Crossing The Invisible Boundaries of Tattoos

He knew he would henceforth be a man damned, for society is allergic to differences. But society is in the wrong, it always has. 

“What do…they mean?” They questioned gingerly, hand gesturing cautiously at the vivid drawings on skin. 

“Nothing,” he hurled back with a nonchalant shrug. He seldom divulged more, since he learnt from experience that humans will never comprehend what is different from them. 

He is in fact, participating in a practice fast in history. The vivacious life of face tattoos is well-documented – the Berber women in Algeria tattooed their faces in the name of beauty, the Wodaabe tribe in Niger had magical facial scars protecting them from harm. Ancient Chinese and Japanese reserved facial tattoos as punishing marks. 

The Maoris dissected the human face into four symmetrical regions – left, and right foreheads, and lower halves of the face. With a chisel and mallet, they scribed paternal and maternal affiliations, societal statuses, and occupations. The head is deemed the most significant part of the body. Facial tattoos were held in the highest esteem. 

A thousand years later, the instinct to mark remains – though the practice of facial tattoos persists as a rarity, and is ladened with negativity.

Dominic Phua
 

Maori

“I did it when I was 17.”

Glenn Tan’s chin tattoo draws from Maori customs. Chin tattoos on females may be sacred, but with males they accentuate masculinity – every chisel and hammer a witness to valour and bravery. 

“It’s the most obvious place on the body,” Tan speaks softly. And the smallest tattoos house the biggest tales. There couldn’t be a more salient spot, for the face is where light falls on, and calls attention to. 

Sitting on his left and right eyebrows temples are Mom and Dad, the former he holds closest to his heart. Tan hums, unwilling to let go of a story dear to him. He trails off.

“So I’ll remain as a tattoo artist and not be [suitable for] other jobs,” the 23-year-old continues. Commitment is one sentence that will go on to surface repeatedly.

Dominic Phua
 

Japanese-inspired

Horikawa is a tattoo name given by my mentor, for tattoo artists specialised in Japanese Irezumi. There are only four of us in Singapore. My mentor studied Japanese style as well, and calibre earns you a title. Hori means to carve, while Kara symbolises river,” Baldwin Chew explains. 

Irezumi is the traditional art of Japanese tattoo. Dating back to the 1600s, it is an umbrella term that captures several styles of the art. 

Ten years ago Chew tattooed two stars on his temples. “I wanted to have no options in other careers. I was giving myself a dead end in life.” 

The 31-year-old then moved on to Maori designs on the left side of his face, subsequently Japanese waves on his chin, then the circles prominently seated in the middle of his forehead, before getting a line of Thai scripture that runs down his nose, six years ago. 

The Japanese waves peeking out of his hairline is but a small portion of a piece that wraps around his entire head. 

“Lots of people stared. But if I were the public, and I came across a person with face tattoos, I would be curious too. I remember an encounter with an old lady when I was crossing the road once,” he explains that she saw his tattoos, and muttered insults to his mother under her breath in Cantonese. 

“I couldn’t take it. It’s one thing if you don’t like it, and I'll respect you for that…People have their judgements, but they don’t know me. After tattoo appointments I head home, draw for hours. I believe that others can judge, but I, myself, know that I work hard.”

A life with facial tattoos is exhausting, but one that Chew yields to with pride.

“I went drinking, but my friends and I were pulled out [of the bar]. The officers fucked me because I folded my arms in front of them. Afterwards they registered me as a gang member. That was two and a half years ago.”

“The officers knew that I wasn’t [affiliated] with gangs. But he had to account to his supervisor as well. What will I tell him now? Of course I’m still [crossed] at him. But I will tell him that he’s not fit to be a law enforcer.”

Chew swallowed the episode. “I have no problems with social stigma, because tattoos are a commitment.”

Dominic Phua
 

Traditional

Pointing to the inverted cross and triangle hanging under his left eye, Andrew Kellocks recounts, “I grew up in a Christian family, but don’t believe in God.” The 29-year-old turned on the cross a few years ago. “Anti-everything,” he says. 

“The people you meet in church are not real. ‘Oh, what are you doing now?’ they ask. It’s just a gathering.” 

A seemingly minor incident turned him away, “I remember I got kicked out of one of the services, because I was talking to my friend. And [the pastor] he was quite far. But he shouted, ‘Hey, stop talking to your friend.’ Then I whispered something to my friend, and you couldn’t hear anything. But he told me to get out of the service. I went, and walked out.”

The tattoo artist only decided to start on his face a year or two after he settled into the career. “But that was still rushed, impulsive,” he explained that other usually tattoo their chins, but he instead chose to do it on his forehead. “So I could still cover up,” with his fringe. 

Searching for a deeper meaning, he gestured around his face. The moon, followed by the dots under his eyes, he dismissed, “Not really.” But the calligraphy on his left temples stemmed from a song, Lifer by Californian hardcore punk band Lionheart. Released in 2012, the tune opens to:

'One life /
One pain/
My struggle for the rest of my days/
I’ve got one life and it’s full of pain/
My struggle for the rest of my days.’

“I chose to be. The struggles for the rest of my days – right now it’s difficult for me to find a proper job. The only thing that I can do – this job, and odd jobs.”

“Although I look like this, sometimes I forget. People look at me, and I’m like, ‘Why? Oh right…Yes…” I forget. We are so used to being like this. I don’t feel any different from you. I feel normal. You tend to get used to it. But people will stare. People will be afraid of what they don’t know. If they know you, then will they know that ‘This guy is really chill.’ But that’s life.”

Laughing when asked if he would date a girl with a face punctuated with tattoos, he choked, “Honestly no, not really. Even if she does half of her face, that’s a lot for me.” Kellocks reiterates that he feels so easy in his skin, he often forget that he too, has tattoos on his face. 

Untangling the frivolity society has tied to facial tattoos, he continued, “Any genre of tattoo – blackwork, traditional, Japanese, tribal, they long have hundreds of years of history. Disregarding design [technicalities] such as colours, these things have long been done for hundreds of years.”

‘Do they hurt?’, bystanders often question. It’s a thoughtless one to ask – the incessant puncturing of skin hurts, and it’s a couple of relentlessly painful hours to boot. 

Tattoos draws merit from pain. “If tattoos weren’t painful it’ll be meaningless. It’ll just be wearing another shirt. Only strong people, who can endure the pain [do it]. It’s worth going through pain for what you want. Some people do for plastic surgery, some put a lot of make up. It’s uncomfortable but you still do it. And tattoos are just another form of that.”

Some of the tattoos Kellocks ink for his clients serve to safe keep precious stories – for their parents, someone loved, or something dear. Looking back at his own, he weighed, “I have one, or two that means much to me. My grandma she passed away. That was the only thing.”

The rest? He chortled, “When you were young, and someone told you, ‘Hey, you wanna do something?’ You’ll just buy that shirt. But you can’t take it off. In the past we had no choice, since there was no social media, we didn’t have style choices we wanted.”

His humour breaking out, Kellocks laughed, “Back in the days when one dropped into a traditional Japanese studio, they asked:

 

‘You wanna do Japanese?’

‘But I don’t want to do Japanese.’

 

‘But I think you should,’ they would reply. Because that was all the knew! And you step into another shop:

 

‘You should do tribal.’

‘But I don’t want to do tribal.’

‘But you should. It’s good.’ And you were young you go, ‘Ok lo.’”

 

Now, Kellocks draws a parallel, getting tattoos is almost like getting branded clothes. Tattoo aficionados collect tattoos from famous artists around the globe. 

Though the rise of tattoo culture in the mainstream doesn’t negate the social pessimism tied to the trade. Why do you judge someone with a facial tattoo? “Because you don’t know him. Even before I started tattooing [as a career] I never came out. I never came out to my face. I stopped,” Kellocks hacks his neck with his hands. 

“I thought, maybe in the future if I cannot find a job it’ll be [disastrous]. It was only after I started tattooing for a few years that I thought, it’s not so bad. This is something that I really, really like to do.” Kellocks then broke out of many invisible boundaries. 

Echoing sentiments, it’s a commitment to the trade. Society will not allow outsiders to partake of its duties. Anyone who looks different risks ostracism. 

“In schools in Asia we were all taught to, and brought up to wear uniforms and ties, be on time, and leave on time…From kindergarten we formed queues, lined up. As much as it sounds political, how we were raised is what they want us to be. We were meant to fit into this running system. And if everyone said no to that, the system will fall.”

But Kellocks didn’t want to fit in. We are the kind of people,” he grunts. A reactionary streak in him underscores his life. That doesn’t nullify some things though, even as he lives on the border of society, he chortles, “I still have to pay my taxes and Medisave, but fuck it.” 

Gerard Rouw
 

Blackwork

In the late winters of the year Chester Lee travels across Barcelona, Germany, Denmark, France, and Italy. The 30-year-old sets aside three months a year  guesting in studios across the region. Our conversations traversed Germany, and Netherlands. Onwards, he was heading to a tattoo trade convention in Milan. 

“Since young I’ve always liked images and drawings. So I always replicated them on paper, or pen on skin. At a young age, I decided to mark myself with permanent engravings,” Lee deliberates the origins of his artistic pursuit. At 13 he decided to tattoo himself for the first time. A young Lee was beginning to comprehend commitment’s length, height, width and breadth. 

“The thought of committing to something [eternal], at a [single] point in life is very amazing to me. From then on I became a canvas I wanted to fill up with memories – like a timeline… I am a forgetful person, so this helps me to remind myself, of certain times in life – death, heartbreaks, and friendship.”

Lee moved into his neck at the age of 21, the tattoos soon creeped up his chin, to the side of his face. 

Facial tattoos “shows a different form of character entirely. Even a small symbol is enough. With bigger pieces, they bring out the beauty of [one’s character].” There’s not a body member quite confessional as the face is.

“It shows you the likes and thoughts behind [a face].”

His impenetrable lattice of facial tattoos reveals a man who’s disembarked at many stations in life. Lee started with a neck piece – now blacked out, followed by the symbols on his forehead, the anchor under his left eye, to the word ‘blind faith’ resting on his eyebrows. 

“I tried to [consider unhurriedly], but being young and anxious, rushing was always a bad trait.” It took him two weeks to decide on his first face tattoo, one that he called a “life decision”. When probed if life decisions called for more time and thought, he retorted, “You don’t need that long! If I thought for long, maybe I won’t be where I am today.” 

He proceeded to flash a quote by American novelist and journalist, Jack London:

“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist.”

– First published in The Bulletin, San Francisco, California in 1916

And he’s still on the move, “I live for myself in these cases.”

Dominic Phua
 

Neo-Traditional

“This is a mirrored word for ‘Temptation’. Temptations of everything – a lot of things. The devil is always the one who tempts you,” Clement Puar is a man patiently waiting on a life wrought. “I’m changing. Once I commit, there’s no way back. We are our own devils.” 

The 25-year-old carved the imposing script into his left forehead, an ineliminable cue to his daily warfare. Flesh is weak. The life we were born into has to be properly chastened. 

He was 20 when he decided to set in motion the watershed chapter in life. The brazen pain of searing in a new life struck him. “The difference was [felt] in pain – especially the chin,” he reticently muttered, before brushing his chin. “Here, it’s painful.” 

Looking at the man seated squarely before me, it’s startling to notice that his arms and legs are clean. It’s an unspoken ordinance, to first tattoo one’s body, then limbs, before moving up into the neck, and the highest hallmark – the face. Puar has almost defied the invisible rite of passage. 

Immensely soft-spoken, Puar has few words. He reveals that he has invested a great deal of thought into his arms and legs. “Because it is important. I reserved them for an overseas [tattoo trip],” he deliberated. To him, his limbs are already filled with sleeves. He sees it, but we don’t. 

“I’m planning to do more on my face, but money.” Up till now we don’t hear of the hefty costs involved, for the previous four men are practising tattoo artist. But Puar is an executive in the corporate world, managing a team of twenty personnel. He oversees customer service and delivery operations of a company dedicated to domestic pet services. 

On an average day, Puar works 12 hours, arriving in the office first to organise workloads, addresses salient customer-related cases before his team steps in. After his team leaves for the day, he wraps up their work, whilst sorting out plans for the next working day. 

“I had a deal with [my parents] to stop creating trouble in order to be my own. That was a trade, I need to make sure I keep my promise.” He is waging a one-man fight to debunk the pessimism moored to tattoos in the corporate environment. Puar explains that he’s fortunate to have met an accepting boss. He fiercely questions, “If my work is good, why judge?”

Society is not the only forming unfounded conclusions about humans with face tattoos. “My parents, sometimes I can feel that they still cannot accept who I am. That’s the vibe they give off, and a natural instinct. It’s only when we’re outdoors, they feel disgraced – somehow.” 

Before we could pick out his obvious heartache etched into his face, he added, “It’s okay to me. What they want to think I cannot stop. Unless I’m a millionaire – it’s a very realistic world. If I were a billionaire with this face, who cares?” 

Like the ones who came before him, and the ones who will eventually step into his shoes, they fight an unabating war against invisible boundaries. Stereotype had sweepingly categorised people with facial tattoos into a box labelled “Thugs”. 

“We tattooed persons are still humans.” 

While society is still infatuated with its little ideas that facial tattoos are ugly, it owes to the fact that a sizeable part of society is advanced in age. They belong to generations past. Where beliefs have already been ingrained, it’s irretrievable. 

“They have age. It’s very hard for them to catch up.” But Puar is sanguine, surely the situation will see change. Facial tattoos will one day be normalised. Breaking into the first smile of the hour, he adds, “I can’t wait for the future – that is if I can live that long.” 

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Words by Guan Tan
Photography by Dominic Phua/ DAYDREAM and Gerard Rouw