From the cute, symmetrical strokes of foam on your daily latte to the exquisite exhibits in galleries, it is a known fact that art comes in any shape, sound and form. Tattooing is an art form that dates back thousands of years ago, where it is used as a form of self-expression and creativity. Tattoos become a beautiful part of the human body that can either serve to be a reminder of a significant moment in time or just the complete opposite, as they could be something that’s done for pure fun!
The art of tattooing is a strong medium of self-expression that is preserved by talented, passionate and skilled individuals who have mastered this intricate art form that uses the human body as one’s canvas. Being one of these individuals, self-taught hand poked tattoo artist, Esther of @pokingduck on Instagram gives us some insight into life as a tattoo artist and small business owner in Malaysia.
RIUH: Tell us about the early days of your business.
Esther: I used to tattoo wherever I could in the early days. Most of the time it was in my bedroom, but I also took house-calls and travelled to clients homes for appointments too. Honestly, I tattooed anywhere as long as there was a flat surface for me to put my materials. I also charged cheap, even RM20 for a tattoo sometimes. I was just grateful that someone was willing to get a tattoo from someone who was just starting out. COVID also hit around the same time that I was starting, so it was interesting to navigate the landscape with a pandemic on the loose.
R: How did you come up with the name @pokingduck for your tattoo business?
E: Oh lord. Okay so it was basically supposed to be a pun on the Chinese dish Peking Duck. Peking… Poking… I just wanted to somehow get the idea across that I was a handpoke artist. But unfortunately, no one seemed to get it. :( People just assumed that I liked ducks, so I kind of made that my brand. Gotta make lemonade out of lemons, or so they say!
R: How long have you been doing @pokingduck?
E: It’ll be three years in July. Time flies! I’m self-taught, and got into it purely as a hobby at first. I didn’t really see it becoming anything more than just a fun past-time, but I got really into it, and started doing tons of research and trying it on myself (which wasn’t the best idea, but I guess we all start somewhere!). And I think “trial and error with a lot of error” would be the best description of my learning experiences. But with a lot of persistence, I managed to make the best out of it. Also, I started working in a professional parlour, and my colleagues have been guiding me on a lot of things. It’s a whole new world, and I’m finding out that there’s so much more to learn!
R: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced throughout this journey?
E: I think my self-doubt came a lot into play in the early days. When you’re self-taught, it’s hard to judge what’s right and what’s not, you tend to play a lot of guessing games with yourself. Also, I worried a lot about the risks I was taking by not going into a stable accounting job. And with my parents being a little more on the conservative side, I do sometimes feel like I’ve strayed from the path that they’ve made for me. But you know, there are a lot of ways to get to the same destination.
R: Are you doing @pokingduck full-time?
E: As of now, yes. I just graduated recently so I should be doing this full-time for the time being.
R: What are you most proud of?
E: I think the fact that I did it on my own. Starting from scratch, from tattooing in my tiny bedroom, tattooing in my university library, driving to client’s houses… to getting work in an actual parlour. Sometimes I wake up and it’s hard to believe I’m here. But I think that I still have a long way to go, and I’m looking forward to seeing how I grow.
R: What is your most memorable experience with a customer?
E: Oh god… Back when I first started I used to tattoo in my university classrooms sometimes and one time I got caught tattooing a client by a security guard doing his rounds. He sent us both straight to the faculty office, where we got the scolding of our lives. Apparently you’re only supposed to use classrooms for educational purposes… But I’ve learnt my lesson since then.
R: Do you have a favourite tattoo piece?
E: Not really. I love all my pieces equally and in different ways.
R: Imagine a world where skill and intricacy did not matter for a tattoo, what piece would you love to attempt?
E: A full freehand back piece. Just me, a pen, and a very trusting client.
R: What is your main motivation to carry on with @pokingduck?
E: The love of creation is what keeps me going. The fact that I get to design something and put it on someone's skin is an honour.
R: Would you ever branch out to doing tattoos with a machine?
E: Definitely! I am currently learning how to machine tattoo as well. I think it’s nice to cover all types of tattooing and learn more about the craft if I have the chance to do so.
R: What advice would you give local, young, aspiring tattoo artists out there?
E: I’d tell them to have fun with it and explore their art and creativity, but also be safe! Always make sure you’re prepared before you tattoo someone. There are a lot of articles and videos online on how to start tattooing safely, and you can also drop me a DM if you need any advice as well!
R: What are your aspirations for @pokingduck?
E: I would love for @pokingduck to go global. I think being able to travel and tattoo would be the dream for me. I hope that I’ll be able to achieve it in the next few years.
If you’re interested in getting a cute tattoo from this skilled local artist, reach out to Esther @pokingduck on Instagram! She urges you to come say hi and explore yourself through this form of art.