The stigma of tattoos has long died down. Evolving from identification in the Neolithic times to penalisation in ancient Greece and Rome, tattoos are now regarded as a form of self-expression. It’s impossible to walk down the streets of Singapore without seeing a full arm or calf sleeve of ink these days. Ahead of the Singapore Ink Show, AUGUSTMAN sat down with six prolific Singaporean tattoo artists and talked to them about their careers and the industry in general.
Nestled in a monolith of a building on East Coast Road is Horikawa Tattoos, owned by industry veteran Baldwin Horikawa. Unlike the building’s dull and grey exterior, this tattoo shop’s interior is refined and resembles a modern Japanese art gallery. There is certainly no mistaking the style of tattoo Horikawa specialises in.
Interestingly though, he never intended to become a tattoo artist. Earlier on, he was more fascinated with body modifications. By 16 he’d split his tongue and had more piercings than you could possibly name. After bussing at a restaurant for a while, Horikawa landed a job as a piercer at the now-defunct Ink on Skin in Orchard Towers. Unfortunately, business was slow and soon after he joined, his female boss at the time strong-armed him into tattooing.
To say Horikawa was thrown into the deep end would be putting it mildly. He’d only spent a short time working on his illustrations when the American Navy rolled into town. With sailors flooding the shop every day, the business experienced a temporary boom, so he had to pick up a machine and get to work. Technically, he never had a formal apprenticeship, but he was mentored by Elson of ThINK Tattoo. As time passed, Horikawa’s passion for tattooing increased and he soon dedicated all his time to the artform.
After 14 years of honing his craft, he ranks among the best in Singapore, earning the honorary title “Hori” in his name when his mentor Augustine deemed he was ready. Still, he never forgets the struggle he endured when he first started.
His parents, both pious Christians, were heartbroken when he first began getting tattoos. Things obviously didn’t get better when they learnt about his ambitions. “I used to think they were ashamed of being seen in public with me, when in fact they were just hurt when people would stare at me like an exhibit,” he shares. Family has always been Horikawa’s cornerstone, so he suffered greatly when his folks disagreed with his lifestyle. It was only through constant communication that they softened up and accepted his career choice. “My dad is proud of my work but will still remind me to not get any more tattoos. But what difference will it make?” he laughs.
Bradley Tan turns 30 this year but he’s already spent half his life on his craft.
“We were young and, well, dumb, using ink and Chinese needles at the back of class,” he laughed while sharing about his start. He and his friends figured that better equipment meant better tattoos so Tan approached a tattoo studio near his home, looking to buy the correct tools. Instead, he left with an apprenticeship after the owner saw his sketchbook. “It wasn’t like I was doing badly in secondary school. I graduated, did design and even interned at Ogilvy & Mather while still tattooing and apprenticing on the weekends and after school,” he explained about the earlier days in his career.
Now, Tan is perhaps one of the most well-known Singaporean tattoo artists of the “new generation”. He tattoos exclusively in a black and grey realistic style and has amassed a following of over 15,000 on his Instagram, @bradleytattoo.
While the Singaporean “house style” back in the Noughties gravitated towards Japanese oriental style, Tan was attracted to the black and grey realism he had seen in tattoo magazines. “It started from drawing with pencils and referencing photos. And then it just became what I wanted to do, so I practised hard on my own,” reminisced Tan. He is also the owner of Oracle Tattoo, a studio he started himself before getting fellow artists on board. “When I opened Oracle, there was a bit of a caveman vibe to it. Like I was just there by myself, kind of separated from the community. Having Ian join me was great because there was this brotherly rivalry. Because we work on the same style, we push each other a lot in terms of our work,” Tan shared.
Having started in the era where clients would have to head to shops to see an artist’s portfolio, Tan thinks the immediacy of social media has had a positive impact on the culture. Now that his work (all 15 years of it) is online, we asked if he ever cringes looking back on earlier work. He said, “I think it’s good to look back. No one is ever perfect when they start out but that’s how you see how far you’ve progressed. It’s a good way to look at things: you can always do better.”
Kelvin Leow looks like the kind of guy you don’t want to mess with. He doesn’t say much, hardly smiles, and is covered in tatts, even in areas you winge to think about how it must have hurt – basically the kind of guy your parents warned you not to hang with. But if there’s anything that the tattoo subculture has taught us, it’s not to judge the book by its cover. And even if you did judge Leow, he doesn’t give a damn.
Over his nine-year career, Leow has managed to cement himself as one of the bigger players when it comes to the black-and-grey and realism tattoos. He doesn’t discuss much about his work. Well, he really doesn’t need to because it simply speaks for itself. It’s even more impressive when the 30-year-old tells us he has never even done much illustrating before he started tattooing. He just dove right into the thick of it.
Here’s how it happened: at age 21, while getting a full back piece done, he chatted with the artist and casually enquired if it was possible to do an apprenticeship with him. He was completely taken aback when the artist said yes. “I went to the studio for a back piece but ended up getting a mentor, so that was cool,” Leow shares, leaning back in his seat.
Don’t let his air of nonchalance fool you though. This artist has put years of dedication into his craft to achieve his current skill level. Sure, he’s recognised all over the globe now, but there was a time when Leow would spend days on end practising on fruit. His career has also leveraged on the rise of social media. “Back in the day, we only had magazines to find out what other artists around the world were up to. These days everyone posts their work on Instagram. It’s great because there are more artists but it’s also getting saturated,” Leow tells us.
Recently, popular artists have alluded to the fact that social media has heralded the rise of copycats. Leow explains that it doesn’t bother him. If a client comes in with the work of another artist as reference, he’ll try to tweak the design. “Out of respect for the artist, and my own creative integrity, I’ll change the design a little. There are clients that remain adamant though”, he says. As expected, Leow isn’t fazed about people copying his work. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
The tired story that our parents used to tell us about tattoos has gone the way of the dinosaurs. The idea that kids who hang out in bad circles and get tattoos never do well. Just look at Jon Lim as its antithesis.
“I was an industrial designer and it came to a point where I just knew that this nine-to-five grind isn’t my thing,” Lim shared.
Art and design had always been his escape, ever since he was a kid drawing dinosaurs and creating his own fantasy world. At that point when he left the corporate world, he had been experimenting for some time with tattoos and figured he’d just dive into it. Lim recounted staying in his room for hours on end just tattooing on himself to get the entire process right, learning how the skin absorbs ink. It seems to be a trait for the design-trained tattoo artists who see the process as another medium for art.
That was Lim’s approach to it and even the way he talks about client interaction reminds us of designers. Lim’s own studio Blackwoods Tattoo, has two other artists with him, as a little design-centric trio.
“We take turns to come up with design briefs that we interpret by ourselves and then we compare and see what we can learn from one another,” he shared. When it comes to his tattooing style however, Jon Lim has a distinctive look. He calls it “chaotic blackwork”. As a tattoo genre, it may not be quite as prolific as say, blackwork or oriental, but you need to get behind why Lim loves this style of art, which really comes from his design background.
“When I did industrial design, the part that always attracted me wasn’t the end result but the stages in between – you know, that slightly sketchy, raw feel to a drawing,” he says. Transferring that to a person’s skin, however, is a different deal. One needs to understand how much black is necessary and the proportions that go into his pieces to appreciate them fully. “There’s a lot of contrast to my pieces but that also means that the white space is super important to maintain a balance,” he stated.
It’s easy to see why Lim’s followers and clients are growing by the day. His niche style already sets him apart and in a world where fans have a buffet of artists online to look at, standing out often comes in handy.
Building on the idea that tattoo artists who have a design background tend to look at their work differently is Jojie Atomick. It’s not his real surname; no, but for Jojie, it’s one of his “artist tags” in a sense.
Jojie has always been involved with art.
In secondary school, he shared that he was so bad at mathematics that his teacher gave up and stopped bothering him when he would just doodle during lessons. His inspiration first came from graphic novels and comic books, before he took an interest in skateboarding. Heading to skate parks and reading skate magazines inspired him to pick up street art (or graffiti as the public still calls it), a practice that has seen him commissioned to do murals, cafes and even Zouk parties back in the day.
His entry into tattooing only came four years ago after he left his job as an art gallery co-ordinator. “I graduated from La Salle and worked as an exhibition coordinator. It got very mundane because you’re no longer creating, you’re just part of the process,” he shared.
His girlfriend at the time was a tattoo artist and he spent a lot of time at her studio and was well-versed with the world of ink. One thing led to another and he started on a new medium that would lead him to where he is, tattooing at Imagine Playbook, a collective of artists led by Ael Lim, one of Singapore’s most well-known modern artists.
“I was very drawn to Ael’s way of art. I learnt fine art and the way Ael approaches his designs was something I understood and wanted to learn from,” he explained. Jojie’s inspiration these days comes from the people he works around. “I come into Imagine and every artist here is just pushing boundaries and doing cool things,” he says. Jojie still does mural work and street art, sharing that it’s another form of inspiration, albeit one that stays in that medium, explaining that his two styles don’t quite blend into each other.
We ask if there’s a difference between design- and arts-trained artists. He laughs. “I think it’s a progression for artists. Like at La Salle, you go through different mediums. Skin is like the ultimate medium and some of the people here (at Imagine) have been illustrators or artists for years. They just want to push themselves differently.”
Life has a funny way of derailing plans, and in Keith Yeo’s case, it is particularly true. Growing up in Shanghai, he’d planned on becoming a concept artist for video games. Sniggering to himself, he tells us that it was the more “normal” route that his parents had hoped he’d take. At 16, however, he got his first tattoo and the artform piqued his interest. A couple of years later, he returned to Singapore for National Service, and at the same time took on an apprenticeship at Bada Bink! Tattoo Firm.
Unlike many artists today, Yeo had a more traditional apprenticeship. He didn’t get to pick up a machine and start right away. No, he spent a couple of years learning the ins and outs of Bada Bink! Tattoo Firm. He’d come into the shop, clean the area, help the other artists set up, run errands, and assist with the management side of the business. It was only two years into his apprenticeship that he got his hands on a machine and began practising.
We’re curious as to why he decided to take up a traditional apprenticeship when many artists today favour the “self-taught” route. Yeo ruminates for a second and then tells us it’s about the culture and gaining self-confidence. He spent two years learning everything about the tattoo shop by watching and listening. “The shop is like a machine, and we are the cogs. Learning how it operates gives you confidence in the systems in place and allows you to focus on your craft”, he says.
Even though the 23-year-old has technically only been tattooing for just over a year, he’s totally confident and looks completely at ease tattooing an intricate design while chatting with us. He credits his training but is quick to add that he doesn’t get ahead of himself and knows that there’s still a lot to learn, especially for the style he wants to specialise in.
Yeo is quickly gaining popularity for his traditional-styled tattoos. As he chats with AUGUSTMAN, he is putting the finishing touches on a beautiful swordfish design. “I chose to do traditional tattoos because it is the style that speaks to me. I love the bold and clean designs, and it matches my style of drawing”, he affords. He doesn’t plan on switching styles anytime soon. Like a true craftsman, he plans on perfecting his work.