Singapore’s Tattoo Artists Are Losing to Social Media Algorithms
All photos by Stephanie Lee for RICE Media

Joe Wang recounts a time when the patrons of tattoo parlours were drug addicts and former convicts. For them, these fear-inducing symbols inscribed onto skin announced their accomplishments and affiliations.

A veteran tattoo artist who works at 8 Volts Tattoo Singapore, Joe vouches that the tattoo landscape and society’s attitudes towards it have changed drastically over the past 20 years. These days, even school teachers are sporting a bit of ink. 

An inquisitive child growing up, Joe remembers catching glimpses of the majestic dragon tattoo on his uncle’s back, when his uncle did not fully close his bedroom door.

Joe’s uncle caught him peeking and admonished him: “Don’t ever get tattoos!”

Joe in his tattoo studio in Orchard Plaza.

Joe, now 42, grins as he reminisces about his uncle coming to him for a tattoo after he opened his own studio. Today, Joe counts doctors, policemen, CEOs and politicians among his clientele. Zero junkies and “underworld types”.

Today, the monster that is social stigma around this art form has been all but vanquished, replaced by growing widespread acceptance.

However, artists like Joe face a new behemoth—one to do, ironically, with the societal normalisation of tattoos and glamourisation of tattoos’ dark past. 

Today, tattooists young and old concede that they have to kowtow to the almighty social media algorithm; an energy vampire for which they have no choice but to devote considerable resources away from their craft.

Inking Before the Internet

“I recall camping outside Kinokuniya in the early 2000s, waiting for the latest tattoo magazine to arrive,” Joe reveals.

He did so without protest outside the iconic bookstore because he knew that the only way to learn about new tattoo trends was to get his hands on the latest print publications.

Joe still has tattoo magazines from 20 years ago, through which he learned more about tattooing.

During the internet’s infancy, Joe recalls scouring various established tattoo studios to acquire the supplies he needed for his newly opened studio.

“Some of the supplies I wanted were only found in America, and back then, it was very difficult to ship goods from overseas to Singapore,” he divulges. 

“Today, you can get anything you need off Shopee.”

Advancements in information communication have not only contracted supply chains, Joe highlights, but the Internet’s wealth of information has also democratised the art of tattooing.

“20 years ago, there were fewer clients and even fewer artists. Now, there are too many artists, and it’s become very competitive,” Joe discloses. 

He finds himself working extra hard to stand out in a saturated market and reach potential customers, who are bombarded by adjacent options when they look up artists on Google and Instagram.

“If you aren’t active online, you might not be able to connect with your potential clients.”

Involuntary Influencers

These market forces have convinced artists like J.H. Huang to dedicate a large amount of time to digital marketing. 

In addition to racking his brain daily to create new and attractive designs for his customers, the 32-year-old devotes significant resources to digital marketing. This is part of the calculated strategy of his studio, Elements Tattoo Studio Singapore.

“Besides refining our craft, we tattoo artists also need strong marketing,” he tells me in Mandarin.

Although clients might prefer their tattoo artists to devote themselves to refining their craft, becoming more Instagram-savvy is inescapably part and parcel of a tattooist’s job scope.

“In the old days, it was mainly word-of-mouth and walk-ins. Today, I find myself working towards becoming a better photographer and learning new online marketing skills—this is how today’s tattoo artists become well known.”

Fellow tattoo artist John Malacaman concurs.

“In a half-a-minute video, you might see a tattoo artist, wow, living the life! But in reality, that guy could be facing many problems, which didn’t go into that Instagram post,” says the 27-year-old, who has a private studio called Good Grief Tattoo.

John in his tattoo studio in Kampong Bahru.

John might be young, but his relatively short career has been riddled with pain and opposition. When his conservative parents found out that he was pursuing a career in tattooing, they chose to turn a cold shoulder to him rather than talk things out.

In his family home, John was treated like an invisible character for two years until he made the decision to move out.

“I wish I had supportive parents who would face problems together with me, but they chose to ignore me, and I gradually got used to being ignored,” he says grimly.

A fervent devotee of tattooing, John practised tirelessly to improve while working two other jobs to pay the rental fees for his small abode in Chai Chee. 

Although he would like to focus his energies on becoming the best tattoo artist he can be, he finds himself forced to become “an influencer, a videographer, a photographer and a content creator.”

John editing a video for social media.

“My social media calendar is constantly at the back of my mind,” remarks John.

“After my tattoo appointments, I might realise, ah shit, I have to edit this video, post that video, make it more engaging, then think about how to get more views and more likes. It can be unhealthy,” says John, who has already sacrificed immeasurably for his art.

Fortunately, John’s social media exploits have paid off. He gradually garnered a steady stream of clients, to the point where he could open his own tattoo studio. He no longer needs to work his two other jobs.

A Celebration of Skin Art

John is excited about an upcoming milestone—he will be taking part in his first tattoo convention this July.

John will showcase his skills at the The Lion’s Gate Singapore Tattoo Convention 2024 with a calf tattoo in black and grey. He estimates that this intricate tattoo will take him all three days of the convention to complete.

John is designing a calf tattoo specially for The Lion’s Gate Singapore Tattoo Convention 2024

Today, tattoos are no longer regarded as masonic codes of the underworld, and festivals such as this fete the diversity of this art and lifestyle.

This inaugural convention welcomes visitors of all ages but has an Advisory 16 classification. Attendees will be entertained by live music and dance performances, and can take their pick from an assortment of tattoo merchandise. Tickets to the The Lion’s Gate Singapore Tattoo Convention 2024 can be purchased via SISTIC.

Joe too will be taking part in this convention and looks forward to meeting world-renowned artists like Chris Garver there—who was made famous by the reality TV show Miami Ink—and greatly influenced Joe.

After all his social media activity, J.H. too is looking forward to this celebration of tattoo art, and will be presenting his best works via three human models at this convention.

Virality is Not the End Goal

While many other social media users derive gratification from likes and shares, the reward of tattoo artists’ digital endeavours is connecting with clients who will appreciate their work.

“I come from a generation that isn’t even good with PhotoShop,” Joe says with a laugh.

“Back then, tattoo artists were mysterious. You’d hear about them but never see their faces, but nowadays, we are expected to present ourselves on social media. Some customers want to see who you are, along with your lifestyle, before they engage you.”

Joe counts himself lucky that his colleagues and wife are savvy with social media trends and algorithms. Together, they have grown his Instagram following to an impressive 16.5K followers. Still, Joe’s posts jostle for attention in a sea of tattoo-related posts, many of which exhibit tattoo artists’ best works alongside in-trend clothing brands and expensive cars.

Joe’s photos are just simple, well-taken shots that showcase in detail the quality of his handiwork, sans the hype apparel and automobiles.

Joe is working hard to become a better photographer.

“If you work hard, yes, you can afford those things, but tattooing is definitely not a glamorous job, at least not for me,” comments Joe.

J.H. agrees that a tattoo artist’s life is anything but glamorous. He works in his studio for eight to ten hours every day and runs an interior design firm on top of that to make ends meet.

He devotes what little free time he has left to his young family. When he isn’t etching engrossing Japanese tattoos onto skin, J.H. is a regular Singaporean dad who enjoys spending quality time with his family.

Nevertheless, he remains grateful for tattooing, which has enabled him to support his family, bring them out for nice meals and take them on overseas vacations.

Eyes on the Prize

While the instant gratification and dopamine rush of social media might distract some social media users, many tattoo artists are under no illusion that the real recompense for tattoo artists is customer satisfaction.

Notes of gratitude that Joe has received over the years.

Joe fondly recalls a client from his time working in Norway who expressed his gratitude by bringing Joe artefacts from a nearby mountain.

“He couldn’t speak much English, but the friendship we forged without words was special,” says Joe.

Joe brims with the enthusiasm of a young artist when he expresses his passion for “the process and progress of creating a tattoo.”

He says, “I feel satisfied when I complete a tattoo and see how different my client feels with their new tattoo. The process of slowly filling up a client’s body with tattoos feels awesome for me.”

“I love our freedom to create and the joy of collaborating with the client,” says John, who says that he still feels a pure and powerful love for the craft.

One of the happiest moments of his career was when his client told him that John’s tattoo had improved his client’s self-esteem.

The Greek god tattoo design that boosted the confidence of John’s client.

“He told me that the Greek god that I tattooed on his upper arm had given him a boost of confidence and that he felt confident enough to speak to a girl he fancied. She is now his girlfriend,” remarks John.

“I don’t have to answer to any supervisor or chain of command. However, if you do a tattoo right, it can change a person’s perspective of themselves, and that tattoo will stay with them for the rest of their lives—I think that’s kinda cool.”

Meet these artists and many others at The Lion’s Gate Singapore Tattoo Convention 2024, happening at the Singapore Expo Hall 4B from July 26 to 28, 2024.
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