A tattoo is no longer taboo, right? Right? If you can’t answer with 100 percent certainty, it’s probably because in Singapore, it remains – quite literally – a sensitive subject.
Just ask Vernon Vijayan Koh, a tattoo artist for over 10 years and with a client base extending to Brazil and the United States. His studio is nestled in a nondescript industrial building in Sin Ming – away from ink hotspots in Orchard Road – for a reason.
Many of his clients are teachers, lawyers and doctors, and their employers’ view of tattoos remains a grey area.
“If they go to a mall to get ink done, they’re afraid their students or colleagues might see them,” said Vernon, 34, who runs the Tejomaya Studio with his partner, Ash. “Unfortunately, you can’t run away from the stigma here. People with tattoos are judged unfairly because of what’s on their skin rather than their capabilities.”
Even so, there’s no doubt that ink is “in” with millennials. According to a Pew Research Center study, more than 40 percent of people aged between 18-29 have at least one tattoo – even as nearly 65 percent of those aged 60 and over disapproved of tattoos in the workplace.
Whether you’re getting inked for the first time or looking to add to your collection, here are some things to consider.
1. Don’t Be A Follower
You know the drill. A celebrity shows off some new body art on Instagram, or you come across trending artwork on Pinterest.
Your first reaction is to picture how it would look on you. You float the idea to friends and scope out local tattoo parlours to turn your hour-long dream into reality. Before you know it, you’re sporting The Rock’s Polynesian masterpiece or Katy Perry’s Sanskrit etching.
Having inked Pamela Anderson’s barb wire symbol (which she has since removed) on countless clients’ biceps, Vernon suggests picking a design that is beyond skin-deep.
“Don’t go for passing trends and what’s trending online,” he said. “Youngsters seem to be influenced by what others have, or what they can get for likes, rather than something more personal and meaningful.”
You don’t need to start from scratch either. Approach an artist with references of imagery that caught your eye. Then, work with them to personalize and expand on your (hopefully) indelible mark.
Even with increasingly-common symbols such as the infinity sign and feathers, a good artist will find ways to make it special for you.
2. Wait Till You Put A Ring On It
What better way to show your love for someone than to literally leave their mark on you? It makes for a great profile pic, but it could come back to haunt you.
Vernon shared the example of a teenage customer who inked her boyfriend’s portrait on her lower back. When they broke up several months later, she had it covered up (camouflaging a previous tattoo with a new one) and got her next beau’s name splashed across her arm. Two boyfriends, two accompanying tattoos and thousands of dollars later, her body was a canvas of poor decisions.
There are better ways to express your affection for bae, with imagery that will stand the test of time and changes in relationship status.
“Couples can put matching tattoos like robots or artwork symbolizing their pet names for each other, without the need for real names or faces,” Vernon noted.
Think before you ink. The process of laser removal is typically more expensive (and painful) than the actual tattoo – and could leave scarring. Lighter colours, like white and yellow, are also harder to remove.
3. Don’t Be Cheap
Have a realistic budget in mind. For a lifetime investment, it’s best not to be thrifty.
The Rock’s iconic chest tattoo, for example, will set you back around $3,000. Sure, you could find parlours offering to do it for a fraction of the price, but the discounted deal could include shoddy work and infections.
Research your shortlisted studios beforehand, and seek recommendations from friends and relevant forums. Ask the right questions so you don’t make the wrong decision.
Beyond a studio’s Instagram feed, go down to get a feel of its setup and check for certifications. Bloodborne pathogens training is mandatory for tattoo artists in the US, but not in Singapore. Still, some local artists have enrolled for such courses to better protect themselves – and customers – from Hepatitis B and C, tuberculosis and other bacteria and viruses carried in the blood.
Once you’re good to go, ensure the artist opens the needle package in your presence, uses a new, disposable ink cup, and wears clean gloves.
4. No Pain, No Stain
Respect your body and don’t push its limits. For your first tattoo, it’s best to avoid sensitive areas such as elbows, back of knees and ribs.
While pain tolerance varies for each person, tattoos directly over bones generally tend to hurt the most.
Rushing the process won’t help either. Larger designs, especially colourful ones, can take multiple sessions to complete, while an entire sleeve may require months to finish.
“On average, a person can sit through four to six hours before swelling begins and their pain threshold falls,” Vernon said. “Spread it out over a few sessions so your body gets used to the process and the artist has time to do a good job.”
You should also test yourself for allergies to silver, gold, coloured pigments, and even your own sweat. If you’re prone to scarring, a tattoo may not be the only mark on your body, as keloids could form.
5. Finding The T-Spot
Location, location, location. It’s no different for tattoos. If you’ve locked down a design, the next question is, ‘where do I put it?’.
Rather than readily agree to every request, a good artist will sit down with customers first to find out more about their motivations.
“We don’t want to be responsible for destroying their lives. Picking the right spot is so important,” Vernon explained. “If they want to be tattooed on visible areas like their neck or hands, they need to think about how it could affect their current job or future employment, as well as reactions from family and friends.”
They’re called artists for a reason. Heed their advice, even if they suggest tweaking your dream design for practical considerations.
Remember, they’re the ones holding the needle.