PUBLISHED January 22nd, 2021 05:00 am
Bold ornamental tattoos, sleeves of crisp blackwork and giant back pieces of geometric shapes – these are the specialties of Ian Damien, who injects art into skin at the famed Iron Fist Tattoo. A biology student once set on being a researcher, he threw himself into the industry and has never looked back since. Learn about the man behind the tattooing gun in our chat with him about his career switch, dungeons-and-dragons-themed sleeves and dealing with Singapore’s critical eye on tattoos.
Hi Ian! You were studying biological science and was all set to become a researcher. What made you change your path?
Biology has always been my first love. I did my diploma in biomedical science in Ngee Ann Polytechnic and it was like a drug I couldn’t get enough of. The same discipline as a degree in NTU came naturally for me.
I dropped out during the final semester, a few months short of graduation. For some context, a few weeks before finals in my second year, I went to the Sabah International Tattoo Convention. At the time, I was feeling like my life lacked something. Perhaps I felt like I’ve always wanted to be a scientist my entire life, and now that I’ve seen something else, I couldn’t help but be curious. I had been collecting tattoos for six years by the time, but never thought it could be a career for me.
I saw the way the travelling artists from around the world were leading their lives, purely for themselves and expressing themselves through art and it was a mind blowing concept for me. No boss, no beaten path, just spontaneity. I loved that. I decided if I didn’t try this now, i would never try it.
Two years later, in my final year of NTU, I had built a small but steady clientele. I realised that as long as I had my attention split between school and tattooing, neither would get my fullest that each deserved. I’ve always believed that anything worth doing was worth overdoing. A degree is great and everything but a tattoo is forever. I thought that I would one day return to finish my final year, but at the pace my life is progressing… that’s definitely not happening!
Tell us more about the beginning of your tattooing career. Did you face many challenges?
The beginning was horrendous. I was working 13 hour days almost everyday. I had a part time job at the Singapore Science Centre four days a week, in the morning. After that, it was either school (three days a week in the afternoon), or apprenticeship (four days a week, seven hours a shift).
Art wise, due to my lack of formal training, I crammed YouTube lessons on the fundamentals every night. I read books on light and shadow on MRT rides to understand how to actually draw. All I did were rudimentary sketches prior, but if I were to learn from Khai (my mentor), I had to step up my game up. I was hungry to learn and had to prove my worth. In a tattoo apprenticeship, the first few months is unpaid labor, doing the chores and learning through watching.
The biggest challenge of all was the sacrifice of personal relationships. I strained my relationship with my traditional Chinese parents, dropped out of Chinese New Year festivities, and lost a girl I got a BTO with. Do I miss anything? I miss it all. Do I regret anything? Absolutely not.
What inspires your art style?
My biggest inspiration comes from the art and cultures of surrounding countries. To me, my tattooing is the balance between preservation and progression. I try to retain elements from what I see while travelling, and reinterpret it in a unique way.
I’m also inspired by far too many artists to count. Damien J thorn, Guy le Tattooer, Gakkinx, Joao Bosco, Hanumantra, Jun Matsui, Xnazax, Filip Leu, Chris Garver, Bang Ganji, Horitomo, Horihiro, Horiyoshi II and III… This list will honestly never, ever end. And there are guys I don’t even know the names of, just memories of their work.
Amongst the ink you currently have, which one is your favourite?
I don’t particularly have a favourite, of the 70-ish pieces. I’ve collected tattoos for 10 years, and they’re tagged with so many memories from various events in my life. If I were to talk about an interesting one, it would be my right thigh by James Lau of Hong Kong.
I got it done in April 2018, when I was in Hong Kong for a semester abroad while in NTU. I was an apprentice then and wanted to tattoo abroad – that was pretty stupid and ambitious of me, in hindsight! Thus it also reminds me of my first ever guest spot tattooing in a studio that wasn’t Iron Fist.
Is there a particular piece you’ve worked on that is really memorable?
The heaviest piece was when I did a dungeons and dragons symbol (which appears when you die in the game) on a 26-year-old guy. I asked him why that symbol in particular, and he told me he had terminal cancer and didn’t have long to live. The conversation we had that day still sticks with me and guides my decisions sometimes.
From a more technical standpoint, I recently finished this sleeve.
She gave me 100% creative freedom and I always appreciate when that happens. It’s a mesh of bold ornamental tattooing and Japanese textile patterns, which I freehand.
If you could switch bodies with another tattoo artist for a day, who would it be?
I like being myself, but if I had to choose, probably Daniel Snoeks. Because he’s ridiculously handsome and I’d like to be ridiculously handsome for a day at least.
Even now, there’s still a lingering social stigma surrounding tattoos in Singapore. What’s your personal experience with it and how do you cope?
I have a memory of overhearing a mother whisper to her child on the train, “If you don’t study, you’ll end up like him.” That was pretty funny! Generally I don’t actually care. We have a set amount of energy in life and instead of dedicating energy to change minds, I’d like to invest all my energy in doing sick tattoos.
Do you have any big dreams for the future, like travelling overseas to tattoo your international fans?
2020 was supposed to be a European guest spot tour but someone ate a bat and that fell through. Short term goals – I’d like to do more back pieces and paint more. Long term wise, I’d like to achieve balance in my life and be more firm in accepting and declining clients. I hope to be a travelling artist one day and hopefully my work can fund and give going around the world a purpose.
Any words of wisdom for budding tattoo artists?
Words of wisdom 1: Put money in CPF Ordinary account.
Words of wisdom 2: Live laugh love .
Words of wisdom 3: If you get tattoos you go to hell, FYI. My mother say one.
All jokes aside, tattooing is as demanding as it is rewarding. Be prepared to sacrifice but always maintain balance with other aspects of your life.
Also, buy freelancer insurance. If you break your wrist and don’t get income for two months, you’re pretty much dead.
Keep up with Ian Damien on Instagram.
All photos courtesy of Ian Damien.