Revered master tattooist “Sado” transitions to new canvas

When Wahiawa native Andrew Wong was six, he started creating art. He hasn’t stopped.

Perhaps it was a random event that encouraged him to pursue art. “I still remember the first time I was complimented on my work. I heard my first grade teacher telling my parents, ‘He can draw well.’ That made me want to keep at it.”

Andrew's brother Chris, Andrew, and me in our grandparents' house in Pauoa, mid-70's.
Andrew’s brother Chris, Andrew, and me in our grandparents’ house in Pauoa, mid-70’s.

Or maybe it wasn’t a well-seeded compliment planted in a tender young ego. Maybe that internal motivation always exists in some people driven to live their passion, and it’s a matter of time before it materializes.

Andrew kept teaching himself, and by the time he was in the sixth grade, “I was a human copy machine. I could copy anything you put in front of me.” He was and continues to be drawn, however, to a Japanese aesthetic: the imagery, the colors, even the architecture.

Our grandfather with all his grandkids at Honolulu International Airport: Esther, Colleen, me, Chris, Andrew.
Our grandfather with all his grandkids at Honolulu International Airport: Esther, Colleen, me, Chris, Andrew.

While in elementary school, the gifted draftsman made some precocious decisions. “I knew I wanted to live my life – make my living – as an artist. This meant I needed and wanted my own style. I could copy well, but a true artist creates originals.”

My mother and her mother (our grandmother) at Honolulu International Airport. L to R: Chris, Andrew, me, Esther, Colleen.
My mother and her mother (our grandmother) at Honolulu International Airport. L to R: Chris, Andrew, me, Esther, Colleen.

He studied the work of well-known artists, experimented on paper with graffiti art (“It really loosened me up”), and kept finding his own voice using various mediums. After he was graduated from Leilehua High School, he worked freelance jobs creating art for local businesses: logos, POG designs, signs, and the like. It wasn’t paying the bills.

When he was 22, he got his first tattoo. “That’s when I realized I wanted to learn this craft. This would be the way to live my dream.”

Andrew is my first cousin (his father and my mother are siblings) and I know he doesn’t half-step anything. If his intensity wasn’t already evident by the way he absolutely committed to a career choice when he was eleven, it would be when he spent thousands of dollars of his meager savings to order a full tattoo kit.

It wasn’t just a tattoo machine and some ink, but also stencils, grips, tips – the works. “There was a second when I stared at the boxes in my living room and got scared, because I had no training and no mentor. I had no idea what I was doing and thought, What have I done?” he laughs.

Then in typical Andrew fashion, his next thought was, “I will not fail.”

He simply opened the boxes, toyed with the products, and figured out how it all worked. “I had several very good friends who offered their bodies as my practice canvas. I reminded them I had no idea what I was doing, but they said, ‘You’re a great artist; we trust you. If you mess up, you can figure out how to fix it later.’ I can’t believe they let me do that, but I am so grateful to them, that for the rest of my career in tattoo, I inked them for free whenever they wanted,” he recalls – no small gesture, at his rate of $150 per hour.

FROM ANDREW TO SADO

Thus, the artist known as Sado (as in sadomasochism) was born. In the mid-90s, Sado got his first chair at Big Fat Tatts in Kalihi, before opening his own store, Sado Tattoo, three years later in Kaka`ako.

Sado at work, 2013.
Sado at work, 2013. Courtesy: Sado

In 2008, he moved to Las Vegas. He inked at Count’s Tattoo Company at Rio All-Suite Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, King Ink at The Mirage, and Starlight Tattoo at Mandalay Bay. He was extremely popular and extremely busy.

Sado at work, 2009.
Sado at work, 2009. Courtesy: Sado

For most of his 25-year tattoo career, Sado was booked solid for six or seven days a week, ten hours a day, for six months out. “I could have booked a year in advance but I didn’t want to,” he adds.

He could draw anything, but he was known for his Asian themes, like koi, Japanese mon emblems, and dragons. He estimates he worked on tens of thousands of customers, some who flew in from all parts of the world (Spain, Japan, Canada, to name a few countries) to have Sado work on them.

It was quite a commitment for both the artist and the customer. “I mostly did large-scale pieces because I like the artistry to pop out, to be impressive. It takes a long time, depending on the design and if it’s in color. A full back can take 24 to 30 hours,” he elaborates.

In 2009, Sado’s client Joel Billena took the first place “Best Overall” trophy at The Biggest Tattoo Show On Earth at the Mandalay Event Center in Las Vegas. Billena also won first place for “Best Bodysuit” at the Pacific Ink and Art Expo 2014 in Honolulu. Sado worked exclusively on Billena’s freehand bodysuit for over six years.

Sado at The Best Tattoo Show on Earth 2009 with winning design on client Joel Billena.
Sado at The Best Tattoo Show on Earth in 2009 with winning design on client Joel Billena. Courtesy: Sado

Sado’s artistry also landed him a prestigious inclusion in a 2012 Honolulu Museum of Art (HoMA) exhibit “focusing on Hawai‘i’s high quality of tattoo art- and how it sprouted from the islands’ mix of cultures rich with tattoo,” reads the museum’s description at http://honolulumuseum.org/art/exhibitions/12749-tattoo_honolulu.

For its first tattoo show, HoMA selected the Island’s most revered “tattoo masters,” presenting them “as contemporary artists, revealing their skills, ideas and sensibilities through photographs of the bodies on which they have drawn.” HoMA selected only ten people for this honor from, presumably, hundreds of licensed tattoo artists; 2012 figures are not available, but Peter Oshiro of the state Department of Health, which issues the licenses, says there are 1,376 active, licensed tattooists in Hawaii as of July 2016.

Photo used in Honolulu Tattoo exhibit of Joel Billena, Sado's client. Courtesy: Honolulu Museum of Art/Shuzo Uemoto
Photo used in Honolulu Tattoo exhibit of Joel Billena, Sado’s client. Courtesy: Honolulu Museum of Art/Shuzo Uemoto

“The exhibition’s ‘big idea’ was about how a unique tattoo culture developed from military, Japanese, and Polynesian tattoo traditions. We picked Sado for his contemporary Japanese style as well as the scale and quality of his work,” explains Vince Hazen, director of Honolulu Museum of Art School, and part of the curatorial team that selected the tattoo artists.

Sado's portrait as seen in Honolulu Tattoo exhibit. Courtesy: Honolulu Museum of Art/Shuzo Uemoto
Sado’s portrait as seen in Honolulu Tattoo exhibit. Courtesy: Honolulu Museum of Art/Shuzo Uemoto

Allison Wong, interim director of Honolulu Museum of Art, was also on that curatorial team. “Sado’s work has a strong Japanese or Asian aesthetic, which highlighted the tattooing foundation of rich and diverse cultural traditions found in Hawai‘i today. His use of such elements as koi and dragons reveal an inspiration from 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints.”  

“It was definitely an honor to be selected to participate in this museum exhibition, alongside many well respected and reputable artists from Hawaii. It was an experience I will never forget,” divulges Sado. 
 
While the show did not affect his career, it validated his talent. “I am a completely self taught artist and tattoo artist. I never had any art schooling and never served a tattoo apprenticeship of any kind. I was just very dedicated to my craft and worked extremely hard to improve every day. To see my artwork hanging inside the Honolulu Museum of Art was very, very gratifying. I am extremely thankful for that experience and to everyone who made it possible!” Sado declares.
 
SADO STYLE
Sado’s former boss, Kory Oakland of the now-defunct Big Fat Tatts, describes Sado’s work as “Sado style,” meaning “he produces very distinct artwork. When anybody in Hawaii who knows tattoos sees a piece, they immediately recognize it as his. All the tattoo artists know each other, and we definitely know his signature. He has a lot of depth and dimension, and more detail than usual for a tattoo piece. Sado is also known for large-scale works that take up entire body parts.”
 
Mandie Adell displays her full back tattoo inked by Sado. Courtesy: Mandie Adell
Mandie Adell displays her full back tattoo inked by Sado. Courtesy: Mandie Adell
 
Hollywood creative producer Mandie Adell wandered into Sado’s Kalihi shop and became a client 13 years ago. “I was searching for a few years for someone to tattoo me, and I hadn’t found the right person. I happened to be home for Christmas (from Santa Monica), and I walked into the store. I started talking to Sado and just knew in my gut he was the right person,” Adell recollects, adding that she’s thrilled with her full back design of a geisha and a phoenix.

Adell’s then-husband, actor/singer/comedian Wayne Brady (currently on television shows Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Let’s Make a Deal, The Loud House, and Sofia the First), was so impressed with the finished work, he asked to meet the person who did it.

Brady tells me, “When I met Sado, I knew I wanted to get a tattoo from him. I’m an artist, and I respect his work as an artist.” Brady chose a dragon because he’s a sci-fi aficionado.

While he is a “big fan” of Sado’s art- on skin and on canvas – Brady stopped at just one tattoo. “I’m a baby,” he laughs. “In fact, before meeting Sado, I never thought I would get a tattoo because it looked too painful!”

In 2006, I met actor Wayne Brady, who showed me his Sado tattoo
In 2006 I met actor Wayne Brady, who showed me his Sado tattoo

Ohana Broadcast marketing director Christine Yasuma recalls her experience with Sado. “I saw him for my first tattoo, and he really eased me into the experience. I was nervous, but he made me relaxed. He was so nice, just a lot of fun. Sado gave me such a positive impression of getting a tattoo, that now I have 12!”

Yasuma says Sado is well-known and well-regarded in Hawaii as much for his artistic talent as his strong attention to customer service. “He has a great reputation. Everyone knows his reputation,” she says. 

Oakland confirms, “He has a strong work ethic, and he is extremely detail-oriented, an out-of-the-box thinker, and above all, original. I’ve always admired that about him.”

“I put a high priority on my clients,” Sado agrees. Showing up two hours early for his first job of the day was just the start. “I would sit and tattoo until the client was done, not until I was done. That means until the client mentally or physically decided they’d had their fill of pain for the day, and then we had to stop.”

Most people, he says, can sit for three hours before they hit their pain tolerance. Sometimes, even if the person wants to continue, their body will give out by convulsing or cramping. “However, there are rare cases in which a person can sit eight or 12 hours at a time! If they wanted to keep going, I would keep going,” he explains.

I interviewed Sado/ Andrew for a KHNL report in 1999.
I interviewed Sado/Andrew for a KHNL report in 1999 about how tattoo parlors negate the risk of hepatitis C virus through sanitary practices.

Working like this for decades damaged him. “Tattooing is hard on the body. My core had to be tight for hours on end because I couldn’t waver. Then, because of my work ethic, I would sit there for three or more hours at a time working on a person. I wouldn’t eat lunch. I missed dinner. I lived on caffeine, nicotine, and sugar for about 15 years,” he recounts. “It wasn’t healthy.”

Gripping a tattoo machine for endless hours eventually meant Sado developed tendonitis in both hands. In his dominant hand, he can no longer close his fingers around the machine.

He saw the writing on the wall. He felt the tendonitis worsening, and created a Plan B in 2012.

THE TRANSITION

“I decided to transition to fine art on canvas, and I’m OK with that. Tattooing was a means to an end: remember, I only ever wanted to be able to make a living as an artist. It was fun, but it was time to do something different,” he tells me.

Sado working on an acrylic painting on canvas. Courtesy: Sado
Sado working on an acrylic painting on canvas. Courtesy: Sado

Oakland, who closed Big Fat Tatts in 2007 and now works at Hawaiian Airlines, is glad for his friend’s success. “It’s great Sado found a new medium. I always knew he painted, too, and I wish I found a way to bring art into my current life. I didn’t do any art besides tattooing.”

Sado's acrylic paintings on canvas. Courtesy: Sado
Sado’s acrylic paintings on canvas. Courtesy: Sado

Sado pursued painting seriously, but continued some part-time tattoo work for a few years before finally retiring from tattooing in January 2015. Sado paints full-time in his home studio now.

“It’s a lot easier on my body- if nothing else, because I can stop when I want.” I joke with him that my window to get a free tattoo is now closed.

Sado gave me a Sharpie tattoo in 2008.
Sado gave me a Sharpie tattoo in 2008.

My cousin’s offered it to me consistently over all these years, and I’ve always declined. It’s OK.

He never wanted media publicity from me during my 19 years as a newscaster, so we’re even.

Sado's acrylic painting on canvas. Courtesy: Sado
Sado’s acrylic painting on canvas. Courtesy: Sado

Sado’s paintings are still informed by his decades in tattoo. He still likes Asian motifs, and he prefers large works because “they jump out at you.” Now, though, “large” means 36 by 48 inches.

Sado will “paint on anything that doesn’t move,” but he gravitates to wood. He produces pieces as small as five by seven inches, and will take custom requests, though he has inventory ready to go as well.

Adell and Brady are still his friends and clients. Both have bought pieces from him. “I’m happy he can do this. To me, it’s not even a career transition because he’s still creating art,” Adell ruminates on the person she calls one of her best friends (Sado concurs it’s mutual).

“I have a few of his pieces hanging in my office,” mentions Brady. “When people ask who painted it, I’m happy to tell them about Sado because he’s amazing, and he’s been a good friend to our family.”

Sado's Wyland Galleries exhibit poster. Courtesy: Sado
Sado’s Wyland Galleries exhibit poster. Courtesy: Sado

Last February, Wyland Galleries at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas invited Sado to exhibit at a gallery show. “It was a great experience!” he expresses.

Actor Wayne Brady with Sado at his Wyland Galleries exhibit in 2015. Courtesy: Sado
Actor Wayne Brady with Sado at his Wyland Galleries exhibit in 2015. Courtesy: Sado

For now, though, it’s back to work at his home studio, with his two beloved Maine Coon cats to keep him company and, he half-kids, his wife Cookie to nip at him to keep his art supplies in his studio, not all over the house.

Sado and wife Cookie at the 2012 HoMA exhibit.
Sado and wife Cookie at the 2012 HoMA “Tattoo Honolulu” exhibit, in front of a photo of his client Joel Billena. Courtesy: Sado

Sado contemplates his life and pronounces, “I’m happy. I get to do art seven days a week. My life is perfect.”

Le mews as le muse: One of Sado and Cookie's cats. Courtesy: Sado
Le mews as le muse: One of Sado and Cookie’s cats approves of his painting. Courtesy: Sado

See Sado’s work at Instagram: sado_style and Etsy.com: SadoArt (https://www.etsy.com/in-en/people/sadotattoo#). For custom orders, you can only contact him via Instagram.

Sado and Cookie's cats. "Which one of us is going to supervise Dad today?" Courtesy: Sado
Sado and Cookie’s cats. “Which one of us is going to supervise Dad today?” Courtesy: Sado

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