Tattoos have come a long way in Singapore—gone are the days when body art was synonymous with gang poems, barbed wires and butterflies. We ask two local tattoo artists who have been in the industry for almost 20 years—Samuel Yar of Of Gods & Monsters Tattooing and Anthony Yeo of First Tattoo Studio—to walk us through the evolution of tattoos over the past three decades.
This was a period when tattoos were closely associated with secret societies.
“At that time, only gangsters had tattoos,” says Anthony. “And when they were caught by the CID, they had to cancel their tattoos out with ‘nets’.”
Tattoos were almost exclusively seen on gangsters at the time, which explains why they still signify rebellion to this day to some folks. Some of the popular designs then were that of gang poems and logos, dragons, tigers, phoenixes and Yin Yang symbols with flames.
Up till the early ’90s, the process of getting a tattoo was somewhat like ordering fast food: one could only choose from templated designs that were numbered.
“In those days, there was no customisation involved. Tattoo artists got their designs from flash sheets sold by [then-popular tattoo artists] David Bolt, Paul Booth and Edward Lee,”says Samuel.
“And celebrities had a lot of influence over what sort of tattoo designs people got. Many people got a barbed wire tattoo because of Pamela Anderson, and those who got a tribal dragon were inspired by the one on Billy Bob Thornton.”
Naturally, this meant that many people had the same designs. Some of the popular ones then were that of barbed wire, Celtic knotwork, tribal dragons, Red Indian chiefs, butterflies and dolphins
It was during this period that people started getting designs of beasts such as dragons.
Some of the popular designs were that of wizards, panthers, roses, “cute bat”, “baby devil”, and American Traditional (old school Western designs). According to Samuel, the baby devil’ design was favoured by women who wanted to give the ‘naughty girl’ impression.
Anthony adds that this was the period where people started getting tattoos that extended from the chest to the arm—and that it was also when artists were still looking at print pages for inspiration.
“Tattoo artists weren’t really familiar with the Internet yet, so we could only get inspiration from tattoo magazines, which were available in certain bookstores.”
Popular designs during this time were that of lower back tribal designs (sometimes referred to as “tramp stamps”), Chinese names (usually a literal translation of an English one), demons, skulls, bulldogs, and monochromatic portraits.
Tattoos became more widely accepted as a form of artistic expression–and less associated with gangsterism–as people started to acknowledge that tattoos can have personal meanings.
“So many people got the angel with wings because of David Beckham. I must have done a good 200, and that was just me alone. There must have been a lot more out there.”
Some of the popular designs then were that of biomechemical “skin tears”, angel with wings, Blackwork (distinctive motifs with bold, black shading).
This was when tattoo designs really started to evolve.
“Miami Ink changed the game altogether. People started to get a wider range of designs – basically, everything else but dragons and wizards,” says Samuel. “Also, everyone started getting bigger pieces. More people became accepting of tattoos, so people started getting full back tattoos, full sleeves and even bodysuits.”
Chunky, black designs became a thing and many people would cover their arms or even scalps with an all-black piece. Some of the popular designs then were that of oil lamps, Mexican sugar skulls, sayagata (interlocking swastikas) and Blackout (huge blocks of black)
2000 to 2016
Popular designs during this time were that of coloured portraits, triangles, mandalas, finger twists, calligraffiti, feather “breaking” into silhouettes of birds (which usually means “to set free”), dotwork, watercolour designs, Neo Traditional (a twist on old school Western styles).
The tattoo style of the moment? #trendytattoos. “It’s an actual hashtag on social media platforms such as Pinterest,” says Samuel. #trendytattoos are usually small, dainty and, well, “modern”. They also come in all sorts of designs.
The enduring appeal of Japanese tattoos…
Anthony and Samuel agree that the popularity of Japanese style tattoos has never diminished.
“It has remained the same since Day One and is still going strong,” says Samuel.
“It’s always popular because of the way the style is structured – the contrast and composition are well thought out. Also, the designs are usually related to folklore, and people like the reminder.”
An earlier version of this story first appeared in the October 2018 issue of CLEO magazine.
Images: Samuel Yar, Anthony Yeo