Elson Yeo | thINK Tattoo
“So you’re a tattoo artist?” The accompanied stereotypical reaction to the profession reads like a bottomless pit of cringes, negativity and bewilderment. If conservative Singapore and its TV shows like Crime Watch, Shocking Asia and all the other boring stuff had their way, we’d all be living in cages comprised of outdated concepts of myths and conservatism.
The good news is that what used to be an artistically convulsive nation is slowly becoming increasingly accepting of the artistic merit of tattoos. 31-year-old Elson Yeo is part of the movement helping to bring about that change; an ink, an idea, and a conversation at a time without giving up his Asian values. The holder of a Bachelor with Merit in Political Science and the founder of thINK Tattoo studio is as outspoken and eccentric as they come — but he sure makes you think.
ActuallyMAG speaks to the Singaporean inker about his art, his life and of course, society. If you enjoy his ideas and perception of the modern world, imagine his art on your sneakers. He’s been invited to be a part of Paint Mash Up where he’ll be trading skin for leather as he inks an exclusive pair of shoes for the launch of Underground creepers at the ION Glass House.
Elson Yeo can be a little eccentric at times. Describe your personality.
Currently pretending to be serious (and not to appear to be hedonistic at his job and life) in running his tattoo studio. I’m best described as a tattoo thinker, guerilla graduate, and nightmare son.
(Laughs) jokes aside, it will be perfect if one day I’d be able to fulfil what’s really important to me: to provide for my family to the extreme, to be truly answerable to my wants, and to push past my own limits, be it artistic or character.
That, and perhaps to go for a Masters in Political Science in due time.
How did you first get into tattooing?
When I was in Primary 5 my folks brought me to watch a Hong Kong movie adaptation of “Crying Freeman” -a manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami. Although I’m sure that in the eyes of many, it really wasn’t all that proper to bring your kids to a violent flick, but hell, we had a roaring great time! The elaborate tattoos the hero wore with immense pride in the show completely won me over.
However, my mother gave me hell and one tight slap for the mere suggestion that I would get a tattoo when I grew up (conservative Chinese upbringing has its pros and cons). The idea of me being a tattoo artist has always been a little whim I indulged in and thought about but never openly discussed.
You were inspired to do tattoos through a movie your parents brought you to. Were there other family-based influences?
I had a distant relative who never did shy away from flaunting the various tattoos he had all over his body. Come to think of it, he was more of a cutting edge tattoo enthusiast than anyone of his age. Back then, tattoos were stigmatized and every tattooed person got one done discreetly. He actually custom drew all his ink and even managed to get whimsical with some!
My most vivid memory of an introduction to tattoos in general was when one of my distant uncle showed me his “knee-eye”. The man has a pair of eyes tattooed on his kneecaps, to “watch over all card games.” I was awestruck. To a child from a conservative Chinese family in Asia, the notion of such a tattoo was simply too beautifully forbidden to be ignored.
Segments of our conservative society have long viewed tattoos negatively. How far have we come in terms of judgment and perceptions of tattoos?
Society? Tattoos have been a sign of status and expression amidst a plethora of civilizations… tattoos have not only changed the world, they have MOULDED it!
Well, tattoos have always been the ultimate benchmark of labelling throughout history. For example, when the upper class gets tattooed, the peasants will be prone to shun ink. It will always be representative of rebellion (that is why I embrace it too). Yes, everyone is opening up to ink. I for one think that it is innate and intrinsic for a human being to want to get inked. The cognitive ability that enables us to alter our appearance is after all what really separates us, and puts us on top of, the animal kingdom. Give a child a crayon and he would draw on himself until his parents condition him to do it on paper!
The world would have definitely met you since you’ve partook in tattoo exhibitions and conventions in Frankfurt, Milan, London, Rome, and Eindhoven to name a few. What have you taken away from these experiences?
Raise awareness. Earn the long overdue respect this art form deserves from the general public. Make a mark on the world. Open up potential and mind-sets for the soon-to-be inked. Make them thINK (sorry for the shameless plugging) before the ink. Stop societal stigmatization. Make friends with people from different backgrounds and cultures, trading stories and very often, ink!
Don’t worry about the shameless plugging, how did thINK Tattoo come about?
On Jan 13, 2008, I figured it was time after the 2008 ”King of Tattoo” show in Tokyo, that I’d need a proper space to justify myself and any of my guest artists from, well, everywhere!
I had always thought, and wanted, the name “thINK Tattoo” for my studio. For one, obviously, one needs to think it over before getting inked. That is why my shop sticker and slogan reads “start thINKing. now.”
Whimsically, I want it as a pun too. Like when people describe things they go like “think positive”, or “think big”, or “think for your future”… well, plain and simple: my message would be just that. “thINK Tattoo”. Tattoo is life, nothing more or less or room for debate (laughs).
Lastly, this is a personal tribute to fight the stigma of tattooed skin. The general public for the most part associate inked folks like us with illiteracy and misdemeanour. I intend and have embarked on a journey to change that labelling (again, if you need my academic sociology essay that delved into deviance and tattoos I’d be glad to forward it.) It is, however, before my matriculation into university that I finally got my foot in the door.
What is it about tattooing that gets you off?
Tattooing is an amalgamation of painting and sculpting. Through the introduction of indelible ink from a human to another along the body’s contours is well embodied in this art form.
What do you do to tighten your craft?
Draw, observe, mull over thoughts and images, then draw some more. It is hard, but I try to treat every tattoo like it is my first one. And I always try to make each and every one interesting for the wearer and myself. Hence, the strictly custom jobs.
Also, I keep my mind free, and stay extremely open to other mediums of artistic expressions by reading and stocking up on references. I travel when I have the chance to both bask in the company of other tattoo artists and to simply be in a different culture. Positive competition and constant inspiration definitely push me to greater aspirations.
Define your current style.
We at thINK religiously refuse to adhere to the notion of trend, and especially more so when it comes to tattoo. EVERY single tattoo we do is drawn and conceptualized from scratch to an extent it is tailor-made for the individual wearer.
I try to be as thorough as possible in my approach towards tattoos and tattooing. To me, pigeon-holing will only serve to restrict my potential. Clichéd as it may sound, if you’re into tattoos I guess you would simply be interested in finding out more about the insane variety limited only by the next man’s creativity!
The thINK experience is a most comprehensive one, not only focusing on the necessity that is aesthetics, but also encompasses the entire thought journey and dynamics between the environment the concept and the permanence of a tattoo that is you. Tattoos are made to last forever. I believe that a design should carry more than just being visually aesthetic.
If I really have to choose though, I’d have to say I have a soft spot for Realism, or Fineline, or more recently, Chinese styled designs. (or better yet, highly-detailed Chinese fineline pieces!) That, or really bizarre theme and ideas rendered in Neo-traditional style.
At the launch of Underground shoes through ActuallyActually, you and a couple of local scenesters are invited to customize your own sneakers. Give us a sneak peek into what you might be doing.
Without giving too much away… I’d probably be doing something with duality, delving into what you see does not necessarily means believing. That, or the same ol’ tattoo related stuff (laughs).
– Zul Andra
Paint Mash Up is on July 9, 3-5pm at the VERY Wooonderland Pop Up store, ION Orchard Glasshouse, Level 1 ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, 6238-8228. The pop up store is open daily 11am-9pm till July 17.
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