Lionel Ng, of Traditions Tattoo Collective, is remaking the tattoo parlour with his artistic team of female collaborators and a new approach to body art.
The 4-member crew behind Traditions Tattoo Collective in Singapore are turning age-old preconceptions of the tattoo parlour on their head. Operating out of an artistic, studio-like space, founder Lionel and his 3 female protégés take a refreshing approach to body ink, using Instagram, digital design, a friendly environment and a focus on collaborative creativity to draw the next generation of body art fans.
Whether you view them as art, a fashion statement or as simply a symbol of deviance, it’s impossible to deny that tattoos today have made the jump from subculture to mainstream. Nowadays, you can’t walk down the streets of Singapore without seeing evidence of their popularity. Along with this increase in visibility has been a surge in tattoo parlours across the city.
One shop that’s proudly putting ink to skin is Traditions Tattoo Collective, located in the hipster expat enclave that is Holland Village. The shop is headed by Lionel Ng, a 21-year veteran on the local tattoo scene who stumbled across the location while having a drink in a nearby coffeehouse. Dedicated to his craft, Lionel is renowned in the tattoo-world for his professionalism. “My rules are simple: be honest and truthful to what you believe,” he says. “In this business, you have to be straightforward, even if it means saying something that people don’t want to hear. Tattoos are for life and you’re looking out for their interests.”
What makes Lionel’s collective stand out, however, is not only his own precise approach but also his team. Though tattoo parlours are often thought of as male-dominated environments, Lionel works alongside three women, Lee Wai Leng, Lin Yu Shan and Anthea Tan. Together, the trio carry a decade’s worth of experience in different fields. Lionel stumbled across Wai Leng’s artwork on Instagram before taking her under his wing and helping her retrain. “After 15 years of working as a commercial illustrator, I needed to reinvent myself and develop a whole new set of skills” Wai Leng explains of her move. “Tattooing was on my mind for the longest time and required learning everything from scratch.” It’s a process that takes dedication – as shown by Yu Shan, who also doggedly persisted in pursuing a career as Lionel’s protégé. “Even though I asked her to go away, she came back and put her foot down, eventually becoming my apprentice and now, a member of the family,” he remembers, with an air of pride.
Tattoo parlours aren’t generally known for their approachable vibe and creative look and feel, but Lionel’s collective is different. His crew maintain a friendly camaraderie that’s reflected in their shop front. Traditions is brightly lit and, at first glance, resembles an art studio thanks to the whimsical artist sketches and colourful illustrations lining its walls. While Lionel and Wai Leng prefer the time-honoured paper and pen method of sketching out ideas for clients, Yu Shan and Anthea work their magic on their iPads, tweaking designs without having to draw them from scratch again.
Being in the tattoo business means coming face-to-face with all sorts of people and situations. “We have young girls coming to get inked, and sometimes their parents tag along to give consent,” says Yu Shan. “We reject them, of course, because at that age, they’re not likely to make good decisions.” The crew explains that they often feel like they live vicariously through their clients given the often-emotive reasons for getting a tattoo. Stories of heartache, of significant life troubles and victories and of rites of passage are all told within its walls and through their work as, for many, tattoos are commissioned as an emblem of strength or a commitment that carries them through the good times and the bad.
Trust between the client and artist doesn’t come easy, but creativity flows best once it’s cemented. “Tattooing is really an artistic endeavour for both parties,” Wai Leng says. “The idea has to first come from the customer, we then strive to deliver that vision to the best of our ability.” She cites one particular customer who happened to find all three female artists’ work online and consequently decided to get inked by them. It was only upon arriving at the shop that he came to the realisation that they all worked under the same roof. Today, his arm carries three distinctive tattoos which subtly compliment each other. For Wai Leng, he is a walking example of how, through trust and the sharing of ideas, one can walk away with meaningful art that’s inimitable.
Female empowerment has also ebbed and flowed into the world of tattoos. “This industry was male-dominated back in the day, but we’re seeing more female artists making their mark, showing that there’s no limit to what we women can do, as long as we’re professional,” Yu Shan says. The artists agree that not only are they seeing a shift behind the scenes, but they’re also seeing a rise in the number of young female customers walking through the door.
Having been in this business for two decades, Lionel has seen his fair share of ups and downs. Striving for perfection, maintaining his crew’s spirits and dispelling myths that tattoos are for gangsters and the uncultured, hasn’t always been easy. But he sees a bright future for his parlour, and his craft. “I may be cynical, but I see talent in this new generation and I want them to be better than me,” he admits. “When you believe in your capabilities and show people what you can do, you will sit with the gods.”
40A Lorong Mambong, Singapore