Body Art

Once dismissed as garish and crudely drawn, tattoos are now likened to works of art that are both beautiful and personal. Little wonder, then, that women are choosing to make them bigger and bolder.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Once dismissed as garish and crudely drawn, tattoos are now likened to works of art that are both beautiful and personal. Little wonder, then, that women are choosing to make them bigger and bolder.

All tattoos tell a story. Not so long ago, that story was more likely to have its roots in gang affiliations, a prison term, or rebellion against conventional values.

But no longer. Sarah Toh is a primary school teacher whose five fairly large tattoos are testament to her love for science fiction and fantasy. Three of them – quotes that say “Mischief Managed” and “I solemnly swear I’m up to no good”, as well as a snowy owl – tell people she’s a fan of the Harry Potter series.

For wealth planner Anthea Tan, her ink marks the milestones in her life. Her first, a quote that reads “this too, shall pass”, was done following the double blow of her father’s death and her boyfriend’s infidelity. “It resonated with me because it’s true that all bad times are just phases, and they make me stronger.” Anthea also has a bluebird tattooed over her left upper ribs as a tribute to her late father.

Tattoos like these are now part of the narrative of who you are, what you believe in, and what you cherish.

Reality TV show Miami Ink has had a huge part to play in changing perceptions about body ink, says tattoo artist Bernice Chua. The popular show – which centres around the legendary shop of the same name on Miami’s South Beach – elevated its tattoo artists to rock-star status, and proved that tattoos could be more than just crude drawings and garish colours. Its artists create intricate work – portraits, sketches, delicate fine lines and feminine designs – that are coveted by everyone, including celebrities.


Similarly, tattoo artists in Singapore have begun offering a wider and more sophisticated range of styles – including watercolours, dot work, and geometric designs – which means more women have warmed to the idea of getting inked.

“It began with the artsy bunch, but it has since grown to include career women who find these tattoos empowering,” says Jen Tan, a tattoo artist at Visual Orgasm Tattoo Studio, who counts doctors, nurses, lawyers and office managers among her clientele. Most are in their 20s and late 30s, but Jen has tattooed older people too.

“I think it’s interesting when older people come in, because they probably have a lot of life experiences that they want to commemorate,” she says.

But while women have become more daring when it comes to body ink, it’s taking a little longer for society to catch up.

“My parents respect that it’s my body and my decision, but they were concerned at first that I wouldn’t be able to find a job,” says Chloe*, a flight attendant who has tattoos on her torso and both thighs. But they lamented she had “ruined her good skin” when she first got tattooed.

Anthea believes the perception that paints tattooed girls as rebels who are less honest and serious still exists. She’s not alone. Restaurant manager Lai Yan Yi gets stared at by older people for the words and symbols that cover her arms, while communications executive Hanna* says: “Men usually don’t approach me when I’m covered up, but I get hit on when I’m in a sleeveless top and my tattoos are visible. It’s like they expect me to be more promiscuous.”

*Names have been changed.

My Reading Room
BERNICE CHUA (@eatdiamonddust), 27, Tattoo World

Her story: A former fashion design student, Bernice was pursuing a master’s degree in Japan when she impulsively got her first tattoo. Exposed to new trends in tattooing, such as fine lines, she changed her mind about traditional motifs.

Her style: Bernice inks lots of script as well as floral designs that are both intricate and realistic. But her original illustrations also find their way onto her clients’ skin. “It was a new way to convert my drawings into something more useful than a piece on someone’s shelf. Taking the illustration off the page, it’s something a person carries for the rest of their life,” she says.


“A tattoo is an open wound for the first week, which is when the chances of an infection are higher. A tattoo on the chest area is easy to care for, but you have to watch out around the arms and back. I tell my clients not to lean on surfaces.”

My Reading Room
VICTORIA WOON (@hellotako), 30, Killswitch Tattoo Parlour

Her story: Victoria says being a tattoo artist is her calling, although she does not sport any body ink. “I’ve always been fascinated by body modification – both piercings and tattoos. It’s difficult for me to say what really drew me to it in the first place, but I’ve always felt this is an art form unlike any other.” Victoria enjoys the mutual trust, respect and creative collaboration between client and artist.

Her style: “My clients often seek me out for minimalist line-work tattoos, cute cartoon-style images, as well as mandalas, geometric and dot-work tattoos. I also do pet-portrait tattoos.”


“Intense pulsed light treatment (for hair removal) has a similar effect to laser treatment, and might cause bits of the tattoo ink to ‘burn out’. So don’t forget to tell the staff about your tattoo.”

My Reading Room
JEN TAN (@jenxtattoos), 30, Visual Orgasm Tattoo Studio

Her story: Beforebecoming an apprentice at a tattoo studio in 2011, Jen was an aspiring vet studyingfor a diploma in veterinary science.

Her style: Many of her clients go to her to get realistic portraits of their beloved pets etched on their skin. “They usually give me a picture of their pet and tell me about the animal’s favourite pose or accessory. They just want to preserve the good memories, and they usually want their pets to look younger too,” she says.


“When it comes to tattoo designs, don’t just rely on Google images, because it means that lots of other people might have it too. I prefer to draw inspiration from the designs and work with the client to create something meaningful that has my own style. It would be bizarre if you saw a stranger on the street with an almost identical tattoo of your pet dog.”