Talking Tattoos: Part III
Interview with Eddie David of Borneo Ink
A couple of weeks ago, three of us (myself, Simon and Patricia) paid a visit to Borneo Ink in Sri Hartamas. Walking into the tattoo studio was like entering an alternate universe, where Eddie, Simon and Lina David spend their days putting art on the naked skin of their clients. The atmosphere was open, positive and totally chilled out. Eddie spoke to us in his hilariously frank, dead-pan way about tattooing, taboos, and the recently canceled Malaysian Tattoo Convention.
ARTERI: Are you guys from Sarawak?
Eddie: Yeah. That’s why we’re called Borneo Ink. You think we’d just take some name and make false impressions? *Laughs*
[We spotted a convention poster framed on the wall with a list of participants and their home countries. Borneo Ink was listed as coming from Borneo, not Malaysia, and got curious about that.]
Ok, tattooing has been part of Dayak culture for a very long time. The Dayaks are not only in Malaysia but all over Borneo, so that’s why we encompass it lah.
The name ‘Borneo Ink’ – ‘ink’ is a slang term for tattooing. We chose a simple name, that tells where we’re from and what we’re doing, so that people will get the idea that not only do these people know how to do traditional tattooing, they also know how to do it with a machine.
The cancelled Malaysia Tattoo Convention. How did the whole thing start?
The people involved were Singaporeans. They wanted to do it right after the Singapore Tattoo Show, because they thought it was a success. The organizers made a lot of money. This bunch of businessmen wanted to ride on that wave, basically.
Did they have any background in the tattoo industry?
Not at all. That’s the reason they got us onto it.
You came in as consultants?
Technically that’s what they wanted us for. Okaylah, fine, we agreed. But, we told them: this is our idea on how it should be done. We wanted push it as something cultural, not so much as a tattoo convention.
Along the way, because they were in Singapore and we were here, for the most part we had no feedback on anything. They wanted to get as many artists in to sell the booths, which was not really what I had in mind. Selling booths is great if you just want to do business. But as the first convention in this country, the idea was to promote it as a cultural thing. Because, tattooing, I don’t know if you notice, is a very controversial subject. Especially in a country where, you know, for example, Beyonce is not allowed to perform.
From a political point of view, it’s a dangerous place to be. You’re walking on glass…thin ice, basically. If the government says, “Hey, no, this is a bad thing and we have quell it”, it will send a message to the Dayaks whose population is about a million. We’re talking about voters here. You can take our land and you can do a lot of things to us, we’re not gonna say anything. But when you start fucking with our culture, basically the Dayaks are gonna say “Hey fuck you, man. We’ve had enough of your bullshit”. It’s a Catch-22. You have to know how to play this right. One side can’t make it an issue because if the other side does, someone else will ‘counter-issue’ and it will become a big problem. After that, everyone just wants to wash their hands of it because, you know, you’re offending things that are protected under the Constitution of our country.
Where do you think this opposition comes from? Why are these people calling this and that taboo?
It’s like beer, pornography or anything of that sort. Basically what it is, is repression. If you see enough naked women, or naked men for that matter, after a while it’s just a naked person, so what? Unless you’ve got three dicks or three pairs of boobs on you then yeah, maybe that would be interesting to see. But for the most part, everybody has the same thing, the same plumbing. Why should it even be an issue?
Is that one of the reasons why you agreed to do the Convention? So that the more people are exposed to the art of tattooing, the less they’ll go ape-shit about it?
I think Malaysians, in general, especially people who like tattoos, are little more mature in terms of wanting things. They’re more careful with choosing what they want and they know how to do their research.
In the beginning, we told people, “Hey, you don’t have to follow exactly the art in books, you can actually draw stuff out and go on from there”. TV shows and documentaries also helped. Now if you Google ‘tattoo’, you get millions and millions of hits. People talk about it all the time. So Malaysians are a little more, I guess, open in that sense. I think we’ve got to a point now that society’s almost cast away the negative perception that all people with tattoos are criminals.
If I’m not mistaken, I think a lot of criminals dress in suits and drive nice cars. You don’t have to go very far to see that.
Back to why the tattoo convention got messed up – what happened exactly?
Okay, we’re not very sure how this thing came about. We consulted them on the moves they should take in order to secure the artists. Basically: “Hey, these are the artists we’re gonna get, let’s say 20”, and all these 20 people, you need to fly them in, house them and give them a free booth. They’re like the rock stars of the event. None of the artists got their tickets, which is supposed to be done a week after you send them the invite.
We didn’t know this until after they decided to cancel the show. The question of licensing – they were saying, “Oh, there was opposition”. But they failed in that they portrayed it as a tattoo convention. You never do that, not in this country. The religious will get all crazy about it. You have to word it very carefully.
As I said, my initial advice was to propose it as a cultural event. It would have helped in more ways than they could possibly think. But that meant they would have to pay for people who were not as famous as the other artists – that is, traditional tattooers. And there’s plenty of those really, really good artists who have been on Discovery channel and all that, you know.
So we had a group of international artists that were willing to come to Malaysia as long as their requirements were met. The organizers didn’t want to do that and didn’t consult us. Basically, how we worked was that we’d get phone calls from one of their representatives, four or five phone calls over the course of the whole thing. We advised them… no one does an event in six months, are you crazy? But they insisted: “I can lah, I can lah”. So yeah, kinda can’t now, huh?
Ask anyone, I’m not an event organizer and even I can tell you that it takes a year of preparation to get this off the ground. Any convention overseas is the same thing.
Which ministry do you apply to to get the license?
You apply to DBKL because it’s considered an event. One of my friends, a well-known TV person, wrote a great proposal, which actually got approved.
The organizers themselves… okay, this is where it gets tricky. If you pay for the license, the show has to go on. Which means that you have to pay for the venue, about RM300,000. The air tickets weren’t booked. So, if you put all of it together, the clues and gaps, there was alot that was dodgy about it.
That’s why we didn’t put too much effort into it. We told our friends, “Look, these people organized it and our job was just to get Chris Garver down.
The first thing I asked them was “What are you looking for? Are you looking for a pasar malam or an event of international repute?” When we go to a convention, if there are artists of no caliber there, we’ll question: Why are we brought down to this level? It took us years to get up here. Suddenly this jack-off comes in just because he knows somebody or paid money for the show. The standard drops. Next year when you try to invite good artists, they won’t come. By the third year, you can forget about doing a world-class event.
So when artists come over here, what do they normally do during the convention?
They do exactly what they like doing. And the people who love their style go to get tattooed by them.
I think the organizers took for granted that tattoo artists sit around and do nothing all day. Alot of these friends of mine are very busy and had to block off three weeks of their time to come to Malaysia.
People want to see Malaysia. They’ve seen it on Discovery channel, on TV. “Oh, this is what Sarawak is like”, “Oh, this is what Malaysia is like”. Anthony Bourdain and all these famous tattooists have been in Malaysia. Some have worked in our shop.
Think about the possibility of what comes in for tourism. We’re talking about regional, Southeast Asia. People flying in from Australia, New Zealand and Japan. That’s why we wanted all the big names to come. Otherwise, don’t bother. We’ve done a lot of conventions, and there’s only one or two that made an impression.
What’s the difference for you between tattooing at a conference and right here in the comfort of your shop?
Conventions are a pain in the ass. But if it’s a fun convention, it’s okay. We get to meet up with our friends and get wasted, do a lot of stupid things, which we were never very proud of, once we sober up.
At first it was very business-like because we were new. “Oh, we have to show these mat sallehs that we’re as good as them”. After awhile, you don’t have that rivalry anymore because they are all your friends.
Because you realize that you’re as good as them?
It doesn’t really matter lah. There’s no dick-measuring contest. Mostly, you don’t even talk about tattooing. You talk about all kinds of stuff, more fun stuff, like girls. Or stupid things we’ve done. Nobody really talks about tattooing. That’s more for people who are just starting in the scene. We’ve been doing this for a long time.
Can I ask you an emo newbie question then? How do you see yourself as an artist?
You’ll have to elaborate on that.
Let’s put it this way, there’s the impression that artists/painters work a lot in isolation in their studios. But you’re actually helping realize someone else’s vision. It’s a collaboration.
It’s better that way. I want the person I’m tattooing to have a hand in determining what they want. It’s because of the longevity of tattoos.
Before you buy something, you’ll obsess about it, “I gotta buy that shoe, I gotta buy that shoe”. It bugs you day and night, you dream about it and one day decide “I’m gonna buy that shoe”. Two weeks later, you put it aside.
Tattoos are the same. If you take one off the wall, I guarantee you, in two weeks, you’ll look at it and say “What the fuck did I do that for, man?” When you have to wait three months, it gives you time to adjust to what you want. And that helps us, because I can’t read people’s minds. If I could do that, I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be a psychic and make lots of money telling your fortune.
Do you still paint?
No, I haven’t painted anything since that [pointing to a big poster that’s also the entry sign to the shop upstairs]. I did go for an oil painting workshop organized by a friend. It was first time I’ve done that. Pretty cool.
You liked it?
Um, it’s just weird because it’s not rigid. I like stuff like this when you have to make sure that things are clean and nice. That was very, like, freeform, man. You just mixed it, and it’s very weird. I’m used to being in control when I do things. You make a line and it stays like that. But oil is like “Oh you don’t need to draw anything, you just start painting”. But how do you do that, man? So, it’s taking a step back and doing what you want and like.
Find Borneo Ink at 8-3, Jalan 27/70A, Desa Sri Hartmas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur. Phone: 03 2300 1151 or email them at tattoos AT borneoink DOT com.
Hey! Check out the other Talking Tattoos posts: