Body Of Work
A Magazine Singapore|October 2020
From an artistic mash-up of favourite motifs to a simple straight line, there is no better expression of identity than a custom tattoo. These artists explain what it means to infuse their own style into their subjects’ ultimate personal statement.
Christina Ko

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.”

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