Anyone with a tattoo knows exactly what it feels like when the needle first hits their skin, and then having that needle seemingly dragged through their skin. Sometimes for hours on end.
It’s painful, yet for some people, it’s this pain that brings them back to the tattoo artists and studios over and over again. Addictive?
For others, it’s the desire to get covered in beautiful body art, or to get a piece of memory etched into one’s skin.
“A tattoo session for some people is like therapy – it has a calming effect on them. I have done emotional tattoos or remembrance tattoos on clients before and they feel as if these sessions are therapeutic. They get emotional when they tell the stories behind their tattoos.
“As a tattoo artist you don’t just have to deal with your clients’ physical pain but you sometimes share in their sorrow and sadness too,” says tattoo artist Carlos Benny Majakil, who has been working in the industry for more than 20 years. Majakil, 36, is the organiser of the Tattoo Malaysia Expo 2019, the largest international tattoo expo in the country that’s taking place in Kuala Lumpur this November.
Majakil was also responsible for three earlier international tattoo conventions that took place in his hometown of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Though these conventions were relatively smaller, they did manage to garner interest from not just local body art enthusiasts but international travellers – and artists – too.
In 2017, the convention in KK hosted 71 tattoo artists from 27 countries. This year, Majakil says they have already managed to lock in participants from 35 countries at the Tattoo Malaysia Expo.
“We are targeting 30,000 visitors to the expo this year, which is a lot more than what we had in KK (2,000) but we believe this is achievable as KL is a lot more accessible. It is easier for people to travel to KL,” he shares.
The expo will be held at the KL Convention Centre from Nov 29 to Dec 1 and is supported by the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCEB) as well as the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry. The expo counts as a tourism event, falling under the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) category.
Majakil’s company – Koiyak Gloves, which produces latex gloves specifically designed for use in the tattoo industry – is the main organiser and sponsor.
“I started Koiyak Gloves in 2013. The idea came to me during my travels to international tattoo expos. Gloves are important in the tattoo world as we must always prioritise hygiene and sanitation.
“Once I got back, I started working with a local latex glove producer. Koiyak Gloves is 100% a Malaysia-owned company. The word ‘koiyak’ (koh-ee-yak) means ‘to laugh’ in Kadazan, my native language. For me, the gloves are my contribution not just to the tattoo industry, but the country’s economy too,” Majakil says, adding that he works with a small team of partners and friends to ensure things go smoothly for the expo.
Many of the artists featured in this year’s expo were also part of Majakil’s previous events. This isn’t surprising as Majakil is part of a larger global community of tattoo artists who travel extensively for work and are supportive of each other’s projects.
“The first three events became like a meeting point for tattoo artists from all around Malaysia as well as abroad. I see myself as the bridge between Malaysian and foreign artists. I am also well connected with artists from Europe and North America, so it wasn’t that hard to get people to join this expo,” he says.
One of the artists is Ash Goh, a Malaysian who has made a career for herself in the tattoo scene in Singapore, where she owns Tejomaya Studios. Goh met Majakil at a convention in Italy three years ago and the two have been catching up there since then.
“I do enjoy participating in tattoo conventions in general but I am especially looking forward to the one in KL because it feels like balik kampung for me. Plus, I am looking forward to meeting other artists and hopefully learn something along the way,” she says.
Majakil adds that although he screens the artists who wish to participate in the expo, he also believes in giving an opportunity for folks to learn and improve their work, as this was how he himself evolved in the industry.
“It’s a chance for local artists to gain exposure and experience so I’m welcoming everyone who’s willing to take that chance. I learnt a lot during my travels. I have been to four continents to meet renowned tattoo artists and spent time with them just to learn different styles of tattooing,” he reveals.
The Tattoo Malaysia Expo serves as a precursor to the country’s biggest event next year – Visit Malaysia 2020. Government agencies and bodies like Tourism Malaysia have been actively promoting the country to international markets over the past few months, and this event may help in attracting even more travellers. Or at least, put Malaysia in the ranks of countries with a developing tattoo culture.
After all, a handful of native tribes in Malaysia do have their own tattoo art and customs. The bungai terung of Sarawak, for example, is a well-known motif among tattoo artists and enthusiasts from all over the world.
“Tattoos used to be taboo in our culture as it is mostly associated with triads and gangs. However, things have changed and it is now seen as a form of art as well as self-expression,” says Majakil, adding that his clients come from all walks of life. “I have clients who are lawyers, CEOs, managing directors and others working in the corporate world – successful folks who do not see tattoos as a negative thing.”
Goh says that the tattoo culture in Singapore is evolving quickly too. “The younger generation is much more receptive towards it. A lot of professionals get tattoos now and even if they ask to keep the placements discreet, tattoos are more mainstream nowadays compared to a few decades ago.
“The tattoo scene is getting more competitive with a lot of new artists emerging. It’s good for the growth if the standards of tattooing improves with each new generation bringing their own signature style to the scene,” she notes.
Like many tattoo artists, both Majakil and Goh are heavily inked. “Depending on where I go, sometimes people do come up to me to ask for a photo or selfie. They are not intimidated by the way I look, they are mostly just interested in the art. My tattoos do not define the kind of person I am; I always believe that ‘good begets good’,” says Majakil, who started tattooing at age 14.
Although he does not specialise in a particular tattoo style, he is interested in Japanese designs, but admits that there is still so much for him to learn. As for client requests, he tries his best to accommodate every demand.
“Tattooing is very personal and each tattoo tells a story. When a client asks for a tattoo, we will usually go through a consultation session first. As a responsible artist, I will ask for the motive behind their design and advise them accordingly. Tattoos are permanent fixtures on your body so you would definitely want to have nice ones,” he says.
Goh says that some clients know exactly what they want, which may (or may not) make it easier for an artist.
“Clients are more savvy these days and do their own research for design ideas. They often request for personalised designs to commemorate certain events in their lives rather than pick something off the Internet.”
For a look at which artists will be at the Tattoo Malaysia Expo, check out their Instagram or Facebook pages (both @tattoomalaysiaexpo). Tickets are on sale via Ticket2u.com.my – one-day pass and three-day passes are available. You can also try to set up appointments with the artist or artists of your choice, in case they are fully booked during the expo days.