To the horror of her parents, when senior Sandy Khong was 12 years old she declared that she was going to be a tattoo artist. Now 21, she has been a tattoo artist since March — that is between classes. Khong, familiar with the financial struggles of college students, wanted to provide a tattooing service that could cater to her Knox peers. She runs her service from her off-campus apartment.
“My parents were like ‘what?! what did you say?’ They weren’t exactly that enthusiastic about it, which made me explore other options,” Khong said.
Khong is studying to become a dermatologist with a biology degree, however, tattooing has remained a passion of hers. Though she doesn’t want to pursue the gig professionally, she believes it will always be a side business she keeps up with.
“I started off just drawing. I was commissioning art and selling my art to people, whether they wanted to decorate their homes or tattoo it on themselves,” Khong said.
According to Khong, she noticed that her artwork would often get manipulated or stolen by other tattoo artists who didn’t give her credit. The frustration over this pushed Khong to learn the skill behind tattooing. At first, she tried to become an apprentice with a professional studio in Chicago, but things didn’t go exactly as planned.
“I got in touch with this guy named Les [Walton]. He was back and forth between Chicago and Atlanta a lot because he was opening a new studio in Atlanta. He gave me the advice on what to get, what kind of things I should start with, and what kinds of things I should practice on,” Khong said.
As Walton traveled back and forth between his studios, Khong had to teach herself how to tattoo people. She started off practicing by putting a tattooing needle to synthetic skin and pigskin. Eventually, she worked her way up to practicing on her roommate.
“She didn’t care if I messed up or anything, which helped me dive right in and learn really quickly,” Khong said.
Khong states that working in a studio while also being a student at Knox would simply not be feasible due to her workload. Though people might be concerned about the at-home set-up, she assures that she keeps her workstation completely sterile.
“I have clients sign a consent and release form before any work… basically what it says is that […] I’m doing everything possible to make it a safe and comfortable experience for my client,” Khong said.
When Khong sets up for her client, she makes sure to show them that everything is new and covered in plastic wrap. She buys only disposable needles and tubes advised to her by Walton. This way clients know that nothing that has been touched before by another client. Khong also wears gloves for the entire procedure.
Knox junior Travis Goeden utilized Khong’s services to get a tattoo of a bear on his chest, an homage to his parents’ pet name for him as a child. He initially had scheduled an appointment at a tattoo parlor in Galesburg, which fell through when the artist didn’t show up. Goeden’s friend recommended Khong for the job, and he expressed that the legitimacy she displayed with paperwork, cleanliness and skill before and during the procedure quickly eased any concerns he had going in.
“Obviously I think that when you’re doing something solo as opposed to working for a tattoo place you need to present a certain amount of professionalism,” Goeden said. “[She made] sure that she is qualified to do this and has gone through all the legal preparations, and she did that all very nicely right at the beginning.”
Supporting Khong’s work allowed Goeden to obtain his tattoo for a significantly cheaper price than he would have paid at the parlor. He emphasized her aptitude for doing great work for an exceptional price.
“I saved almost sixty bucks between going to her versus going to the place I was gonna go, so that was pretty cool,” Goeden said. “That’s with a pretty decent tip also.”
Khong states that she tries to keep her prices college-friendly, as most of her clients are Knox students. She charges a minimum of $40 to ensure all of her equipment fees are paid off and that she has a little left over for profit.
“The profits are not much, but that’s okay. I get it, students on campus are not… I [mean] we’re all struggling,” Khong said.
“[Prices] definitely vary based on [the] complexity of the design and how many hours I think I’ll spend on the tattoo, which is directly related to complexity as well,” Khong said in an email.
Khong specializes in doing line work and geometric shapes. Khong herself has many geometry-based tattoos meant to accentuate the body part they’re placed on. In a video captured by TKS, Khong can be seen working on a flower tattoo. Flowers are another specialty of hers.
Khong states that most of her clients get tattoos that are meaningful to them; often they revolve around mental illness or a bad experience in their lives. Khong recalls particularly connecting with a client who got a tattoo after leaving an abusive relationship. According to Khong, the client got the tattoo as a way to raise her self-esteem.
“Her ex didn’t like her modifying her body at all in any way that made her feel beautiful or comfortable. Basically, he was saying your body is mine… That was just gross to me. It wasn’t even the tattoo itself that had a meaning, it was just [getting] the tattoo,” Khong said. “I think it just gives people another kind of confidence. We had an emotional moment.”
Khong herself got her first tattoos as a way to make her feel more positive about her body when she was feeling insecure.
“Personally, I got tattoos because I didn’t like the way my body looked, now I love the way my body looks because I’ve adorned it with the things I like to look at. It’s just nice to watch that confidence boost,” she said.
For Khong, watching people light up after they see her finished work is the best part about the job. She states that it’s an honor to be able to allow clients to feel good about themselves and to help them commemorate something important in their lives.
“Getting into tattooing and creating my own schedule was one of the best things I could have done. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback so I’m pretty happy about that,” Khong said.
Khong typically books clients through her Facebook account at Sandy Huong. Clients can also email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Khong does not charge for consultations, however, and most of her consultations are done via social media.
Khong’s Prices: Small tattoos (1-2.5 inches) range between $40-55. Medium tattoos (3-4 inches) range between $60-80. Large tattoos (4.5-7 inches) range between $90-140. Khong sells “try on” tattoos with her designs for $3 and is working on creating a t-shirt line.