Melvin Tay is a tattoo artist from Singapore who specializes in Chinese Oriental abstract, he’s also a dear friend of mine. I met Melvin for the first time in 2011 during a convention in Belgium and he already had a pretty impressive list of conventions and guest spots. That list never stopped growing. When he hosted me for a guest spot in his studio in 2015 he had just finished a tour and was ready to begin another one shortly after.
When I met him again at Tattoo Expo Bologna 2018 he was on tour yet again. This guy never stops, I can’t even imagine how many tattoo conventions he has attended around the world. So I needed to hear a little bit more about his journey, especially being someone from a different culture.
The first question I want to ask him since he’s from Singapore is: What is the biggest difference you see between Asian and Western tattoo culture?
Well obviously I’m from the East and what we do is influenced by Oriental culture. The biggest difference I see between the two cultures comes down to people right now, it actually depends on individuals who want to bring out their own culture and put it into their art, besides that, I think it’s pretty much the same.
If you’re asking about individual culture, background, religion, language I think they are a very important part of what we are doing.
I see Westerners do very good Oriental art, I see Easterners do very good Western art also. And if you’re asking if there is a difference between the two cultures, I think there is definitely a difference, but maybe not so much.
I think that Western tattoo culture nowadays is a bit too much about fashion. Everybody wants a tattoo, sometimes not just for the tattoo and sometimes not even for the process of getting tattooed, but just because they are surrounded by tattooed people. They see tattoos everywhere, on TV shows, footballers, starlets, actors, so they see so many tattoos around them that they just want to be part of that without really wanting to be part of tattoo culture.
So, is it different in Asia? Maybe it’s something more sacred, more meaningful, not just something to show off?
Nowadays, when I go to European conventions, I see everyone wants to work with a banner, everyone wants to work with suppliers, represent products, but that’s not much of a thing in Asia.
I think this is the difference right now between the West and Asia, and the fashion…
I think it’s kind of a thing right now, that everyone has to work with products and put up banners, like the ones of those ink manufacturers we were talking about, but that’s not really important in Asia.
What about the people, do you think that people get tattooed in the same way as in Western culture? Just for fashion, just for the experience of getting a tattoo or is there something more sacred about tattooing? Maybe Asian people get tattooed in a more meaningful or sacred way, or are they just like us?
I understand your question, I don’t know too much about Westerners but most of my Western customers, especially in Europe, give me room to play, do what I want, but I think that almost 70% to 80 % of them don’t really know what they want when I first meet them, they just want a tattoo because their friends, their brothers or people around them have one.
But in Asia when people get their first tattoo there should be a reason behind it, cultural background or whatever, or memories of someone. I also met people like this in Europe of course, but most of the time people I meet at conventions, my customers, don’t really know what they want, they just want to have a tattoo, which is good in another way because most of the time when they come and talk to me and they like my style they just let me do what I want.
You travel a lot, you do a lot of conventions, maybe I’m wrong but it seems that most of the conventions you do are here in Europe. Is there something about Europe that you like, is it just convenient to work in Europe, or are there simply more conventions in Europe than anywhere else?
I think that you have more or less answered this question already.
Think about worldtattooevents.com, that allows all convention organizers to put up their convention onto the website and everyone can go and take a look… If you really look closer, only in Italy, the place where we are standing right now, there are 60 shows a year and we haven’t even counted Germany, France, Switzerland and places like that.
I agree that Europe is big, every week there’s some big show going on but of course, there are some bad shows going on too, but yeah, there are a lot more shows in Europe, there are more opportunities for us.
Why I like coming to Europe so much has a lot to do with what I’m doing because I specialize in Chinese Oriental abstract which not a lot of people do in Europe, everyone is doing traditional Japanese, which has been around the tattoo scene for more than 600 years.
Everyone knows traditional Japanese, everyone knows all the styles and tattooing today is evolving with so many kinds of styles, and I think it’s kind of an opportunity for me to start selling something that no one is doing in Europe, this is why I chose to come to Europe.
I remember the first time I met you it was in Belgium and you were already traveling in Europe, then, if I remember correctly, when I visited you in Singapore you had just returned from a tour and were ready to travel again and do a lot more conventions, you do a lot of them every year.
Is it some kind of addiction? Are conventions addictive?
No, it’s not addictive, it’s kind of getting tiring. But I have a vision, some goals I still want to achieve, but definitely not trophies, not competitions.
Don’t you like competitions?
Hum, let’s put it this way, everyone likes to have their glory on the stage for a few seconds, to pick up the trophy, let’s be very honest, but I’ve come to a point where I think that shouldn’t be my priority when I come to conventions. But there are many artists who go to tattoo conventions for tattoo contests, for trophies, maybe because that works for them in their studio, they get more customers, they get more fame, but that shouldn’t be my priority.
There’s something I want to achieve, I set it as a goal for myself in four years time and it doesn’t matter how many trophies I get to earn that achievement.
Would you like to tell us what you want to achieve? If you’d rather not share it with us just say so 🙂
I’m going to tell you very soon, in 2019 or maybe 2020. I’m going to break the news to everyone I know. I’m very happy to tell you that I’m very close, I’m very very close to what I want to do and I’m going to break the news very soon.
What was your biggest challenge as a tattoo artist?
I was talking with a very close friend of mine yesterday, I do not only see this guy as a friend but also as a kind of mentor, someone who pushes me or someone I look up to. I was telling him about some of the problems I have with my art, I think that is my biggest challenge right now, and after the dinner last night, after our chat, I went back to my room and I thought it over.
I would put a term on this, what is the challenge? I think the biggest challenge right now is to get my style straight.
This was and still is your challenge?
It’s always there, and this is why when I saw this friend of mine yesterday we started talking about this.
During our dinner he gave me a lot of solutions, ways to try, and after listening to everything he said I think that maybe it’s not that I can’t find my style, I know what I’m doing, I think I have a style, it’s just that I need to get my style straight for people to see and know: “Aha! This is from Melvin”.
You know, so yeah, I think this is still my challenge right now.
When I met this guy when he came to Singapore in 2015 we talked a lot about art, and I remember I mentioned this to him, and today it’s still my challenge.
I think that at the end of the day it’s better to have this kind of problem, you know: “Oh I’m never happy with what I’m doing” rather than: “Oh I’m so content with what I’m doing already”.
It’s part of being an artist.
Yeah, sometimes it really bothers me, but when it will start bothering me too much I think that I will pick up a brush and start painting again.
How long have you been tattooing now?
This is my fourteenth year.
So a lot of things have changed since you got into the industry, fourteen years is a long time.
How has the industry changed in these last fifteen years in your eyes?
What is worse and what is better from your point of view?
It wasn’t so easy to gain information fifteen years ago, it wasn’t so easy to get into the industry.
It’s much easier for people today, but the problem is that the people who struggled to get into the industry fifteen years ago have stayed and are still tattooing today, while for people who come into the industry today it’s so easy but it’s not easy for them to stay.
They do it for a couple of years then they go and do other stuff. I think that’s the difference between fifteen years ago and today.
Today there are so many products, there’s so much information, and we also don’t have many magazines, everything is on Instagram.
Yeah, I think that magazines are dying, everybody goes online now. Even if there are still a few magazines they don’t sell as much as they used to ten or fifteen years ago.
I think it’s dead (laughing)
Even magazines are moving there, let’s call it business, on digital…
So you were sharing this with me yesterday, that magazines are dead…
Well they are still around, they are still, let’s call them influencers of the industry and being featured on a magazine is still something, let’s say prestigious. But still, it’s not so important as it probably was ten or fifteen years ago, because nowadays you can have your own, let’s call it media, your website, your social media etc. So we don’t really need those magazines like we did before and I’m pretty sure that tattoo magazines are just bought by tattoo artists, not so much from the general public, but I could be wrong.
I remember you mentioning this to me yesterday, that magazines are dying. Once studios tended to buy space from magazines so when I looked at a magazine I knew which tattoo studio I should go to.
Now it’s just about merchandising I think, everyone wants to get the latest stuff, the latest machine, the latest ink, and yeah you’re telling me that it’s just a change in the business, but that doesn’t really change the artists doing their own art.
So, among all these changes what is the best part and the worst part from your point of view?
I think the best part is the more the merrier, the more people want to join this industry…the more the merrier.
Because I believe that, when you keep pouring water into a cup the water will just flow, the water will only start overflowing when it reaches the top and those people who stay in the cup stay, those people who overflow…
Fifteen years ago when I started learning to tattoo from my mentor I saw the wave, there’s been a change of wave and now we have TV shows, Miami Ink, L.A. Ink, and you know, those are another wave.
So I think tattoos always come in waves, when a wave goes higher there will be some changes and if you ask me, the more the merrier, anyone who wants to come into this industry to share a piece of cake is welcome because the more there are the more it will improve.
I still believe that a cup can only contain a certain amount of water, and when the water reaches the top it will overflow but there will still be water in the cup and those people are the people who are staying, so let’s see, let’s see what the next wave is going to be when the water reaches the top.
And what’s the worst?
I think the worst thing is conventions, I’ve attended a lot of conventions and this is what I see because there are so many artists coming in.
There will be people who don’t know anything about tattoos who want to get a piece of cake too, they want to use tattoos to make some money, so they start coming out with products or maybe they will start working with some merchandiser, with suppliers, or they even decide to make their own convention after visiting London Tattoo Convention or Mondial du Tatouage.
They see the people in that kind of show, they want to make money and they think they can make good conventions like them, so they start making conventions with no experience, they will start making shitty conventions.
There are so many people coming into the market so obviously, the demand is there, so people will come up with new products to sell to these people and I think conventions are the same. People want to make conventions and this is why I think there are so many conventions in Europe, good ones and also a lot of bad ones, and I believe that’s not so good for the industry.
What advice would you give to a young guy who is starting tattooing today?
Follow your heart, that’s it.
And if you could go back in time to when you were twenty years old and give yourself advice, what would you say to your younger self?
Follow your heart.
And did you do it?
So there’s no other advice you would give to your younger self.
I would tell myself to follow my heart. I think it’s very important to follow your heart, to do what you like. Even when we were talking about this yesterday over dinner you gave me a lot of advice, and I was thinking, at the end of the day I’m the only person who can find out the answer so I just have to follow my heart.
I think that twenty years later I would still tell myself to follow my heart.
I think it’s a beautiful piece of advice, and I think that after this “Follow your heart” there’s nothing left to say 🙂
Thank you, Melvin, for your time.
Thank you, Jerry, thank you.
You can find Melvin Tay at https://www.facebook.com/MELVINTATTOOSG/
Jerry Magni is an Italian tattoo artist, illustrator, painter. In his spare time, he’s also a contributing blogger for Tattoo.com
He can be found at JerryMagni.com and look for him on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.