Shane Tan has accumulated a large following of seriously dedicated patrons. With these devoted advocates collecting backpieces, bodysuits and sleeves, it’s hard to miss the hustle coming from this tattooer. Hailing from Singapore and tattooing since the millennium, Shane Tan really puts in the work. His vast understanding of composition, flow and use of colour speak volumes. The minimal colour palette against such contrasted backgrounds is unmistakable. Shane Tan is moving to the U.K. soon so if you’re looking for the perfect large-scale Japanese tattoo then maybe you should take a read and let your eyes soak in his portfolio.
What are your earliest memories of tattooing?
I grew up seeing tattoos every day because my dad and a few family members had them. But the first time I encountered actual tattooing was in the late 80s when I was about 6 years old. My parents used to hang out with a few of the pioneer tattooers in Singapore. There was this guy, they called him “Specs” probably because he had thick glasses and he invited my parents over to his home one day. I don’t really know why but they thought it was a good idea to drag me and my brothers along. Maybe they figured its best to expose their children to drugs and tattooing at the earliest age possible…
I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case but who knows? So anyway, when we arrived, he greeted us hastily and led us into a room where he was tattooing a huge wolf on this guy’s back. It was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. The room was dark and dirty with random drawings pasted all over the wall. There was 80s rock music playing and about 5 other guys, long-haired, heavily tattooed, just sitting around smoking dope. I knew at that time it wasn’t tobacco because it smelled different. Sitting in a corner of the room, I was mesmerized by every detail of the tattooing process, trying my best to absorb as much as my tiny brain could at that time. There was fear, excitement, curiosity and I kept giggling to myself because I was sure that no other 6-year old I knew had witnessed this. It felt like that was the greatest 2 or 3 hours of my very short existence.
That experience definitely triggered something in me. In the car on the way back home, I kept asking my dad when can we go back? What were they smoking and why was the guy saying “fuck” before and after every word he spoke? I begged them to take me back the following week but unfortunately, that was the only time I visited Specs at his home. He left Singapore shortly after and recently passed away from cancer. I never got to thank him for that experience.
How long have you been tattooing and how did you get started?
I started tattooing 18 years ago, in the year 2000. I was 16 and still in school. I got tattooed at the age of 13 in studios that did mostly gang tattoos. It was cheap and because most of their clientele were gangsters, it wasn’t in their best interest to keep a record of who they tattooed. Which made it easier for underage kids to get tattooed at those places.
I started tattooing because I wanted to tattoo myself. Legs, stomach, wherever I could reach. I was hanging out at one of the studios and some random guy saw a drawing I had done on my backpack and said that I should start tattooing since I could already draw. Apparently, he had just started and knew how to get machines and everything. He promised to guide me and gave me his number but for the next 3 months, I tried calling him every f**king day but he didn’t pick up. I was devastated but didn’t give up and for my birthday, I asked my dad to buy me a Spaulding and Rogers starter kit. It was a complicated process unlike today with PayPal and a million tattoo supplies websites. I remember the shipment arrived 2 or even 3 months after we paid with a money order.
I started tattooing kids in the neighbourhood and did entire tribal tattoos with a 4 liner because Spaulding and Rogers only provided a dozen 4 liners in their starter kits and maybe 2 pieces of flat magnums. I had 20 underaged kids who wanted to get tattooed because I charged $10 a pop for anything palm size. (approximately £5)
So I tattooed everyone with those 4 liners. It didn’t matter what design or size if you’re getting a piece from me at that time, it would have been done with a 4 liner.
Don’t laugh, it was good practice. These days, people have silicone practice skins in all shapes and sizes but back then, we had to use actual kids in the neighbourhood who were broke and couldn’t afford real tattoos.
Your portfolio is filled with back pieces, do you ever do small one hit tattoos?
I’d do them if you asked me to. It’s just that everyone knows I do shitty lines and can’t concentrate on a small area for more than an hour so they stopped asking me to do small stuff. With smaller pieces, your flaws are magnified somehow. Every mistake can be seen so clearly. But with bodysuits, no one gives a flying f**k if a small line is broken. You just clean that shit up with some black.
Where do you find your inspiration? Any reference recommendations?
I draw inspiration from books, people, my surroundings and of course the bloody internet. For Japanese tattooing, I think your best bet is to study the old masters e.g. Horibun, Horiuno 1 and 2, Horigoro, Horiyoshi 1 and 2, Horikin, Horicho, Yokosuka Horihide and of course to study the masters who influenced them. To name a few, Kuniyoshi, Hokusai, Kunisada, Kano Hogai and many other Edo period (and earlier) artists and craftsmen. Regardless of which style of Japanese tattooing you do, modern or traditional, I strongly believe to study the old masters is the first step we should take to understand the way of the Japanese Tattoo.
In my opinion, if you neglect the basics like I did when I was younger, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be difficult to move forward. I got into Japanese tattooing not knowing the basics and went straight ahead into trying to create my “own” style and did a modern interpretation of the Japanese tattoo which ended up a total disaster. I spent the first 12 years messing up on so many designs and I was always puzzled at why the tattoos I did just didn’t feel right. Now, after 2 decades of struggling, I’m slowly starting to understand and realize the importance of the basics.
I might be wrong but who cares. What do I know anyway? Don’t forget you’re asking a guy who got tattooed at 13 years old and started tattooing at 16 without a proper apprenticeship.
Do you have any book recommendations for those looking to read further or find some Japanese reference?
These are just some of the books with English translations I would recommend;
– Japan’s Tattoo Artist Horihide’s World. 1989
– Tattoo Of Horicho. 1988
– World Of Japanese Tattooing – Color illustrated. 1973
– Japan Tattoo Graph. 1984
– The Japanese Tattoo by Sandi Fellman. 1986
– The Japanese Tattoo by Donald Richie & Ian Buruma. 1980, second edition 1982
– Of Brigands and Bravery: Kuniyoshi’s Heroes of the Suikoden. 1998
– Hokusai Manga ( various publications )
– Kano Hogai ( various publications )
– Kawanabe Kyosai ( various publications )
Any tips on putting together large-scale work properly? How do you always get the composition so right?
To start off, I decide on the amount of details I want or need in that particular piece, always keeping in mind that with lesser details, the better the tattoo will age. I like details but nothing excessive. If that makes sense. I plan for how the tattoo will look in 20 years, not how it will look 1 week after it’s healed. I prefer taking photos of my work 1 or 2 years after its all settled in and faded. Your body ages, and so will your tattoo. We have to give it enough thick lines and black to hold it all together so as time goes by, it fades gracefully.
I don’t always get the composition right but I try my best to manipulate the background to suit the body part that I’m working on. The background is the most important part of Japanese Tattooing. If you mess it up, everything else fails. I’d say one of the best ways to create a good composition for large pieces is to sketch a few versions with varying backgrounds on an A4 size paper and then enlarging it later when you’re satisfied with one. I stencil only the main subject.
All of my backgrounds are done freehand. By doing so, I get a better understanding of the body part I’m working on. Always making sure there is a good flow of elements. Nothing must be placed too close or too far apart. There must be a sense of balance. A good composition is strong and forceful but has a sense of calm and elegance at the same time, just like nature.
You mentioned moving to London soon, what has prompted your desire to leave Singapore behind?
I’m sick and tired of the tropical sunshine in Singapore and I want to experience the rain and grey weather in London. My wife is British and my kid has a British passport so we thought it would be a good idea to move back there and start a new adventure. Life has been too good in Singapore, but the plan was never to stay here forever. So what better time than now? We’ve already started the visa application for me, so we’ll see what happens.
Do you have any hobbies or passions outside of tattooing?
I like writing erotic poems…
I’m kidding! Since I had a kid, I haven’t had time for anything else. Life is a freaking hurricane at the moment. If I’m not tattooing or painting, I’m running around chasing my 2-year-old who thinks he’s Batman, Superman, Spiderman and Iron Man all at once. Imagine that.
What machines, needles and inks are you currently using?
Swashdrive Gen 8, Dan Kubin and my friend David (@black_.sea) from The Circle recently got me into Lithuanian Irons. I use it for outlining. Needles are Black Claw mostly. Inks are Electric Ink.