Saturday, September 29, 2007


I went to a tattoo exhibition a few months ago. This had photos of various Singaporeans showing their tattoos and a brief story about them. The whole exhibit was about the stories behind the tattoos; why they got them, what they meant (if anything). Through the tattoo, you got an insight into their lives.

Several of the people shown had their tattoos done purely for decorative reasons. They liked the designs, or created them themselves. It was art for arts sake. The most moving photo was of an old man showing some blurry blue-black lines on his shoulder. You'd almost miss them if they weren't pointed out.

He grew up during the Japanese occupation of Singapore and his brother tattooed their initials on each other so that their family could identify their bodies should they be killed or mutilated. I was stopped in my tracks by this story - I remembered my grandmother's and aunt's stories about living during the occupation; huddling under the bed in a corner while the soldiers swept under with their bayonets glinting in the dim light, their father making a false wall so they could hide behind when they came looking for women, my aunt losing her only treasured photo of her childhood because the Japanese soldier threw the frame on the ground, broke the glass and urinated over it.

There's a bartender with heavily tattooed arms, full sleeves Japanese-style but with more Chinese motifs. He talks about getting out of prison and his tattoo for enduring/tolerance: the Chinese character made up of a knife above a heart.

A mother tells of recovering from a bad marriage breakup and she sought to express her inner emotional pain through the physical pain of a tattoo. She chose her starsign Libra watching over her son's Leon. A father tells of a raging sun on his deltoid as his light-of-his-life, the son that died in childhood.

A young girl with a whole scene from a storybook on her left arm and shoulder describes the inner world that she escapes to. She's talking to a cat in a fantasy landscape as she prefers animals to people.

Then there is the guy who wanted a bar code tattoo because he thought it was "unique". He wasn't sure what number to get, I guess he didn't want to accidentally set off the supermarket scanners with "Bananas $1.99". So, he chose his girlfriends NRIC (Identity Card) number. She paid for it for their anniversary; how 'romantic'.

I wonder if he'll ever realise the irony in doing what he did in a country like Singapore? It's a militaristic one-party state that fortunately has a reasonably benevolent ruling family in charge. Nevertheless, it's highly monitored and everything is cross-linked to your identification number. I heard that all you need to apply for a mortgage is your NRIC - they can pull up your entire credit history, asset listing, etc. with just that.

My tattoos also tell stories. Most of them complicated and interwoven with previous and past events in my life. There's more detail to what I'm about to describe, but in the interest of keeping things interesting, I'll tell them to you in person.

Here's a brief description anyway. My koi (Japanese carp) is about serenity, peace and quieting the mind. It swims up because it strives to do better. Carp swim up-river to spawn. There is also the Chinese legend of how dragons are born when a carp swims up river and jumps through the Pearl Gate. Perhaps one day my carp (me) will reach the gate and jump through and I will finally be the dragon I could be. In case you don't know, I was born in the year of the dragon and my surname is the character 'dragon'.

The bamboo was suggested by my artist after a visit to a tattoo convention in Sibu. I thought it was cool as I wanted something big and long to show off a bit. This signifies for me growth and flexibility; to be able to bend and flex, adapt to change but keep still keep growing.

To pre-empt questions:
Yes, it hurt. It's like small needles scratching your skin until it bleeds. But he knows when to lift off so you get about 2 seconds to catch your breath before he continues. The pain is proportional to the sensitivity of the skin in that part of the body.

The koi took three 2-hour sessions: outline, shading 1 then shading 2. The bamboo was meant to be completed in one 1-hour session but I fussed with the original drawing and he got tired as it was the end of the day, so it took two 2-hour sessions. There's still a touchup session to finish off the koi's eye and perhaps correct some of the leaf detail.

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