The Buzz On Skin Art

18 May 2016

Using the human body as an imperfect canvas has changed tattoos from being part of a subculture to being a mainstay of popular culture.

Whether it’s your typical ‘mom’ inscription within a heart on your shoulder or delicate paw prints on your ankle, the tattoo culture in Malaysia is a booming and growing industry. What used to be a hushed topic of taboo is now an open matter of deciding, “Should I stop at four … or continue to five?”

While Malaysia still sees a handful of conservatives and a stigma attached to skin art, the tattoo culture has majorly evolved through the years, arriving at a somewhat accepting nature to the art. Skin inking was a pretty popular trade some centuries ago, often marking the skin of sailors, prison inmates, gangsters and rebels. In some cultures, they were symbolical and sacred, marking life events and having profound meanings. Tattoos were never found on distinguished men and women of society due to its thuggish association; but in times of today, doctors, lawyers and more youths have picked art pieces to mark their bodies. So what brought on this change?

Some would say it’s the movement of evolving tattoos from being seen as crude with dragons and barbs, to the more delicate and artistic designs of poetic phrases, mythical art, geometric shapes and more. According to Huffington Post, the change in tattoo culture was brought about by the popular TV show Miami Ink (2005) that showcased unique, charismatic art while exposing the masses to the detailed measures that goes into the process, proving that it was safe, clean, beautiful and with the right artist, you will get a piece that matches your personality. The article reads: “People weren't privy to the amazing work being done there or to the dynamic personalities and various styles of different artists. It made for good TV though, so Miami Ink owner, Ami James, linked up with a major network and ran this reality TV show in his shop. It was a huge success and it changed everything.”

Lynda Chean, owner of Pink Tattoos has been a tattoo artist for eight years and believes that the way tattoos have evolved can be both a good and bad thing. It’s good because it creates a business opportunity and it provides people with more resources when searching for the right type, design and artist – an essential part in the art as tattoos are meant to be permanent. On the flipside, too many people are treating them as a fashion trend and getting tattoos purely based on ‘cool’ Tumblr and Pintrest images. “While seemingly cool for the moment, they’re not ideal for a tattoo in terms of how they’ll appear in the long run. In the [heat of the] moment, customers are often excited and overlook how permanent the art is,” she elaborates.

In terms of technology, the way a tattoo is created has greatly changed as well. Traditional tattoos are scarce but available, often found in East Malaysia or by Sarawakians who bring the trade to Kuala Lumpur. Old, traditional tattooing is generally more crude as are the tools they are made with. With machines, pigments and needles, artists are now able to create amazing designs using a variety of techniques.

Ernesto of Borneo Headhunter Tattoos in Sarawak does traditional Iban tattooing and reserves this technique for traditional designs. “It has history and tradition, giving people a chance to experience tattoos the way it was done in the old days, bringing the person back in time with this experience,” he says when asked about why he still chooses this technique. Eighty percent of his work is dedicated to the traditional way as it represents his culture and fills a space in his soul that is revived when he sees the dying technique come alive.

Tattoo designs have seen changes over the years - once the machine was introduced, artists could experiment and handle the equipment differently to produce stunning varieties in their art. Lynda used to see generic tattoos that consisted of typical imagery like a Sailor Jerry flash, barbed wire arm bands, tribal tattoos, dragons and such. Today, her studio sees a range of pieces that go from sleeves and fine art, to abstract graphics and hyper realistic pieces, creating anything and everything in between.

Customers who get tattoos are vast and they often have a variety of reasons for claiming ink to their skin. Some choose delicate art pieces with profound meanings while others collect art that looks good, gaining inspiration from movies, people, Instagram accounts, book characters, sports clubs, Pinterest, social media and the likes of it.  Lynda sees customers on a daily basis and finds that once they see art on their body, the ideas for the next one starts pouring in and they’re reading for tattoo number two, three, or ten, leading to the ‘addiction’ of tattoos.

Ernesto, however, has a deeper view on tattoo addiction. He says that “people are addicted to being able to redecorate their skin. The spirituality of it is that the pain they feel is related to their reality and life itself.” This explains why many who ink their skin often have significant meanings to their art pieces.

Today, more youths, women and respected members of society ink their blank canvases and take pride in the art. “I hope to see the stigma lifted and see a more accepting nature in allowing skin ink at professional workplaces and social environments,” says tattoo aficionado, Mei, 29-years-old. The future of tattoos will ride a wave of success as the internet continues to inspire tattoo artists and customers. There are sites like Tattoodo where people are connected with artists from around the world to get customised tattoo designs and more. Tattoodo is just one of the many available platforms that narrows the gap between artists and customers. The continuous growth in the appreciation of tattoos will see this pop culture trade excel and what can we do but wait to see what happens next?

By Rowena Jo Fernandez

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