The web of interest around the art of tattooing is a tangled one. Growing up in Singapore, tattoo artist Maxine Ng (@maxinengps) is more than familiar with the negative associations that the tattoo industry has. But contemporary tattooing — much like graffiti, which in the past decade has transformed from a fringe activity to a legitimate art form — is increasingly embraced by the world, particularly because of its connection to fashion and fine art.
“When I was younger, I was definitely more creatively inclined,” says Ng, who excelled in art in school. “What piqued my interest in tattoos was that my mum herself had tattoos,” she says. To Ng, tattoos were no different from all the artwork and sketches she did, except for the fact that the body acted as the canvas. These days, having a tattoo has become commonplace, and the negative connotations surrounding the art form has diminished considerably. Even extreme full body inking is seen as a grand, existential gesture that declares, “This is who I want to be,” rather than an act of rebellion.
One of the most visually prominent tattoos on Ng is a heart pierced with seven swords, which she bears on her throat. It is a permanent contract which cuts Ng off from all ties with the corporate world — and represents a personal commitment that forces Ng to ensure the success of her chosen career.
“It is of course a less stable job compared to a corporate one, as your income solely depends on [the number] of clients you have,” she says. The internet provides opportunities for marketing and self-promotion in this rapidly changing field. And social media represents an identity card for artists like Ng to build a close community of the like-minded. With almost 18,000 followers on her Instagram account and an oft-fully booked schedule, her career appears to be on a comfortable upswing.
Ng entered the scene four years ago after completing an apprenticeship with her mentor Khai, who is the owner and full-time artist at Iron Fist studio. “He is a very dedicated boss and mentor. He allows his apprentices to practise on him before tattooing real clients just to ensure that we are ready.” Through that apprenticeship, Ng developed her craft as well as a style that resonates with thousands of people. “My artistic direction is focused on making people feel that they are comfortable and confident in their skin, giving them a sense of identity through permanency,” she says.
As a female tattoo artist, Ng specialises in organic shapes, where her artwork is often designed to complement the feminine silhouette. “If a client wants to get a tattoo done on the hip or thigh area, the design will be composed in a way where it can accentuate the curves on her body. Aesthetics are a factor but it also has to flow with the body,” she says.
“The tattoo industry has definitely evolved a lot in Singapore,” says Ng. Even in large corporations, “employers are more open about their employees having tattoos.” That, to Ng, represents an opened window for this art form to be truly accepted. For a relatively young country like Singapore, art and culture may still be in its infancy but that is precisely why there is a need to build a society that celebrates cultural values and identity in versatile ways — whether it’s in painting, music, film or tattoo art. The art of tattooing is very much steeped in pain, from the puncturing of the needle into the skin to the associated yearning for social acceptance. And yet passionate individuals like Ng draw merit from the pain, determined to gain strength from their chosen art.
Photograph by Gregory Woo
Styling by Michelle Kok
Hair by Christvian Goh (ARX Salon)
Makeup by Wee Ming using Shu Uemura
Clothing: COS top, S$79, and trousers, price on request. Subject’s own shoes and jewellery.
Props: Folks Jade bar stool, S$490, available at Grafunkt.
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