My Body, My Choice: Mae Oh On Breaking Taboos With Tattoos

Ink-spring beauty

My Life, My Choice: Be inspired to live and love life even more with these empowering women set out to make the 'unconventional' conventional through their lifestyle choices.

Tattoos have been around since ancient history, with its existence tracing back to as early as the neolithic age. It has been a symbol of pride and honour, of affiliation and identity, and of grace and beauty. But somewhere along the line, societal perception over getting inked got blurry and negative connotations were thrown at people who have them. Even when it has turned into a leisure activity of sorts meant to seal memories or heartfelt sentiments permanently onto our skin, tattoos are still somewhat considered a taboo by many. So what is it about this expressive art form that attracted BlackCanvas artist and owner Mae Oh?

Mae Oh

The Malaysian tattoo artist shared about feeling good, making others feel good, and banished taboos on tattoos with the help of ink and needles — and a ton of imagination.

Adulthood and independence over her choices

Mae has always loved the arts growing up but did not look at tattoos as a part of the same umbrella. She simply found it “super cool” and as a symbol of adulthood, mainly because older figures around her usually get inked “at some point in their lives”. She described university life as her “pivotal” point in adulthood as she becomes her own person.

“That was the time, I guess, where I started to feel like I was becoming more ‘adult’ and so should have more independence over my choices – particularly my body,” said Mae.

Lessons that came with her first ink 

Driven by her newfound resolve as an adult, Mae decided to get her first tattoo: a Tibetan sculpture on her upper back. It was given to her by her then-friend and now-partner.

“The moment my partner started setting his tools up and preparing for the tattoo, I was completely enchanted,” she reminisced. “The unfamiliar smell of disinfectants, the intimidating buzzing sound of the tattoo machine, the varieties of long strange-looking needles. I was fascinated by not just the unusual equipment, but the entire process and steps it took to permanently etch something onto another human’s body.”

She admitted that the reason for both the design and the placement was nothing but “mainstream”. Much like many others with their first inks, her initial choice for the placement was so it could be visible when she wanted it to be and concealed when she needed to.

“It was my first one so I was convinced it had to be something super meaningful,” shared Mae. “This tattoo symbolises something of spiritual belief to me and represents certain principles that I intend to uphold throughout my life, so yes, zero regrets there.“

However, Mae shared that getting her first ink led to an interesting epiphany.

“I was so sure that this little tattoo was going to make me feel like a whole new person — a whole new independent-grown-up-bad-ass-person capable of making big decisions for herself and living with it,” Mae said. “I felt pretty bad-ass about it for a couple of months, but then pretty much felt like the same old person after that.”

She expressed that through her experience, she was able to conclude that these tattoos, despite their permanence, do not divide our identities into a before-and-after. It is simply an extension of ourselves that mark a moment in our lives.


“Yes, tattoos look super dope, but also no, you can never judge a person just based on it." 

She is a subject of unwelcomed stares in the public from time to time — “probably akin to my ‘docile’ appearance which people find unusual paired with my inked limbs,” she said. But she has been encountering more people complimenting and curious about her day-to-day tattoo affairs, which she believes that Malaysians are getting more receptive and appreciative of tattooed individuals and the art of tattoos.

From the canvas to the artist 

Despite her fascination for the craft, being a tattoo artist was not Mae’s first career choice. Practicality had to come first, she noted, so having a corporate job was what she ended up doing post-graduation. Still, she felt that it was stifling her creativity that even led to bouts of depression and burnout. Thanks to her partner, she started trying her hand at tattooing. And the rest was history.

“Getting exposed to the tattoo scene and all the amazing artists out there, meeting like-minded people, seeing so much talent, such inspiring works, I had never felt so invigorated before,” said Mae. “With that, my professional career as a tattoo artist was found, and I have continued to aim and strive to get better and better ever since.”

Now, in her fourth year practising the craft professionally and headlining BlackCanvas Tattoos in Kuala Lumpur, Mae is known for her signature botanical designs.

“Plants have a very soft and unconfined nature about them. They are able to grow and take shape along basically whatever surface they come in contact with,” Mae said. “I love this rebellious and fearless spirit of getting tattoos, but at the same time I want to maintain a sense of elegance and grace to it — which is why I choose to work with floral designs.”

Ink-powered beauty 

Her elegant work attracts a mostly-female clientele which has enabled her to connect with and empower other women who also share the same fascination with tattoos and its confidence-alleviating power. Through her career, she learned that “nobody is ever satisfied with the way they look” and that women tend to point out something about themselves “or subconsciously try to hide during the tattoo process”. Comments on being flat-chested, or having a “boney” shoulder, “flabby arms” or “protruding belly”, are just some of the many things she’s heard. Through tattooing, she was able to encourage her fellow women to challenge these so-called negativities and find a newfound sense of pride for their bodies.

“Every time a client apologises or feels embarrassed over these ‘imperfections’, I feel such sadness and need to reassure them that it’s not a problem at all and that they are all unique in their own way,” Mae shared. “From an artist’s point of view, I can guarantee you that if everyone were to have a conventionally ‘perfect’ face or ‘ideal’ body type, our world would just be boring.”

She also said that finding women of all shapes, sizes, and personalities seek out her designs challenges her to conjure up the most alluring designs so that she can help others “feel beautiful and confident about themselves even if it is just one particular body part at a time.” And ironically, it was never their skin or their bodies that she notices while she inks — but their souls and stories.

“I’m pretty sure this is the same for people everywhere. So please don’t waste your time thinking if your tummy looks flat because the other person doesn’t care at all. He or she is probably too busy worrying about their own ‘insecurities’ as well,” Mae said.

“Do what makes you happy. If you’ve always wanted a rib tattoo, go and get that rib tattoo. Nobody knows you as you know yourself, and nobody can convince you as you can convince yourself," Mae reminded. "Once you are comfortable and fully accepting of yourself, that is where confidence and happiness can emerge. Nobody has the power to take that freedom from you.”

(Cover photo from: @maeoh)

More inspiring stories from our My Life, My Choice series here.

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