Photo Essay

We see them everywhere, from a massive cross in the middle of Justin Bieber’s growing chest, to Miley Cyrus’s sideboob, and even Lady Gaga’s underarm. Tattoos have become an increasingly ubiquitous element of society, and Singapore’s youth are no exception.

In fact, according to a recent study in 2011 by Beyond Social Services, getting a tattoo or piercing was ranked second amongst the “risky activities” that youths would willingly do – behind imbibing alcohol.

This photo essay takes a trip down to 2 ink parlors to look at how a tattoo is inked, and find out from tattooists and customers about their motivations behind these tattoos.


Founded in 1998, Primative Skin Art is a standalone studio with tattoos priced at a minimum of $50, dependent on the size and intricacy of the tattoo art. It offers both tattooing services, and removal services.

“There are definitely more youths coming in these days. I’ve even once seen a 13 year old girl come in with her parents for a tattoo once!” Cutie, a resident airbrusher at Primative chided. “We usually don’t tattoo those who are under 18 without parental supervision, but if they lie, what can we do? There’s another tattoo shop above and they can just go there,” she continued. While there is no set legal age for youths to have tattoos, tattooists usually require identification, or consent from parents if you’re below 18.


Primative Skin Art’s studio was cluttered with various implements for piercing and colored with a cornucopia of ink bottles. The shop had a fold-out bench for tattooing, and a seat for tattoo removal. Gavin, a tattooist with over 5 years of experience, was not formally trained in art. “I grew up under people who have tattoos…” he trailed off as he began tattooing the outline on his customer’s shoulder. He has been interested in this art form since his primary school years, and tattooing was a natural career choice for him after graduation from the Institute of Technical Education (ITE).


Under the spotlight, Jonathan was having a tattoo of his new love inked on his shoulder. He was quick to point out: “I think tattoos should have significance, [and] not done for fashion purposes.”


Beside him, another customer had arrived for an entirely different service. A makeshift wooden screen was unfolded. A hint of melancholy crept into Fatimah’s tone as she recounted the origins of her butterfly tattoo: “I had gotten this tattoo when I was young and wild. Now I’m married, so I’m removing it.” She laughed, “My grandma said that if I want to party, then I might as well marry early! So I married when I was 15. Luckily, he’s a good husband.”


At Kampung Bahru, CK Low was hard at work etching the remaining design of a large, oriental tattoo, intended to be splayed over a customer’s back. The studio, simply called C.K Tattoo Singapore, was a standalone space. “I work alone,” he said when asked about other tattooists in the studio.

Prior to setting up his own studio, CK worked freelance and traveled to customers’ homes to complete the tattoos, and toured the world visiting tattoo conventions and expos to gain experience. He now charges a rate of $100 – 200 an hour, and only works on 1 customer a day.


His spartan studio exudes a calm and Zen-like Japanese vibe, and costs thousands a month in rent. This also extends to his tattoos, influenced by Japanese and Oriental styles. However, he doesn’t offer the traditional Japanese tattooing technique, Irezumi, and hasn’t learnt it.


His customer today was a Malaysian in his 20s, Hong Soon, who is in Singapore working for the freight industry. Hong Soon said, “The first tattoo I had screwed up, so I came to CK.” The original tattoo featured twin eagles flanking a large, Western-style sword, but he thinks that it looks too ugly.

On his new tattoo, he shared that “it may look complicated now, but when it’s colored, it’ll look nice”. The design had gone through months of discussion between CK and Hong Soon, finally culminating into an intricate back tattoo. The tattoo is expected to cost over $2,000, and will take at least 10 hours of work.


Tattoos are not just a form of self expression, but also a way of livelihood for some, and even a way to commemorate people for others. Tattoos aren’t always just skin-deep, because it can sometimes be used to show what lies within people, brought out to the surface for the world to see. Hong Soon summed up poignantly like a weary soul who simply needs another reminder of life’s hard lessons: “Tattoos are for life. We choose our own scars.”