KUALA LUMPUR: Not too long ago, the word ‘tattoo’ would often conjure images of yakuza members with drawings of snakes or dragons emblazoned across their torsos or prison gang members with racist graphics etched on their backs.
But tattoos these days are pretty tame, and pretty too with drawings of dragonflies, blossoming roses, or hearts. More elaborate designs hold a certain fascination particularly among those of the younger generation.
For Annie Tan, 39, being a tattoo artist started on a romantic note. She was in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend at the time, and with him being a piercer, she wanted to learn a similar skill in the hope that it could bring them closer.
“He was the one who encouraged me to learn the art, and I fell in love with it. Even after the relationship ended, my interest didn’t fade,” Tan told FMT Lifestyle.
“Some people can come into your life and change it in an instant, that was one of those times for me.”
That marked the beginning of her journey, and she became the apprentice to an experienced artist.
“There are two parts in the learning process: mastering the foundation of drawing and learning how to run the tattoo machine.”
However, when Tan’s father died in 2016, she realised she wanted to spend more time with her family, and so settled in Kuala Lumpur with her mother and started her own studio called Ouch Lab.
Tan said that 10 years ago it was customary to flip through a catalogue when choosing a design. But she often felt these designs were not personal enough. “Customising the tattoo and the design work behind it, that’s what interests me.”
As for her tattooing style, they are mainly in black and white, using a technique called stippling.
Stippling consists of the artist creating areas of light and shadow with nothing but dots. To create a darker shade, more dots are applied closer together, or lesser and further apart for lighter shades.
While Tan fell in-love with the skill of tattooing, it was curiosity that got Wee Su Gee hooked.
“I was at a point in my life when I was trying to figure out what I want, then I came across this singer-turned-tattoo-artist called Tea Leigh based in Brooklyn,” Wee said.
The artist was skilled in the hand-poked technique, and Wee started doing her own research on it. This technique uses a sharp point to deposit an ink pigment into the skin to leave a permanent mark.
“After I learned the basics, I started experimenting on myself and my friends, testing on how well it’ll heal,” she said, adding that when she was ready, she started her own place, Pow Pow Studio in 2018.
As for how her parents feel about her stepping into this unconventional industry, Wee said they were chill about it.
“When I was a kid, I remember watching the show ‘Miami Ink’ with them, so they weren’t opposed to me choosing this career path.” In fact, Wee even followed her father into the tattoo parlour when he was getting his own tattoo years ago!
In contrast to Tan’s style, Wee’s designs have a more simplistic, minimalistic approach that focuses on black outlines and silhouettes.
Most of her designs are floral or cat-themed, and first timers are usually drawn by how dainty they look.
When asked about how she promotes herself, the 29-year-old attributed it to positive word-of-mouth from her past clients.
“Since it’s a permanent thing on your body, it helps that my regular customers speak positively of my work,” she said.
Reminiscing about her first tattoo, she said she got the phrase “with every heartbeat” inked on her back, after leaving her friends and family behind in Terengganu for college. “It symbolised how much I missed them every time my heart beat.”