Simon David

Obstacles to making a mark in tattooing

MEET Simon David.

The Sarawakian is a familiar face in the Malaysian tattoo scene, having inked thousands of people during his 22 years in the business.

At 44, he has seen it all. And he believes the industry in Malaysia is still in its infancy despite the art form has been part of Dayak culture for generations.

Twentytwo13 caught up with Simon at Electric Dreams Collective at The Gasket Alley in Section 16, Petaling Jaya recently. He speaks about the month-old tattoo hub, how trends have killed the true meaning of tattoos and the lack of regulations.

What’s Electric Dreams Collective all about?

Simon: It’s a tattoo hub for talented artists to be recognised. It’s only about a month old but this was a concept we had been working on since early last year. The core team consists of artists from two parlours – Gary Jones from Deadlights Tattoo in Kota Kinabalu and the crew from Shipwreck which include Carrelyn Chow, Alvin Bugzz and me. Former Mandala Tattoo artist Nessy Voon also joined us recently. Gary is the ‘penghulu’ (head village) here. He has a crew of six and they are all freaking talented but they are mostly in Sabah. This hub is to get them out and expose them.

Carrelyn (seated) is joined by (from left) Alvin, Simon and Gary at Electric Dreams Collective. Images: Haresh Deol

What do tattoos mean today?

Simon: Today it’s all about trends. It’s all about how you impress friends. It’s like there’s almost no meaning to it anymore. Some people get a tattoo to get a tattoo … to fit in. Or because they saw it somewhere, and they say “Hey, I want one too!” Tattoos are not just about the designs but what they mean.

Tattoos are about what you want. But I’ve got clients who don’t know what they want. When I ask them “What do you like?” they reply “I don’t know”. It’s not just the design but the meaning to it.

Getting a tattoo is a choice. It’s whether you want to or not. My dad didn’t have a tattoo. Not a single one. He skipped one generation.

So what are the latest trends?

Simon: Geometrical. Or I want dot this, dot that. Minimalist. Some want a tattoo so small that you need a magnifying glass to look at it. Ten years from now the fine line won’t be a fine line.

Is the industry regulated here?

Simon: No. The Dayaks have been tattooing for generations but the industry is very young. The authorities have got no clue what to look at when they enter a tattoo parlour. Their common question is “ada tukar jarum? (do you change needles?) Some shops don’t even have autoclaves (steriliser to disinfect tattoo guns, hoses, among others). We are lucky there’s not been an outbreak of diseases but prevention is better than cure. We self-regulate, adopt what we learn when we tattoo abroad. In the US, tattoo artists need a licence from the local health department before they can ink anyone. Different states have different rules and just because you have a licence from one state, it doesn’t mean you can go to another state and tattoo.

How’s the training like then?

Simon: What training? There’s no such thing as a tattooing school. Dude, I’m still learning. You are always learning. A proper apprenticeship is tough. Like what we do in Shipwreck. You stay with us for five years and learn how to manage a shop, ink a person.

But many tattoo shops in Malaysia are now churning out their version of tattoo artists. The wannabe artists pay between RM6,000 and RM7,000 to learn how to tattoo within six months. Then they open their own parlours.

Since there is no regulation, people are free to ink who they want, when they want.

One tattoo you hate the most.

Simon: Boyfriend-girlfriend names. It’s the world’s stupidest tattoo.

Does stereotyping of those wearing tattoos still exist?

Simon: Thanks to television shows like LA Ink and New York Ink, people accept tattoos well. There are those who are still afraid of what their bosses may say but that will change over time. The good thing is that people aren’t afraid anymore of those with tattoos. The bad? Just because you have a tattoo it doesn’t mean someone will make way and give you their seat in the LRT (laughs).

Your worst tattooing experience?

Simon: This happened about 15 years ago. This really buff guy … an arrogant pr*ck, was haggling to get a tattoo done. It was a huge a** tattoo. He was rich but super ‘kedekut’ (stingy). Finally when we got down to doing it, five minutes into the session and he was all pale. When I told him we could stop, he said that was how he normally looked like. I pulled another line and he passed out. His girlfriend and I tried to wake him up and when he woke up he wet himself like a child. It was no fun cleaning up his piss, dude. But it makes a good laugh now.