Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Elizabeth Or: The Road from Kindergarten Teacher to Tattoo Artist

Bonhomie is how one would describe Elizabeth Or’s White Walls Tattoo Studio. For a change, there are no sketches of sinister-looking skulls or a temperature-controlled tank of exotic animals, though Godzilla figurines of various sizes are bound to put whatever speculation of yours in sightings of Hello Kitty dolls at bay. The truth is Elizabeth can almost pass for Miss Congenial, if you don’t rub her up the wrong way, that is. That you find an instant liking to her, and feel compelled to lay things off your chest despite being there only for a tattoo consultation, is perhaps to do with the fact that she was once a kindergarten teacher, or that she has been through so much that she knows how it feels to be branded as ‘inadequate’. If you come to White Walls with the intention of having your deceased pets inked on you, chances are Elizabeth will blubber away in grief with you, with the compassion and empathy she has developed as a long-time animal lover, and current ‘mum’ of four cats and two dogs, all rescues. 

It was a long time coming, with the technicalities of apprenticeship further complicated by the financial issue called ‘having scarcely little saving in your bank account’, and all the intricacies that are unique to Elizabeth’s reality. A little over a year later today, the proud owner of her own tattoo studio will tell you that all her convenient excuses were mere BS, and that there always is a silver lining. 

1. You were a kindergarten teacher before becoming a tattoo artist. What’s the story? 
I used to be quite self-conscious, constantly concerned about how other people saw me. I think everyone is a bit like that. Now I would remind myself that how other people see me isn’t as important as how I feel about myself. My parents have high expectations of what I do to make a living, but a point was reached when I realised that nothing I do would please them, because we have very different perspectives on life. 

I became a kindergarten teacher upon graduation. I enjoyed teaching children, because they reminded me of the innocence and many other things that I used to have, but somehow forgotten about while growing up. Every day spent with these children was a happy day, although there wasn’t a minute I didn’t feel a right hypocrite whenever I encouraged them to have faith in themselves, and to pursue their dreams.

The truth is I’ve always wanted to be a tattoo artist. I have immense respect for tattoo artists, who can turn a sketch into a permanent piece of body art. One day, in class, I asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. Some of them said they wanted to be a teacher, just like teacher Elizabeth. And I remember thinking, “Aw, that’s very sweet, but I don’t even want to be myself.” That was a wake-up call. It made me realise that I should really be doing something that my students would be proud of me for. 

Not long after that, I resigned and sent in my resume to a tattoo parlour to apply for apprenticeship. That’s how my career as a tattoo artist started. It was a drastic change for me, going from having a stable income to zero income. I wasn’t so well-prepared to have enough money in the bank to keep me going, but then I thought I’d given myself more than enough excuses - I knew I could always find a part-time job.

2. When did you become interested in tattoo? 
I got my first tattoo - a heart on my ankle - aged 21. But I remember being fascinated by those bubble gums with temporary tattoo wrappers when I was three years old. I would stick them all over my body, and my parents would scare me into thinking that I could get cancer from those! I also vividly remember my mum saying that she would never spend a penny for me to learn art, because I would only end up wasting her money. My parents are ‘traditional’ in the sense that they want me to work for the government or in the police force. Even my grandmother, when she sees me, she’d still ask why I didn’t apply for civil service jobs. My answer is invariably that that isn’t what I want to do. I can’t imagine myself in a uniform. Besides, I have issues with authority and I have the tendency to challenge it. 

3. The appeal of being the creator of the art form that you love so much? 
It’s a great feeling, despite people asking me weird questions like, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” - meaning having tattoos on my body. There are myriad reasons people want to have certain things inked on their body, and I’m happy that I get to be the person who can help them make that happen. 

It is important that people tell me what they want for their tattoos. Some of my clients aren’t very forthcoming about the ideas they have for their tattoo, at times they would need some kind of encouragement, because at the end of the day, I can only produce the tattoo they want if they give me enough materials to work with. 

4. Memorable experiences in your career so far?
I had a client whose sexuality was kept a secret, and I was the first person he ever confided to. I told him that I was very proud of him, but I also said that he had to tell it to someone - I was only his tattoo artist, I was nobody. Some time later, he told me that he’s come out to his best friends and some other friends. I think getting a tattoo helps you understand yourself.

Very often, people would come to me to have a tattoo done to honour their deceased pets, and just as often, I’d cry with them when they told me the stories of their pets - as the mum of two dogs and four cats, I know how it feels to lose your pets. 

I’ve got people coming here, initially to get a tattoo, but eventually telling me their life stories, setbacks and struggles in life, so much so that I often feel like a shrink. I think I should start charging them an hourly rate for that! (laughs) But really, it’s part of my plan for people to tell me more about themselves, so then I’ll have a better idea about the kind of tattoo to create for them. In fact, the studio is furbished with the comfort of the home in mind, precisely for this reason. 

5. The stories behind the tattoos on you? 
I have a half-sleeve of purple roses. On the first day of my apprenticeship, I made a mental note to get a purple rose tattoo when I become a tattoo artist. Roses are an ubiquitous element in the world of tattoo art, and since I don’t like the colour red, I chose purple. I had the half-sleeve done on the day I became a tattoo artist - that day when my dream came true still seems very surreal to me. 

6. What does it take to be a good tattoo artist? 
A passion for the art of tattoo. Being a tattoo artist isn’t just a way to make a living - it’s about embracing the art as a part of your life. Which is another way of saying that you’re crazy about tattoos, that you’d think about tattoos day and night. Take, for instance, when I go furniture shopping, I’d see a certain pattern on a piece of furniture, and I’d think, maybe I can incorporate that into my next tattoo creation! 

7. What was the greatest challenge when opening your own tattoo studio? 
That would be building my portfolio. I’m fortunate to have clients who remember me, and who trust me enough to come to my studio and have really cool pieces done. 

8. What’s the best thing about being Elizabeth Or right now? 
That my dream has come true! To quote a friend, I apparently have the semblance of a halo above my head, and I apparently exude a ‘glow’. I feel very lucky to have realised my dream, and along the way I realised that you should not let your own excuses get in the way, that there is always a silver lining. 

9. What’s next? 

I will be attending expos around the world to hone in on my skills, and I plan to write a book with a theme on the revelation of people’s perception of tattoos. 

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