Wednesday, 6 June 2012

"Learn the Rules Before You Bend them" with Shane Tan Horinaka

A Feature Interview with Tattoo Artist, Shane Tan Horinaka.

by Jon Leong

In this feature interview, Singapore's Shane Tan Horinaka gives a very in depth, one on one sit down. We chat about his roots, his unique tattoo style, his life and his opinions. Happy reading.

Shane in Zurich, Ink Tank.

How much of a tattoo is the artist and how much of it comes from the customer?

I think it's a bit of both. For me most customers come to me with a very open mindset so I'm pretty much taking charge of the creative process. Because I don't do flash work, I do mostly custom stuff, so I give them my pricing and in terms of creativity they give me the direction and I take it on from there. For example, they might want a dragon and I'll choose what kind of a dragon I wanna create. Commitment-wise, I think it's coming from both parties, the customer is giving me a lot of faith and trust, maybe in terms of commitment, I would say the customer is giving more than me even. Of course, I'm committed to doing a good tattoo and I concentrate on the work, but the customer is taking time off his daily life and routine to get tattooed and there's pain and after that there's the healing process and all that.  These days because I travel so much, customers might have to wait six months to a year to get the appointment whenever I can slot them in. So it's not really easy on them too. But I think I have really nice, patient customers.

Beautiful Samurai Sleeve

Many people start with one tattoo and then keep coming back for more, why the 'addiction', you think?

I think it's human instinct to decorate ourselves, throughout history, people wear ornaments and find ways to mark themselves so they look a little different from everybody else. It's just like a new hair cut, fashion and looking good. Tattooing is a little bit more hardcore than changing your hairstyle but it's along the same lines. Most of my customers have regular jobs, white collar professionals, that kind of thing and they get tattoos to keep a sense of personal identity, like saying 'This is what I do for work but this is not me, it's just my job... I'm me, an individual'. A lot of my customers tell me that at work, nobody knows that they're inked. It's just something that makes them feel good about themselves.

What influenced you to start getting interested in tattoos?

My family. My dad and my family are friends with the older generation of tattoo artists in Singapore, so when I was a kid I used to see those guys and later on I got influenced by other tattooists. Once I started tattooing in the late 90s, I got influenced by the artists that every tattooist was talking about, you know, artists like Filip Leu, Paul Booth, Robert Hernandez but I got me into Japanese style after i saw Horiyoshi's work. My dad actually bought me my first tattoo machine when I was about to turn 16.

It's one thing to try out art for fun but when you face the reality of life as a professional artist, it's a whole different ball game. Were you ready for that path?

I started really young, I started tattooing people when I was 16. I never really set out to do this for life, I just did it.  I wasn't sure about tattooing until after I did it for 3-4 years, and then I realised this is the only thing that I wanted to do... because I didn't find any satisfaction in any other art form. By then, I had tried computer graphics, painting and all that...  none of them gave me as much satisfaction as tattooing.

Being an artist isn't easy work. Were there times when you wanted to give up?

Yeah, throughout my career I have wanted to give up many times. Times when I couldn't figure out why I couldn't do a particular tattoo well, when I couldn't pull good lines for a couple of months or when I faced other kinds of 'setbacks', if you want to call it that. Those times I wanted to give up was not because I wasn't earning enough money or I wasn't treated nicely, I felt it was because I wasn't doing good enough. But those happened mostly in the early years.

Did you have any formal tattoo apprenticeship?


If you had no apprenticeship, what was your learning process in Tattooing?

I was pretty much self taught but in my first few months of tattooing, my friend, Carlston brought me to work in a shop and into the whole professional tattooing scene. It was at Orchard Towers, the shop was called Ink On Skin. Back then, nobody wanted to help me probably because I was really young. Not because I was an asshole or anything but I was 16 years old... even if you asked me right no, if a 16 year old came to me asking how to make needles and how to tattoo, I don't know if I would help him or tell him to take a few more years to think about it.

How did you come to meet Carlston?

I was very good friends with his younger brother and he told Carlston, who was a young artist at the time, that I was learning to tattoo. When I came to meet him (Carlston), he was already tattooing people and we became good friends, you know, hanging out and doing a lot of bullshit together. Later on, he told me his friend was going to open the studio at Orchard towers because that was a good place to tattoo navy/ sailor and asked me to work there. Carlston never treated me like an apprentice, he treated me like a colleague. I think he just wanted me to start working, you know? He didn't want to be a teacher or a senior. So I just started tattooing many sailors and navy guys. I think I was fucking up every single tattoo that I did and Carlston was covering up all my bad work. He had to come up with excuses for me, fixing up the work I did and all that shit. I had no idea what I was doing. It was very good for me because I got a lot of tattooing experience as a beginner. I was tattooing every day of the week, 3 or 4 pieces a day. I got to practice and practice and practice. There's no better place to practice than at a shop with a lot of navy guys... forgive me for saying this, but the idea for me was that they came, they got tattooed and they left the country. No trouble.

Pictures of Carlston and Shane on his bookshelf

Were there external art influences?

I studied graphic design in Lasalle College of the Arts, advertising kind of stuff, which was totally different from tattooing because it was a lot less hands on, it was a lot of computer based work and you had to give whatever the client asked for, so I wouldn't really call that a big influence on my tattoo work. My time in school taught me about composition, contrast, training my eye to see negative and positive space and some basic stuff that I still use in my tattooing. But I learned the importance of photography, because after I finish tattooing the only way I can capture my work before he walks out the door is to take a good picture.

Your work is mostly rooted in the Traditional Japanese Style but you have a style that's very much your own. How did you come to develop your individual style?

When I look at my work I really can't figure out what my style really is. I usually try to see where I can improve my technical stuff and checking for mistakes. Maybe it's a process that came about from me being paranoid about doing original work. Japanese style has been done over and over again for centuries but at the same time, every artist wants to be different. Over the generations, a lot of the creative channels have already been used. For example, in Japanese style, the background is just as important as the foreground. There are rules and regulations and if you want to break them, you have to break it right. All the rules that can be broken have probably been broken before, like, how the really traditional japanese tattoos look like compared to what people like Shige, Mike Roper, Mick from Zurich and Filip Leu have been doing. These guys have changed what was thought of as traditional japanese into a form of modern "neo japanese style", but the style is so easily spotted that I would still think of them 'traditional' but they've bent some of the rules.

What about you? How do you bend the rules?

My base is always traditional Japanese style, but i try to change things a little. For example, I do some of my pieces with red clouds, over a black and grey subject. that's very far away from what's considered traditional in Japanese tattoos. So I'm drifting away from the Japanese style but I'm still obeying some rules I find essential to the Japanese tattoo tradition. Like, I haven't done a phoenix with three wings or anything like that. One way I'm trying to bend the rules is to do sleeves with a different kind of background without it looking stupid. I've seen some new school style Japanese stuff where I think the foreground looks really good, really well done, but the background kills the tattoo.

I try to focus on focal points. I'm very conscious about that, focal points on a sleeve would be something like the arm ball (shoulder deltoid muscle) or the elbow. I'll work on either pulling focus away from those points or bring focus to those points. I don't want to talk like I'm some master in bending the rules of traditional Japanese tattoo but I can try to tell you some things I do. I use background to shade the contours of the body, things like wind and water has to go with or against the curves of the muscle so there is flow and the movement to the tattoo and so it fits the body properly. This whole flow and movement of the Japanese style is so important to me that sometimes, I kinda pay more attention to the background than the foreground. I also try to use the foreground and the subject to help me, for example, a dragon. The positioning of a dragon has to follow the contours of the body also.It's not just about wrapping it around the arm. Preferably, I want to place it's head where the snout is curved to the body. As much as I can I use elements of the subject to give flow and movement to the tattoo, in human type figures like goddesses,  there is usually a lot of clothing fabric on her, I use the fabric lines as guidelines as to where the I can match the contours of the body.

Fabric and Flow

Congratulations on getting married! There are many artists which I speak to that tell me they aren't keen on settling down because of the unstable and sometimes nomadic nature of the profession. There are also some that say having a family centers them and contributes to their lives in a very positive way. What's your opinion?

Mr and Mrs Shane Tan

I think when people tell you they need to have freedom and they don't wanna be tied down, it's probably because they haven't found the right one. When the right one comes along, I think you would naturally make time for it. I never imagined myself to have any long term commitments or whatever, that's why I don't have my own studio and why I travel so much. I want to be an artist and I wanna run all over the place to work. But to me... my wife means everything to me, so I learned how to be more balanced. Before I met Lana, I worked round the clock, I didn't sleep much, I just worked and worked. Now, I'm a very balanced out, I sleep, I eat well, I go cycling... I spend time with my family, I enjoy the basic stuff, which I never imagined myself enjoying.
My history has always been very hyperactive and I'm very obsessive, work wise. I was too extreme with my work, I was pushing myself too hard and overdoing it, I mean,  it was good for improving my tattooing but it was not good for my health. I had super long sessions all the time. i was pulling ten hour sessions often and it came to a point where I had too much pain in my hand and pain in my back that I was seeing a physiotherapist three times a week. I didn't eat well, I hardly slept because I felt like I was wasting time sleeping when i could have been drawing. I knew I was burnt out but I still kept going. I think I've been learning moderation just recently with Lana.

You've been doing this 12 years now. How has your journey as a tattoo artist been? Are you happy where you are?

I'm very happy where I am now, but if you took away all my experience and knowledge and gave me a tattoo machine and said "hey, go and figure out how to tattoo again". I would take the machine and throw it at your face. Haha!  I'm not going to go through what I've gone through again... the amount of stress that I'd put on myself and the amount the determination I needed to get through it all is way too much for me to handle right now. I don't know how I did it before, it's probably because I was young and had lots of energy.

Do you have any advice to give to the new blood in the tattoo industry?

I don't think I'm some old establishment that's in a position to give people advice, I'm still pretty young. I think it goes without saying that you will have to work very hard, you must draw like there's no tomorrow. You must keep looking at references and drawing, so you have a good foundation. A good  knowledge of images. If you don't have enough of that practice and knowledge of images, and you try to start getting creative, that's when things start to go wrong. Things like Dragon Claws and the Hannya have realistic elements to them, they need to have perspective and form. It's a matter of getting the basics down, and that really doesn't rely on talent or going to art school, you get it from constantly drawing. If you don't have your basics down and start free-handing the shit out of everything and trying to create your own style, it's going to be very difficult to unlearn the habits that could make you a good tattooer. It's so much easier to start off learning the right way and start getting creative and expressive later down the road.

I really feel that the general quality and standard of tattooing in Singapore does not lose out to anywhere else in the world. We just have a smaller market and we lack exposure compared to other artists from the other countries because they have a lot more tattoo magazines, articles and all those kind of channels. I respect Singaporean Tattoo artists as much as I respect artists from anywhere else. The new blood needs to remember that as a Singaporean, I'm the same as everyone else in the world, I don't have to lower my standards, or my charges so i can get more customers or because I think my work isn't good enough. If it's good, it's good. Getting to becoming 'international standard', is not about how many conventions you go to, how expensive your tattoo machines are, it's not about how many celebrities you tattoo... it's actually about how 'big' you think your abilities can be and how far you think you can go. This sounds very general, but it's very, very true. A lot of people get distracted by what the other people are doing, things like 'whose color is stronger?' and 'whose linework is better?'... I mean, it's good to know but it's important to focus on what you are doing. This is where I am right now, I've been trying to drift away from what other people are doing, my friends... my neighbours... I'm not trying to be special but I'm trying to give myself some freedom, freedom to do something more creative.

I don't think I have the right to teach anyone about tattooing artistically, but I advise the inexperienced tattooers to go and work in a shop where people know what they are doing. It is much better for them to learn tattooing in a shop environment. They will get to learn about dealing with customers and other tattoo artists... learning how to tattoo through YouTube or in your bedroom over the internet is a really bad idea. In the shops, they will learn about one of the most important things, sterilization. I am paranoid about sterilization and preventing cross contamination. As a professional tattooer you need to reduce all risk of infection. You need to seriously cultivate good habits to prevent cross contamination. A lot of inexperienced tattoo artists don't understand how important this is in the tattooing process. Things like how to set the autoclave machine and how to sterilize surgical steel in different situations. You can't just trust what you read over the internet with things like that, you know? This knowledge is so important for their careers and for their customers. This stuff is so important, it could even be a simple case of protecting themselves should a tattoo ever get infected and legal action takes place. If they took the precautions and had the proper training, they'll have nothing to worry about.

This was what Shane was working on when we chatted, can't wait to see the finished piece.

Shane tattoos tattoos through appointment only. Check out his work at or contact him at