Public perception is often the largest, and last, hurdle any subculture has in finally making it to the mainstream. After several years as a maligned stereotype for gangsterism, the tattoo culture in Singapore has slowly but seemingly turned the tides and gained mainstream popularity as an art form.
With its rise, however, comes heavier supervision. The industry recently made headlines after a Member of Parliament questioned whether enough was being done to prevent minors from getting tattoos. The Ministry of Home Affairs replied, assuring that there wasn’t a need to regulate the industry just yet.
Additionally, most, if not all, tattoo artists interviewed by various media have stated that there is informal agreement across the board that minors are never tattooed unless parental consent has been given.
On the ground, several artists are constantly proving that there’s more to the business end than just skin-deep art. Social media has given a platform for many of them to showcase their work, and some are also using it as a platform to do good and give back, showing that tattooing is a legitimate industry that is no longer just affiliated to the rougher members of society.
Ael Lim, or @invisblea as he’s known on Instagram, has been tattooing for 14 years and is one of the most well-regarded tattoo artists in Singapore, with over 43,000 followers on Instagram. Known for his sublime realistic work as well as his unique “marker” style pieces, the 38-year-old runs his own studio, Imagine Tattoo, and recently embarked on an initiative he calls Paint Fetch.
The project started when Lim was first approached by a client, Jo Henson, to donate a painting for Art Aid: The Animal Kingdom, a charity event benefiting animal welfare in Singapore. For several weeks, Lim invited other tattoo clients to donate a sum of money, before drawing a fetch ball on a painting of a dog. The fetch ball symbolised the abandoned dogs’ wishes for familiarity and love—an idea Lim conceived. The client-sourced painting was eventually auctioned off at the event, held at the National Design Centre, amongst other commissioned works from artists contributing to the cause.
The funds raised from the entire event, over S$14,000, was donated to two dog shelters: Uncle Khoe Shelter and Blk 2 Furever Canine Shelter.
It isn’t Lim’s first foray into charity, however. Lim tells us about the Heartship Initiative, a side project he started to help disadvantaged youth from problem families. He also participates in an annual Christmas gift-giving initiative, started with the help of another client who is a social worker at the Ang Mo Kio Family Service Centre. He explained, “My friends and I prepare presents for a few kids from disadvantaged families, according to what they have wished for. My only request is that my friends write them a small note of encouragement with the present, and stay anonymous.”
The idea itself stems from Lim’s past. “I stayed in a boarding home as a kid when I had to leave school. There was a social worker who told me I could wish for a present as long as I stayed out of trouble. So I actually wished for a pair of Converse slippers that were considered cool back then. I remembered thinking, who would buy something like this for a kid like me?” recounted Lim.
What made all the difference, however, was a note of encouragement that the anonymous person left, along with the slippers. “It didn’t cost him much but it meant everything to me back then.”
With several plans for other charity opportunities, Lim sees it as an important part of life. It’s an ethos he imparts to his fellow tattoo artists in his studio. “Besides motivating them as artists, I try to get them to mature as human beings with empathetic values. As much as we take from society, we have to find a way to give back once we can,” he shares.
Over at the newly christened Tooth & Nail tattoo studio, owner Kelvin Leow (@kelvinrancid) decided to celebrate his 10th anniversary tattooing with a charitable slant. Best-known for his black and grey realism tattoos, the 31-year-old who has owned his own studio for four years now held a flash day event where all proceeds were donated to Forget Me Not, a dog shelter in Singapore.
Flash days, in tattoo parlance, are events where tattoos are done on a first-come, first-served basis, different from normal sessions that have to be booked in advance.
Leow explained, “I chose animal shelters because they are often forgotten compared to other charities. The animals deserve better too! I also have a rescued dog, so I really feel for them—like how my dog has a good life compared to those that aren’t adopted, or are roaming the streets.”
While the event was the first of its kind for Tooth & Nail (then called The Standard Tattoo), it was a huge success, with many clients showing up to show their support. “The turn out was really great and everything went smoothly. We only wish we had more time because some of the artists were too busy,” Leow shared. In total, Tooth & Nail raised an impressive S$4,700 for Forget Me Not in a single day.
Spreading the Word
For Julian Chia, or @theboldfox, his love for animals is perhaps the first thing most people notice about him. It’s made obvious not just in his Instagram description, but also in the work he does; a large number of his pieces are inspired by animals.
While he has done fund-raising for dog shelters before, the 31-year-old has set his sights on something else for charity this year. “My passion has always been for animals and, to be honest, I was never much of a charity person. It was an out of sight, out of mind-type thing for me,” he shared. The turning point, however, was his wife’s work with the non-profit organisation, Habitat for Humanity.
The NPO focuses on building homes across for vulnerable families, and its Singapore branch is in charge of several missions across the Asia-Pacific region as well as in the country itself.
“My wife does corporate comms for HFH, covering the work that the organisation does with a newsletter and social media. She also does interviews with volunteers and those who have received help as well,” Chia shared. “I’ve heard so many stories from her. So many people need help because of injustices done to them—disabilities, or just victims of unfortunate circumstances. I think the real question is, what took me so long to decide to participate.”
Chia will be heading up to Nepal in November, part of two teams that will help families whose homes were devastated in the earthquakes that happened years ago. “These families have been living homeless, under tin shacks since the earthquakes. Volunteers pay their own way there, and fundraise the cost of building material,” he explained. Chia has already raised S$2,333, from an initial S$1,700 goal.
This trip will be extra special for Chia, because his fellow artists will be joining him. They say that birds of a feather flock together, and there’s definitely a shared ethos among the three going up: the other two comprise Jared Asalli (of Fingers Crossed Studio) and Olivia Lim, or @n.eatoburrito, who works at Chia’s Wild Paw Tattoo Co. He commented, “It’s not just that people from my shop are going, it’s that other tattooers are coming along as well. They’ve put their appointments on hold and adjusted their schedules to do so.
Just imagine; the ‘gangsters’ of society, putting aside everything to help people.