Photos: Jen Tan/ @jenxtattoos
All tattoos tell a story.
Not so long ago, that story was more likely to have its roots in gang affiliations, a prison term, or rebellion against conventional values.
But no longer. Sarah Toh is a primary school teacher whose five fairly large tattoos are testament to her love for science fiction and fantasy. Three of them – quotes that say “Mischief Managed” and “I solemnly swear I’m up to no good”, as well as a snowy owl – tell people she’s a fan of the Harry Potter series.
For wealth planner Anthea Tan, her ink marks the milestones in her life. Her first, a quote that reads “this too, shall pass”, was done following the double blow of her father’s death and her boyfriend’s infidelity. “It resonated with me because it’s true that all bad times are just phases, and they make me stronger.” Anthea also has a bluebird tattooed over her left upper ribs as a tribute to her late father.
Tattoos like these are now part of the narrative of who you are, what you believe in, and what you cherish.
Reality TV show Miami Ink has had a huge part to play in changing perceptions about body ink, says tattoo artist Bernice Chua. The popular show – which centres around the legendary shop of the same name on Miami’s South Beach – elevated its tattoo artists to rock-star status, and proved that tattoos could be more than just crude drawings and garish colours. Its artists create intricate work – portraits, sketches, delicate fine lines and feminine designs – that are coveted by everyone, including celebrities.
Photo: Tan Wei Te
Tattoo Artist: Andrew Kellocks
Underneath your clothes
Similarly, tattoo artists in Singapore have begun offering a wider and more sophisticated range of styles – including watercolours, dot work, and geometric designs – which means more women have warmed to the idea of getting inked.
“It began with the artsy bunch, but it has since grown to include career women who find these tattoos empowering,” says Jen Tan, a tattoo artist at Visual Orgasm Tattoo Studio, who counts doctors, nurses, lawyers and office managers among her clientele. Most are in their 20s and late 30s, but Jen has tattooed older people too.
“I think it’s interesting when older people come in, because they probably have a lot of life experiences that they want to commemorate,” she says.
But while women have become more daring when it comes to body ink, it’s taking a little longer for society to catch up.
“My parents respect that it’s my body and my decision, but they were concerned at first that I wouldn’t be able to find a job,” says Chloe*, a flight attendant who has tattoos on her torso and both thighs. But they lamented she had “ruined her good skin” when she first got tattooed.
Anthea believes the perception that paints tattooed girls as rebels who are less honest and serious still exists. She’s not alone. Restaurant manager Lai Yan Yi gets stared at by older people for the words and symbols that cover her arms, while communications executive Hanna* says: “Men usually don’t approach me when I’m covered up, but I get hit on when I’m in a sleeveless top and my tattoos are visible. It’s like they expect me to be more promiscuous.”
*Names have been changed.
Can your ink smear your career?
Some employees – like Sarah – are taking no chances, and choose to cover up at work.
As a teacher, Sarah prefers not to field questions from both students and parents about her tattoos. “The kids get distracted. I also want to save myself the trouble, in case they tell their parents, who might be more conservative.”
Paul Heng, executive coach at Next Career Consulting Group, says to think twice about showing off those tats if you work in the civil service, are part of an essential service provider like the police force, or have a front-line job. “Employers will not want customer-facing personnel to be seen as ‘improper’ representatives, because they may be perceived as having links with triads and drug abusers.”
Rethinking your ink
As pretty as your tattoo is, there’s always a chance you might regret getting it. Sarah, for example, had a lizard done in a tribal style removed as she no longer found it aesthetically appealing.
Others might opt for cover-ups – where a completely new design is done over the older tattoo. Tattoo artist Jen recalls a serial dater who had four of his ex-girlfriends’ portraits tattooed on his body; post-breakup, he had to have cover-ups done to make their faces less recognisable.
But for those determined to remove their ink, laser treatment – which causes the particles of tattoo pigment to heat up and fragment into smaller pieces – is still the best bet. New technologies that are more effective in removing colour pigments, as well as reducing the amount of scarring, are also now on the market.
But let’s face it: It’s still going to hurt.
Risk analyst Jennifer Soh recently started the process of getting her tattoo removed – a small unicorn she got on her shoulder when she was a teenager. She paid more than $200 a session, and will require about five sessions. “Removing it was more painful than the tattoo process. It was a sharp, searing burn. The area was also tender and bruised for a couple of days, and there was some blistering,” she says. “The cost will definitely deter me from getting a tattoo in future.”
If you want to skip the pain, opt for a non-invasive alternative. Makeup brands such as Dermablend Professional and Urban Decay offer cosmetic cover-ups for tattoos.
Top artists in town
From dotted and watercolour to fine-line quotes and geometric animals, there are tattoo styles to suit every taste. These are the hottest artists around, and women love their work.
Bernice Chua (@eatdiamonddust), 27, Tattoo World
Photo: Franchescar Lim
Her story: A former fashion design student, Bernice was pursuing a master’s degree in Japan when she impulsively got her first tattoo. Exposed to new trends in tattooing, such as fine lines, she changed her mind about traditional motifs.
Her style: Bernice inks lots of script as well as floral designs that are both intricate and realistic. But her original illustrations also find their way onto her clients’ skin. “It was a new way to convert my drawings into something more useful than a piece on someone’s shelf. Taking the illustration off the page, it’s something a person carries for the rest of their life,” she says.
Bernice’s tattoo tip: “A tattoo is an open wound for the first week, which is when the chances of an infection are higher. A tattoo on the chest area is easy to care for, but you have to watch out around the arms and back. I tell my clients not to lean on surfaces.”
Victoria Woon (@hellotako), 30, Killswitch Tattoo Parlour
Photo: Franchescar Lim
Her story: Victoria says being a tattoo artist is her calling, although she does not sport any body ink. “I’ve always been fascinated by body modification – both piercings and tattoos. It’s difficult for me to say what really drew me to it in the first place, but I’ve always felt this is an art form unlike any other.” Victoria enjoys the mutual trust, respect and creative collaboration between client and artist.
Her style: “My clients often seek me out for minimalist line-work tattoos, cute cartoon-style images, as well as mandalas, geometric and dot-work tattoos. I also do pet-portrait tattoos.”
Victoria’s tattoo tip: “Intense pulsed light treatment (for hair removal) has a similar effect to laser treatment, and might cause bits of the tattoo ink to ‘burn out’. So don’t forget to tell the staff about your tattoo.”
Jen Tan (@jenxtattoos), 30, Visual Orgasm Tattoo Studio
Photo: Franchescar Lim
Her story: Before becoming an apprentice at a tattoo studio in 2011, Jen was an aspiring vet studying for a diploma in veterinary science.
Her style: Many of her clients go to her to get realistic portraits of their beloved pets etched on their skin. “They usually give me a picture of their pet and tell me about the animal’s favourite pose or accessory. They just want to preserve the good memories, and they usually want their pets to look younger too,” she says.
Jen’s tattoo tip: “When it comes to tattoo designs, don’t just rely on Google images, because it means that lots of other people might have it too. I prefer to draw inspiration from the designs and work with the client to create something meaningful that has my own style. It would be bizarre if you saw a stranger on the street with an almost identical tattoo of your pet dog.”
Additional text: Cheryl Tan
Art direction: Alice Chua
Hair: Zoel Tee, using La Biosthetique
Makeup: Sha Shamsi, using Make Up For Ever
On Victoria: Top: H&M, Pants: H&M Studio Collection
On Jen: Dress: H&M Studio Collection
This story was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Her World.