By Adrien Chee
“You are a disgrace to the family, you are just going to take drugs next!” said my uncle as he pointed to the tattoos on my chest.
I laughed, and said nothing.
Even in the 21st century, people with tattoos are still stereotyped as lacking moral decency and deserving of condemnation.
It is time we view tattoos as a form of artistic expression and steer away from stereotyping the people who have them.
A symbol of the damned
In the past, tattoos were associated with triads, gangsters, and outcasts, and have historically been used to mark gang-related insignias and reflect crime-filled lives.
Singaporean tattoo artist Ng See Min said in an interview with Vulcan Post in 2017 that tattoos are considered a “sign of gangsterism or irresponsibility” in Singapore, perpetuating a stigma she believes will likely take years to remove. However, this has created a new market. Using henna or jagua, which is ink extracted from Jagua fruit originating from Central or South America, See Min allows individuals to express themselves with temporary tattoos that can last up to two weeks.
In a study published by The Social Science Journal in 2013, researchers examined tattoo behaviour and bias in Singapore. Some of the findings were pretty obvious: For instance, the more tattoos a person had, the more they felt stigmatised by others.
The journal also found that 90 per cent of the tattooed respondents had received negative remarks from the public.
Former human resource director Theresa Ng, 54, said that companies today still avoid hiring individuals with exposed tattoos, as they “do not reflect well on the branding and quality of firms”.
In a letter to The Straits Times in 2016, a reader wrote that getting tattoos should be discouraged, because “we should take good care of our bodies”.
The writer continued to say that we should “stem the spread of the tattooing trend” in Singapore.
It is a tragedy that such people fail to see the beauty of tattoos as a form of artistic expression.
Beyond the blemish of history
The tattoos that we see on the streets today are no longer what they stood for in the 1900s.
“Our forefathers used (the tattoo) as a symbol of loyalty to the underworld, but now we use it as a symbol of loyalty to ourselves, to our beliefs,” said tattoo artist Ben Hu from the award-winning 13ink parlour in Taipei, in an interview with the Nanyang Chronicle in 2018.
Modern tattoos are a form of artistic expression for an individual, with designs like animals and nature holding meanings beyond the literal.
“For many, this process is a spiritual, emotional and physical experience that allows individuals to get closer to what they love and believe in,” Mr Hu said.
Tattoos are personal to me. The rose tattoo on my ribs is representative of my final gift to my mother. It was her favourite flower. Yet, it was also the gift that I failed to give her as her son when she was around. The rib area is one of the most painful parts to tattoo, and it reflects the pain that I went through when I lost her.
It’s just art
Going beyond self-expression, tattoos can be viewed as paintings represented on a different canvas.
The marks of ink made on the human skin are permanent artworks which bring together the recipient’s vision and the tattoo artist’s technique and skills.
Art can mean the communication of an idea or a different perspective through the altering or even challenging of the status quo. Art need not fit the taste and preferences of the masses. But it should be a manifestation of a vision.
A tattoo is the visual manifestation of an individual’s memories, emotions and thoughts. It is not created with the intention to please the viewer. Yet through its vibrant colours and eclectic design, it has the potential to capture attention, to evoke emotions and even to inspire imagination.
To see each individual design in isolation would be a folly. With tattoos, we can consider the human body as an exhibition of art pieces.
For an art curator, it is important to consider how the use of space can create synergy between art works in a museum. An individual deciding the placement of his tattoo steps into those shoes.
He has to decide the location of the tattoo, the significance of the tattoo in relation to the specific body part and ultimately how each design flows into one another.
And because it is art mounted on one’s skin, a tattoo is both an expression of pride and vulnerability. Even as we are intrigued by the intricacy of its design, we can also step back to appreciate the humanness of this art in its entirety.
Art, in all its forms, should be appreciated. It’s time we do the same for tattoos.