was a photographer, freelancing, and then I did tiling. Then I was a landscaper, I don’t know why… I dabbled into a lot of things.

Tattoo by Tritoan Ly

Do you feel like you’ve fallen into your niche with tattooing?

I don’t know. I feel like you can be good at anything. I mean, I have quite an obsessive natural behaviour. If I’m into something I will stay up all night just to get pretty decent at it. My main passion was dancing, so I did that for about 8 years. I was in a group; we were the best in New Zealand for a long time.

At 17, Tritoan was competing and winning numerous National break dancing tournaments. 

When you get too old you can’t spin on your head or back-flip any longer…

You are just 27, and you’ve done all that already…

Yeah. My first job was actually when I was 13, and I haven’t stopped working ever since. I would work full-time in a gas station, while going to school during the day time, so I would do 4pm to 10pm every day after school. Working is all I know.

Tattoo by Tritoan Ly

Back to your tattooing; fine-line floral is your signature design now. Have you always done floral designs or did you dabble into other types?

Well, my first year starting I was a lot into the Japanese artwork so I did a lot of Japanese inspired sleeves like koi fish, dragons and all that. Then I dabbled into realism. I was like, ‘heck, I’ll just be a realism artist’ because I thought that was the hardest tattoo to do and the one that you should master. I kind of got bored of that for a while, so I did my first floral piece, or two, and shit just blew up from there. I was the only one doing it; only one in New Zealand, doing the fine-line floral. So, I pretty much pioneered that here in New Zealand – it steadily blew up.

Your designs are incredible.

Yeah, I’ve just stuck to it, honed my craft, and tried to make it the best floral game I possibly can.

All of the work you do now is free-hand. Have you always done free-hand?

Definitely not, no. I mean, the first two years I was shit-scared… It’s quite a nervous thing to do your first free-hand – not knowing exactly what it’s going to look like. I don’t even know how I started with free-hand. It might have been just practicing on friends first, and slowly progressing, and it’s literally all I do now. I definitely prefer free-hand. Unless there was geometry involved – circles and straight lines – then I would definitely try use a ruler or something like that.

Free-hand sketched tattoo by Tritoan Ly

You still do photography, yes?

Yeah! I don’t do it paid, I only do it for me, for my tattooing. It used to be my primary income back then when I did weddings and fashion and portraits and all that other jazz. I’m so glad that I learned that craft because look how far it’s taken be! The future is media so, anyone starting a business, I feel they need to have a good understanding of photography and videography if they want to advertise their stuff well. What’s the point in doing this immaculate work when you can’t showcase it?

You showcase your work on Instagram. Is that your main platform?

Yes, it’s my only platform. I definitely treat it like a business. It’s not something I say “hey I’ll do it for fun” to; I have a routine. I need to commit time to it. That’s why I edit, do my videos, it’s all part of the business: the backbone. Most people will do it for leisure, but my Instagram is for business. Cause generally I’m not that much of a social person. Like, if I wasn’t tattooing I probably wouldn’t even have an Instagram.

Instagram is a great platform when you use it right. Instagram is where I discovered you!

Exactly, yeah! I mean, it takes you internationally. You’re not just known nationally. I’m literally in the middle of nowhere; New Zealand is so far away. But I still get travellers, which is so crazy as well. I’d say a good 70% of my clients are internationals.

That’s amazing. Would you put that down to Instagram?

Oh, for sure.

Is there any chance of you coming to some European countries to do guest-spots in tattoo parlours here?

At the moment that’s a secret. I’ve already announced Canada. I was meant to do America with Canada but I had to get back to a friend’s wedding that I’m part of the groomsmen for, so that kind of ruined my plan. Definitely in the future I will be doing my best to come to Europe. Europe and America.

Do you give a good bit of notice?

Well, the day I announced Canada I got booked up within 12 hours. It was so intense. I had enough bookings to last me a year there, and I’m only there for 2 weeks. It was insane – all in one day. I didn’t sleep that night. I did an all-nighter with Dan – (Dan declares “It’s true” from somewhere in the background) – replying to every single email saying I couldn’t do their tattoo. So I think next time, I will maybe announce like 2 days before I go to a country, and we’ll see who’s desperate enough to pull a sicky from work to come get a tattoo! We’ve got to filter through the people somehow, got to make it more difficult.

Tell me about Seventh Day Studio.

I’m self-taught. I learned from home, tattooed in my own flat for about 6 months, practicing on friends. I got to the point where I felt like my work was good enough to start charging, so I did that. Then I tried my luck and asked a studio if I could work there, and they were gracious enough to take me in as an artist, not even an apprentice, so I definitely won the lottery with that because most of the time you have to do a 3-year apprentice before you can actually work in a shop. I got lucky and was asked to be a full-time artist, and I just learned the trade as I went. That was a studio called Dreamhands. I worked with them for a year, and then I opened up my own shop called Seventh Day.

Finished tattoo of sketch above, by Tritoan Ly

You’ve worked all your life, got yourself to where you are now, created a business without ever having done any sort of business degree… What advice would you give to young people who are striving to achieve whatever it is they are striving to achieve?

That’s quite a broad question. I think it’s such an individual thing. It’s very dependent on a person’s character. It’s like: I can’t give advice because I don’t know who you are or what your character is. Going back to the fact I worked most of my life; I had that drive, so my advice would be to have that drive, and determination, and obsessing about what you want to do until you get it. If you’re not obsessed, you’re not going to make it. You will fail under the competition of everyone else. You’ve got to out-work everyone else. That means losing sleep, too! There are a lot of sacrifices involved. People don’t see that though. They only see the success, the good stuff.

What do you make of the stigma that still exists in some way about having tattoos?

Here in New Zealand they’re pretty chill. You probably can’t be a teacher if you’ve got offensive tattoos, but if you’ve got, let’s say, a flower on your forearm, then you’d probably be fine. It might lessen your chances if you’re competing with someone else but you can still get employed. The generation now is definitely becoming more accepting of tattoos. I think it gets better as we go. I reckon in 5 to 10 years, no one is going to give a shit. Lawyers and teachers and doctors and policemen all have tattoos here in New Zealand, so I guess we’ve just got to wait for the rest of the world to catch up with the culture of tattoos. There’s a huge stigma still in Asia. It was even hard for me to convince my Mum for me to become a tattoo artist because tattoos are associated with criminals; they would stamp criminals with tattoos. So, times have definitely changed. I think, me being a boss now, I’d feel like it’s the employers decision at the end of the day whether they want to hire someone with tattoos or not. To be honest, if one of my artists got a tattoo on their forehead, I would not hire them. As brutal as that is, it’s my business and I care about what the clients will think. There’s a fine line between nice tattoos and gnarly ones.

What tattoos do you have?

My very first tattoo was a stick-and-poke on my hand. I did that when I was in intermediate, so I would’ve been about 12 or 13. I just stole some Indian ink from my art class, stole my Mum’s sowing needle and just started poking away. My first proper tattoo would’ve been when I was 18; I got my whole back done – it’s a tiger. I started slowly collecting tattoos from there…

Apart from that stick-and-poke, have you ever done any other tattoo on your body yourself?

Yeah, I’ve tattooed both my thighs and a lot of my legs, where I can reach.

Before I leave you go, tell me a bit about your wife, Holi.

I met Holi 2 or 3 years ago. I dated her for about 4 months, and then I asked her to marry me. A guy knows what he wants. There are no rules to this game, you make your own rules!

Tritoan & Holi