It’s one of the oldest practices known to mankind, yet for many decades tattooing was associated with the underbelly of society. Nowadays, it’s less likely to display membership with a gang, indicate the shame of a prisoner, or even connote a mark of leadership or protection. It’s an expression of identity that is permanent, personal, and even political, a collaborative statement made together by artist and subject that has no equal in format.
While it was once de rigueur to flip through a book of “flashes” (ready-made tattoo designs) and pick your favourite drawing, most body art now is custom and highly considered. Thick-rimmed statements like flying hearts and bald eagles have given way to fine-line tattoos popularised by the likes of celebrity tattoo artist Dr Woo, with the delicate linework applied to motifs ranging from nature scenes to favoured quotes and pet portraits.
Equally, the type of people who work as tattoo artists is evolving; no longer are they the expected biker boys and goth chicks of bygone reality TV. In Singapore, a Primary 6 girl made headlines last year for becoming a practising artist with 12 clients under her belt (her father and mentor is Visual Orgasm’s Joseph Siow). Many entering the industry today have backgrounds in art or design.
But in a world that loves to define and categorise, how different is a tattoo artist from a painter commissioned to execute a portrait, a photographer assigned to shoot a fashion editorial, or any other artist that answers to a client?
“Overall, there are still some people from the older generation who hold a more traditional and conservative outlook towards tattoos, but this is changing,” says Bernice Chua, who was studying fashion design in Japan when she realised her illustration skills could be applied in a different medium. She now runs creative studio The Exclave, but tattooing is only one of the formats used in a cross-disciplinary practice.
“There is a lot of debate about whether tattoos should be considered ‘art’, but ‘art’ in itself is also too vague and subjective a term. I think that the ideal situation is for tattooing to exist in the sweet spot of intersection between all these different categorisations — that is when tattoos can hold the potential to reach or facilitate new forms of expression. If there is a term like a tattoo designer, that would probably suit me better. Designers are used to coming up with solutions, albeit aesthetically pleasing ones, so I approach tattooing like an extension of this. Clients come in with their stories and I figure out the best way to express this, while taking into consideration their needs,” she says.
That is why she insists on a face-to-face consultation. “This seemingly small act has a huge influence on the design because you can usually roughly gauge their personality from their behaviour, their dressing, their manner of speech, etc.”
For example, one client, a filmmaker, asked Chua to create a mash-up of her favourite painting, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, with her favourite film, Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution. The resulting design shows the film’s title characters locked in that iconic embrace. Another gave Chua free rein to showcase the chosen concept of travel, with their consultation session touching on subjects such as space and ’90s video games. The final design was an obstacle course made up of a “dissected Jupiter with a black hole, interspersed with planets and stars”.
For Christopher Sim, a tattoo artist who does his work by machine as well as by the traditional handpoke method, even two straight lines can make for a visually impactful, highly personal design.
“This line tattoo that plays with the asymmetry of the human body creates a clean divide for both arms — it is the simplest creation, yet so bold and loud,” he says. The connection between each individual body and the artwork is important to Sim, who cites another work of his, a rendering of Michaelangelo’s The Creation of Adam on the inside of a client’s forearm, with the two outstretched fingers touching exactly at the point of a birthmark mole.
Sim began his journey apprenticing with the artist who did a piece on his back, and later decided to learn more about the history and concept behind the stick-and-poke technique that fell by the wayside with the rise of technology, but is regaining favour today. “The experience was raw and it was empowering to go back to the basics, without the comfort of technology, to create a tattoo.
“Handpoking goes back to the roots of tattooing and it involves manually inserting ink into skin with a needle. [It] takes more time, patience, and effort, but the process is less painful and less traumatic for the skin. The main thing is the experience of getting a handpoke tattoo — it is a connection between artist, needle, and client, and the process brings forth a zen-like meditative state.”
Sim explains: “The majority of clients that want a handpoke tattoo are those that want to experience this method. There are others that request for handpoke tattoos based on style, belief, culture, and spirituality. Some clients have a special connection to nature and choose to have a handpoke tattoo as it is the most natural way of tattooing.”
While Sim and Chua both run their own private studios, Singapore is chock-full of larger stables that run almost like agencies, and which have sufficient IG followings to qualify them as microinfluencers.
Fingers Crossed’s account advertises the personal IGs of its artists, with a grid of images featuring both tattoos and classic millennial fodder — Monstera leaves, mid-afternoon light and, of course, merch, including logo T-shirts and bucket hats. Meanwhile, the four artists who work at Traditions Tattoo Collective are anything but traditional, inking fine-line puppies in teacups, sulking Care Bears, and little boys whose heads have been replaced by a flourish of florals.
Through the Internet, it’s easier than ever to find the artist that best suits your style. If realism is your schtick, you want to memorialise your fluffiest friend, and you’re one of the rarer individuals seeking colour work, then you’d be happy to stumble upon Jerene Tham at Tooth and Nail Tattoo. She may have apprenticed with her husband Kelvin Leow, who runs the studio, but her style is distinct from his, which involves more shading in a monochrome palette.
“I really like working with colours, and most people think I do only small tattoos, but I enjoy working on bigger pieces too,” she shares. Her expertise in pet designs came about organically. “When I started practising on the synthetic skin pad, the first few images I did were of my pets. I loved it so much that I asked my husband to let me tattoo our cat on him. One of our friends saw it and requested for his dog’s portrait, and it grew from there.”
Pet portraits have always been a popular subject matter, and this isn’t waning. “In the past, pet portraits used to be at least palmsized. Some people get quite intimidated. I think tattoos are more accepted these days and, at the same time, owners love their pets a lot more,” Tham says.
IG isn’t the only advertising channel — the clients themselves are walking advertisements that best show off not only the variety of artistic styles, sizes, and placements, but how designs can work together on a human body — with the shedding of tattoo taboos, you’re likely to see people with multiple pieces collaged across arms, legs, and other available skin space.
A couple of years back, Chua even tattooed some vintage Hermès leather, covering up watermarks on a Kelly bag for the launch of preloved luxury retailer The Fifth Collection.
“They wanted a design that was uniquely Singaporean and I proposed something a little more unexpected by using mynahs, a commonly found bird here, combined with our national flower. The colouration of the mynahs allowed me to cover the water marks well and the birds added movement to the overall design.”
She adds: “I like work that challenges me. When you’re pushed out of the box, that is when you grow as a creative.”