Anyone with a tattoo knows what it’s like when the needle first hits the skin, and then having that needle dragged across their skin, sometimes for hours on end. It’s painful. Yet, for some, it’s this pain that brings them back to the tattoo artists and studios again and again.
Addictive? Perhaps. For others, it’s a desire to be etched in beautiful body art, or to get a memory designed onto their skin.
“A tattoo session for some people is like therapy – it has a calming effect on them,” says Malaysian tattoo artist Carlos Benny Majakil, who has been in the scene for over 20 years.
“I’ve done emotional tattoos and remembrance tattoos on clients, and they feel as if the sessions are therapeutic. They get emotional when they tell the stories of their tattoos. As an artist, I don’t just deal with their physical pain, I share in their sorrow and sadness too.”
Majakil, 36, is the mastermind of Tattoo Malaysia Expo 2019, the biggest international body art event in the country. The expo takes place in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, at the KL Convention Centre from Nov 29 to Dec 1.
Majakil was behind three previous tattoo conventions in 2015, 2016 and 2017 in his hometown of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. Those events were smaller, though they garnered interest not just from local enthusiasts but international body artists and travellers too.
In 2017, the convention hosted 71 artists from 27 countries. This year, Majakil says they have participants from 35 countries. “We’re targeting 30,000 visitors for the expo, much more than we had in KK (around 2,000), but we believe this is achievable as KL is more accessible,” he says.
The expo, supported by the Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau (MyCeb) and the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry, counts as a tourism event, coming under the Mice (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions and Exhibitions) category.
Majakil’s company Koiyak Gloves, which produces latex gloves designed specifically for the tattoo industry, is the main sponsor and organiser.
“I started Koiyak Gloves in 2013. The idea came to me during my visits to international tattoo expos. Gloves are important as we must prioritise hygiene and sanitation,” says Majakil, adding that he’s working with friends and a small team of partners to ensure the Malaysian convention runs smoothly.
“Once I got back, I started working with a local latex glove producer. Koiyak Gloves is 100% Malaysia-owned. The word ‘koiyak’ (koh-ee-yak) means ‘to laugh’ in Kadazan, my native language. The gloves are my contribution not just to the tattoo industry, but the country’s economy too.”
Many of the artists coming to this year’s expo have been part of the previous conventions. It’s not a surprise as Majakil is part of a global community of tattoo artists who travel extensively for work and who are very supportive of each other’s projects.
“The first three events were like meeting points for tattoo artists from Malaysia and abroad,” he says. “I see myself as a bridge between local and foreign artists. I’m connected with artists from Europe and North America, so it wasn’t hard to get them to join.”
Ash Goh, a Malaysian with a career in the tattoo scene in Singapore, where she owns Tejomaya Studios, says she met Majakil at an Italian convention three years ago. They have been catching up over there ever since.
“I enjoy tattoo conventions in general, but I’m especially excited for KL because it feels like balik kampung (homecoming),” she says. “I’m looking forward to meeting other artists and hopefully learn something new.”
Majakil says he screens the artists who want to participate, but believes in giving people opportunities to learn and improve their body art skill because this was how he himself evolved.
“It’s a chance for Malaysian artists to get exposure and experience, so I welcome anyone who’s willing to take a chance. I learnt a lot in my travels. I’ve been to four continents to meet renowned artists and spend time with them to learn different styles of tattooing,” he says.
Tattoo Malaysia Expo is one of many precursors to Visit Malaysia 2020. Government agencies like Tourism Malaysia have been actively promoting the country to international markets over the past months, and this event puts Malaysia among the countries with a developing body art culture.
Several native tribes in Malaysia already have their own tattoo and body art customs. The bungai terung of Sarawak, as example, is a well-known motif among tattoo artists and body art enthusiasts worldwide.
“Tattoos used to be taboo in our culture as it is mostly associated with triads and gangs. But things have changed and it is now seen as a form of body art as well as self-expression,” says Majakil, adding that his clients come from all walks of life.
“I have clients who are CEOs, lawyers, managing directors and those in the corporate world – successful folk who don’t see tattoos negatively.”
Goh adds that the body art scene in Singapore is changing too. “The younger generation is more receptive towards it. A lot of professionals get tattoos now, even if they keep the placements discreet. Tattoos are more mainstream compared to a few decades ago.”
She says that, “The scene is getting more competitive with a lot of artists emerging. (But) it’s good for the growth if the standards of tattooing improves with each new generation bringing their signature style to it.”
Like many artists, Majakil and Goh are heavily inked themselves. “Depending on where I go, people sometimes come up to me to ask for a selfie. They’re not intimidated by how I look. They’re mostly just interested in the body art,” says Majakil, who started tattooing at age 14.
“My tattoos don’t define the kind of person I am. I always believe that ‘good begets good’.”
Though he doesn’t specialise in a particular style, Majakil says he’s interested in Japanese designs and admits there’s much for him to learn. As for his clients, he does his best to accommodate their requests.
“Tattoos are personal. Each tattoo tells a story,” says Majakil. “When a new client asks for a tattoo, we go through a consultation first. As a responsible artist, I ask for the motive behind their design and advise them accordingly. Tattoos are permanent, so you want a nice one.”
Goh adds that some clients know exactly what they want, which may (or may not) make it easier. “Clients nowadays are more savvy and do their own research for designs. They often ask for personalised body art to commemorate events in their lives instead of just picking something off the Internet.”
To see which artists will be at Tattoo Malaysia Expo 2019, check out @tattoomalaysiaexpo on Facebook and Instagram. Tickets are on sale at Ticket2u.com.my. Single-day and three-day passes are available. You should also set up appointments in advance with the artist of your choice.