Six years ago, he made the decision of his life, choosing a path that will change his life forever. Holding a Diploma in Graphic design from La Salle College of the Arts, Vernon Vijaya Koh decided to abandon graphics designing for his first love – tattoos. He explained that the move away from what he graduated in is no surprise, “When I graduated, the industry was already saturated and far too competitive, and anyone who can operate a computer can be called a designer.” While adjusting his long worm-like structure in place of hair, he lets out a sigh and adds that graphic designers rely far too much on technology. On why he decided to switch to tattooing he replies, “Why not?”
Commitment and passion
Working from a modestly decorated studio with his artworks and stencils of his recent works plastered on the walls, it’s very much like a typical guy’s room – the only difference is the smell of faint disinfectant. Spending most of his waking hours at the studio located in the heart of Sin Ming industrial area, his routine is fixed. With the hours of preparation and working on the art for his clients, there is no rest. He calls it his second home and the reason for the location; “There’s just too much unwanted attention. Tattoos have too much association with sleaze, I want this place to stay hidden from the public”
Vernon’s mark of achievement? Seeing clients from Brazil, Thailand and United States fly in to get inked by him, even though there are so many tattoo parlors available in these countries. However, he views this differently. To him having people fly in to get tattoos is just a result of how widespread social media has become. “To me, success is when customers are satisfied with my work; they don’t have to fly in from overseas.”
He chuckles at the thought of being successful and brushes it aside, admitting that he doesn’t view himself as successful but has progressed further than expected. His schedule for the month is jammed packed and like a cup that has been filled to the brim it over-flows to the next month. He now squeezes in two clients instead of the usual one a day, sometimes even working on the weekends. To ease the heavy workload he wakes up at nine in the morning an hour earlier and starts preparing for the day ahead, only ending at two in the morning. There are only 3 words to describe his life – work, eat and sleep. “Right now my clients are my priority. I can’t afford off-days or holidays, I don’t even have time to watch CSI.” He laments.
As though he knew what was to come he mentioned that though the work is exhaustive and enduring, he is contended. “I’d never be able to get the kind of satisfaction and fulfillment no matter what I do in life.” Despite the never ending work, he enjoys every minute of it.
Feeling a need to address the misconception, he clarified that tattoos are more than just skin deep, its philosophical and sacred, almost like an ancient ritual.” He explains that tattoos are the only thing that you bring to your grave with you. He realises that a tattoo artist not only needs to be adept at the art, “My clients trust me not just with their skin, they trust me enough to tell me what’s troubling them deep down, it’s more of a therapy session. This unusual bond between artist and client is profound and deep, something which can never be found elsewhere.”
The wrath of society
Vernon’s success was not without obstacles. As though knowing where this topic would lead to, his demeanour changed. He lit a cigarette, which visibly made him relax and focus. He revealed that ever since, both his arms are tattooed, he experienced an increase in harassment by the police. Spotting portraits of iconic legends, he asked “how are Frank Sinatra and Bob Marley connected to secret societies?” In between puffs of smoke, he mentioned that he still isn’t used to the stares he attracts from his tattoos. Increasing his pace unknowingly, he declares that Singapore is still as close minded as before, no matter how much they claim to be open. The media use tattoos because it is a convenient depiction. But the truth is, out of 10 criminal offenders 3 have tattoos, what does that tell you?” He questioned.
Without waiting for an answer, he added that the biggest challenge was not how society views him but being discriminated by his family.
Trying to suppress the sadness that welled up, he recounts the times he was faced with rejections and ridicules from his parents and relatives. “One of my uncles taunted me, sarcastically asking me how much I could earn, that I couldn’t survive and I am just plain stupid.” However, he added that being insulted by his relatives was nothing compared to facing the rejection by his family. Being the eldest and having parents who served in the army made it worse for him. “My dad’s a commando, how do you think it turned out when I told him about my decision?” He asked rhetorically.
“My family ignored me for almost a year. I was given the silent treatment and I was a stranger in my own home. My dad didn’t even look at me once.” Under the intensity, his voiced cracked. He reassured that he was alright, but his eyes betrayed him. It took him effort and determination before he was able to rid his parents of the stigma of tattoos. Not only did he have to prove his worth in the industry, he had to show his parents that tattooing is more than drugs, gangs and crime. “I invited my parents to watch me work and observe the process, to understand what I do.”
It was only after 2 years that his parents began accepting his profession. How does he know? “My dad asked me for a tattoo. How many children are able to give their father a tattoo? It’s signifies acceptance and a bond that will only become stronger.” Beaming like a child when he said that. “It was the happiest moment of my life.”
Just then his client walks in and he turns to his tools all laid in front of him, suddenly oblivious to his surroundings, ready to give his best. We thank Vernon for his time and his passion for inking us mundane humanoids.
26 Sin Ming Lane, #05-112
MidView City Blk 26, Singapore 573971
Phone: 91466045 Vernon or 90014960 Ash
Written by a very angry tattooed contributor.
You can find the original article + his website here edbotak.
Photo credit: Tejomaya Studios