To Alvin Chong, a tattoo is a permanent way to commemorate something or someone significant.
“Of course, there are individuals who get tattoos for aesthetic reasons or because they like a particular artist’s style and wish to have a piece of their artwork on their body, ” explained the 48-year-old tattoo artist.
But, most people get tattoos to remember someone they love or a pet, mark a milestone in life, or to document the things that they cherish, he added.
Chong himself has an “uncountable” number of tattoos on his body. He got his first tattoo to mark a memorable event in his life.
“I created this logo for a motivational course I took in 2003. My coursemates and I went through a lot of laughter, pain, sadness and everything else together. It made an impact in my life and I brought that logo to a local artist and got it as my first tattoo, ” he said.
Two of his favourite ones were done by international artists in New York five years ago.
“On my left hand is a monster eye done by American tattoo artist Paul Booth at his studio, Last Rites Tattoo Theatre and Gallery, while on my right hand is the Statue of Liberty by Peruvian tattoo artist Stefano Alcantara, ” he said.
Chong, who has over 10 years’ experience in his trade, travels overseas a few times a year not just to get tattooed, but also to deliver his service to clients as well as attend tattoo conventions.
“Going for such conventions is a good way to mingle and get to know other artists from around the world and learn from them, ” he said.
Before he became a tattoo artist, Chong was in the advertising industry. Armed with his drawing and illustration skills, and with his interest piqued since getting his first tattoo, he decided to train under a local artist.
“When I first started out, I practised on my own legs. It’s the best way to learn because when you do that, you’ll know how well you’re doing, whether you’re doing it correctly, how deep the needles are going in, and how well the tattoos are healing, ” he explained.
When asked how does one prepare for their first tattoo, he said that person must be mentally and emotionally ready. Also, they must know what they want, unless they are willing to give free rein to the artist.
“Often a client would come to me and say, ‘I like your style so just give me what you feel will be suitable, ’ but that usually happens with overseas clients because they are more open-minded compared to Asian (local) clients, ” Chong explained.
“They are basically collecting a piece of artwork from the tattoo artist, with their skin as the canvas, ” he elaborated.
Chong’s art is stylised and semi-realistic. He specialises in portraits of people and animals, and is known for his skull works.
The most difficult piece he has done was for a man in his 20s in Hong Kong. The young man had lost his fiancee who committed suicide due to depression. His tattoos (of facing male and female silhouettes on his left and right arm) were an expression of his sadness and a memorial to her.
“It was an emotional experience not just for him but also for me because I could understand the pain he was going through, ” Chong revealed, admitting that he too had attempted suicide when he was much younger because of several failed relationships.
He quickly added that no matter what one is going through, suicide is never the answer.
“There are people who care and it is important to talk to someone, ” he advised. “This is why it’s important to have real friends in your life, because they are the ones who will help you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you go through difficult times, ” he emphasised.
Chong said that his friends helped him to see that he had a purpose in life and encouraged him to live on to pursue his dreams. They spurred him on to be happy, kind and to help others.
“I aspire to be a giver – a giver of love, good vibes and strength”, he said, adding that it is better to lead a life that is of value than a successful one.
In 2017, Chong started a tattoo charity drive with some local artists for Dignity Foundation and raised RM14,000 to support refugee kids through school. He continued with this giveback campaign for victims of the Palu earthquake-tsunami in Indonesia in 2018 and Orang Asli Pos Tenau in Perak in 2019.
“It’s through helping the less fortunate that we learn to appreciate what we have, which we so often take for granted, ” he said, adding that he hopes to inspire more people to do the same.
In 2019, Chong, who is also an avid hiker, went on the Fjallraven Polar expedition, where 20 participants (selected by public votes and jury) from different regions of the world, crossed the Arctic (from Norway to Sweden) on self-driven dog sleighs.
“The expedition changed my life. I can still remember every detail vividly as if it was yesterday, ” he reminisced.
“It was exhausting yet fun. We travelled 330km in four days by dog sleigh. We had to stand on the sleigh seven to eight hours each day. At every checkpoint, we had to take care of our dogs (each participant had six dogs) – cook for them, dig holes to shelter them from the cold, keep them warm – before taking care of our own needs.
“It taught us about sacrifice, discipline, determination, to never give up, and teamwork, ” said Chong, who lives in Petaling Jaya with his wife and son.