Why I Became A Tattoo Artist

Meet the hands behind the ink

Tattoo culture is still dominated by male artists but as the years go on, more and more female tattoo artists are exploring the craft and getting recognised for their art. There's a demand for them too. Most women prefer going to a female tattooist if they’re getting art done on a sensitive spot, like their hip or torso. If we take into account that a 2012 research in the US showed that 59% out of 1000 participants with ink are women, compared to 49% of men, that’s 590 clients that may prefer going to a female artist. However, to the more conservative Asian culture, there's still a bit of prejudice surrounding tattoos if not it being entirely taboo. To get an insider take on the world of ink, we spoke with these two artists from Malaysia and the Philippines on why they chose to pursue the craft.

Life before tattooing

"I was a creative from an advertising agency before I became a tattoo artist," Annie, or Con Ele as she's professionally known in the Kuala Lumpur tattoo scene, shared. "After years of working in advertising, I found my position in advertising was rather stagnant." She added that there was a "love-hate relationship" with her previous job, with her creativity being constricted due to clients' budgets and so she ended up making "safe" and boring work. "At that moment I started questioning myself, was that the life I wanted to pursue?"

It took seeing a friend's customised tattoo to intrigue her in tattoo culture. "I started following the artist that made it and found out that they do provide tattoo courses. It was great because I did not have time to start from an apprenticeship as I was still working full-time in advertising."

For Mia Claravall-Reyes, who's one of the founding artists of Chronic Ink Philippines, the interest in tattooing goes all the way back to high school and her taste in music at that time. The music culture exposed her to different forms of tattoo styles that piqued her interest. "Not being able to get a tattoo during that time made me doodle all over my body and on my classmates. I incorporated tattooing in my school reports, college plates and thesis which got me introduced to the tattoo community during the research part," she shared.

She initially pursued a career as an elementary art teacher in an all-boys private school — "I injected the Filipino culture of tattooing in my lessons and activities" — before taking a seven-year post as an art director for a television network. But that wasn't the path she was meant to continue on.

"I decided to tattoo full time when I felt that my old job took so much of my time from my family and sanity," Mia said. "I enjoy tattooing so much that it doesn’t feel like work to me, I get to decide my work hours. The bonus is I get paid for it."

The appeal of body art

When asked about what aspect of tattoos appealed to them, our artists have similar answers: it's art that lasts. "Someone actually told me you couldn’t bring anything with you when you’re dead, the only thing that you can bring with you into the coffin will be tattoos," Annie shared. Mia agreed, saying, "Why people choose to get something permanently etched on their body and not mind the pain that comes with it is so mystical to me." 

The true origins of tattoos are lost to history but, fun fact, the oldest tattooed mummies with figurative images have been dated to be at least 5,000 years old. It’s interesting how tattoos have been part of society for thousands of years, isn’t it?

"Tattoo is actually a very old art form way before it was being judged as something related to prison or gangsterism," Annie continued. "I love how the ancients or the natives used this body art to create something so magical and so beautiful. Many forms of arts have or had been replaced by technology. However, tattooing is a craft that still needs humans using their hands and creativity to execute the art." She also speculated that tattoo artists cannot be replaced by robots because it's the crafting aspect that also appeals to tatted folk.

"I think tattoos are always more than body decorations. Tattooing as part of the Filipino culture also is a big factor, the connection to our heritage and roots gives more boost to keep tattooing alive in our country," Mia shared.

Tattoo artists also see their craft as a way to help others bring out their inner selves and immortalise them on the skin. "Tattoos are also a way of people expressing themselves or being eccentric. Without a tattoo you are like a blank canvas, with tattoos it makes you a walking art piece, whether people like it or not is very subjective," Annie explained.

Training for experience

But before you get to pick up the tattoo machine, there are several processes you need to go through and it depends on the country you'll be practising your craft. The goal is to learn as much of the different tattoo styles and hone your skills. Annie took a tattoo course from an experienced artist and Mia apprenticed under a renowned tattoo artist in the Philippines.

When Mia was just starting out, it wasn't easy to access tattoo supplies, machines, and needles as an aspiring tattooist. Nowadays, you can buy basic kits from tattoo shops or, as an apprentice, have your tattoo gun customised. At the time, Mia just "kept on getting tattoos" before finally mustering the courage to ask the late Ricky Sta. Ana, the former president and founder of the Philippine Tattoo Artists Guild (PhilTAG), if he can mentor her in the craft. "I apprenticed under him and other tattoo artists under his wing and was introduced to the Filipino tattoo scene in the process."

In Annie's case, she spent most of that time drawing versus learning the tattoo machine. "Drawing is fundamental for being a good artist," she said, likening it to a test to see if creating tattoos was the right career for a person. "I didn’t get to touch the tattoo machine until I had learned and studied all styles of tattoos." Once she learned the various tattoo styles, she started practising on fake skins and eventually moved up to tattooing on human skin.

In the beginning, her first few tattoos were done on friends and family members. Apprentice tattooists usually get volunteers, but Annie said "it's not easy". "Once I was more experienced after tattooing on a few human skins, I started tattooing on clients from my teacher’s clientele with a special discounted fee," she said.

Annie also shared about the regulations tattoo artists work under. "Unlike in the US or Australia, we do not have a certificate or license after ‘graduation.’" Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, and Muslims aren't allowed to get tattoos, "it’s not something that the government will care to control or to promote." It's still legal, but there's currently no organisation that sets protocols for their industry. "We can only follow the protocols from overseas and I am very strict about safety and hygiene," she shared.

It's a similar situation in the Philippines. "There is currently no licensure in the Philippines for tattooing," Mia explained. "There are many tattoo organisations in different parts of the country that offer support and workshops teaching proper sanitation and procedures."

For those curious about becoming a tattoo artist, Annie warns against "unreliable workshops or short tattoo courses" that are "total rip-offs". "There is not a shortcut for learning tattooing; the traditional way of learning tattooing is the best way to learn," she emphasised. You must also wisely choose your mentor. "I recommend apprenticing under artists whose style speaks to you more," Mia added.

Finding their style

A common tip among tattoo lovers is finding an artist whose style fits your taste in tattoos. Some have more minimalist styles, others favour whimsically colourful designs, while others have mastered shading and all-black tattoos.

"The style I love tattooing is illustrative black work or using a mix of thick and thin lines with some pointillism and shading. I kind of figured out my style when someone asked me to tattoo whatever I want on them," Mia recalled.

While she's still exploring different styles to improve her tattooing skill and design, Annie's roots can be found in black and stippling (stipple shading) technique and mixing different line weights. "I love contrasts. I know many people are afraid of getting something too black or dark but sometimes the contrast can be so impactful, it gives depth." For Annie, a tattoo should be something that looks good both when close to the eye and from afar as well. "Without contrast, it will look flat from a distance."

The challenges female tattoo artists experience

It's inevitable that there would be some challenges that come with this profession. Annie, who works as the sole tattoo artist in her private studio, is pretty much a one-man team in marketing, managing, and creatively conducting her business. "I started my own private studio after I came back from New Zealand from a working holiday. It was challenging rebuilding my portfolio and trying to gain more exposure since I was away from the tattoo scene for a year," she shared. "For artists who are relying on social media, we need to be really active to showcase our tattoo work, our drawings."

She also shared that as a private studio, she relies purely on appointments as there won't be any walk-in customers. "I’m more comfortable with taking appointments as I get to understand the clients before we actually meet. By doing this, I feel more secure as a solo female artist because you never know who’s coming in if it is a walk-in shop," she added.

Some clients also get worried if they don't see their artist with visible tattoos. "I did get a lot of questions or doubts, perhaps people are worried that I don’t have many tattoos so they think I am inexperienced," Annie recalled. "However, they didn't know that most tattoos on our skin were actually tattooed by somebody else so we can't judge a tattoo artist by their skin."

Changing the tattoo scene

"I think the tattoo industry has changed a lot," Annie observed, saying tattooists were thought to be high school dropouts, gangsters, or even addicts. "Even some of my relatives still think that what I am doing is a disgrace, I was being told or warned not to tattoo their children, I was being judged before they see my work or understand my job," she continued.

She says it's more common to find artists and clients with design and art-related backgrounds in design, fashion, and interior design. This, she says, is how the tattoo industry will evolve. "I believe the other artforms can change, improve, and influence the tattoo scene."

"When I started, tattooing was not as mainstream as it is now," Mia recalled, sharing that tattoos still had a negative connotation associated with troublemaking and crime. The local tattoo scene was also mostly comprised of male artists. Culturally, the Filipino tattoo scene became invigorated when Apo Whang Od, the last living tattooist who practises traditional Kalinga tattooing, was recognised as the oldest tattoo artist in the world. Because of this, Mia thinks more female tattoo artists will be joining their ranks in the coming years. "The community of Filipina tattooists here is healthy, growing and thriving."

Annie has also noticed an increasing number of female tattoo artists pursuing this "used-to-be male-dominated industry", as she called it, and attributes it to a growing female-centric clientele. "These days females are more expressive. They go for what they want and they are comfortable having me tattoo on them, especially on more private placement, they feel more secure having a female artist to tattoo them."

The world's perception of tattoos is changing and rightly so. Its negative stigma has been slowly diminishing, with more people looking for unique ways to express themselves. With artists like Mia and Annie, we can only expect tattoo culture to continue to evolve. Eventually, we hope it will be wholly seen and accepted as the art form it truly is.

(Cover photo from: @conlll and @mialocatattoo)

Want to get your first ink? Here’s what it’s like to get your first tattoo.

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