Tattoo artist Alfren specializes in hand-poked tattoos incorporating Southeast Asian culture

Trisha Dasgupta, Senior Life&Arts Reporter

With just a few months between them and graduation, art student and soon-to-be UT graduate Alfren, had a decision to make in late 2020: find a tattoo studio in Austin or move abroad to find a place where other tattoo artists also practiced hand-poking, a tattoo style relatively rare in the U.S. 

That’s when they found a job listing at No Good Tattoo, an inclusive studio in Austin that houses several artists that work with hand-poking tattoos. After months of perfecting their portfolio and observing artists at No Good Tattoo, Alfren joined the studio as a resident in 2021 — where they still work now — creating intricate hand-poked tattoos that help connect them with their clients and honor their Chinese-Vietnamese heritage. 

“I think of tattooing as a way to share those experiences of having those separate connections and cultures come together,” Alfren said. “With hand-poking, it takes a lot more time than a machine tattoo would, which means it feels pretty intimate, getting to know about more than just surface-level stuff of the person you are tattooing.”

Alfren said they started their art journey as a child, which grew into a more serious career aspiration in high school. Alfren’s first tattoo designs included koi fish and lotus flowers inspired by landmarks from their childhood, such as the Hong Kong City Market in Houston. Tony Lu, a longtime friend of the artist’s, has watched their artistry grow over the past eight years.

“These last two years, Alfren has been getting more into exploring their culture, (having) more meaning and having art be something (where) they can really express themselves,” Lu said.

Despite having a lifelong interest in tattooing, Alfren said they discovered an appreciation of the hand-poking style while studying abroad the summer before their junior year of college. 

“When I went abroad to Korea, I was exposed to hand-poked (tattoos) as a professional practice because I’ve always heard of it as something that teenagers do in their bedroom,” Alfren said. “That was when I first saw someone have an actual appointment, and the whole process of how to tattoo by hand-poking.”

After coming back to Texas, Alfren said they spent months curating a portfolio and improving their skills, eventually becoming an intern at No Good Tattoo.

“I learned a lot about the inner workings of a professional and established studio space,” Alfren said. “It was really fun seeing the behind-the-scenes of how everything came into fruition — getting to give a tattoo in that space and learning how to be respectful of other people.” 

Hand-poked tattoos tend to take longer than tattoos drawn with machines, something that makes the experience even more valuable, Alfren said.

“If I’m doing long tattoos, I’m like, ‘This is no longer work. This is a hangout session,’” Alfren said. “I’m telling my client to get ready to hang out with me because we’re going to be together for a very long time.” 

Alfren said they prioritize cultivating a personal and safe space for clients, often incorporating cultural imagery into their work. This shines through to Erika Wong, a longtime client who has  four tattoos from Alfren.

“Something that sets them apart from other artists is that Alfren is so respectful within every facet and nuance that comes with tattooing their clients,” Wong said. “I feel like receiving tattoos and tattooing can be such a vulnerable and intimate experience, but they’ve always made me feel safe and cared for.”