Lee Wai Leng, also known as Flee Circus, had to relearn everything she knew about illustrations in her new job.
For over a decade, Lee Wai Leng worked diligently as a commercial illustrator in the advertising and creative industry.
Being an illustrator was Wai Leng’s dream since she was in kindergarten, because of her love for drawing. Towards the 15th year in her job, however, she started reflecting on her career and it brought a question to her mind: “What more can I give?”
That question would eventually push her towards a new career, one that still allowed her to continue illustrating – but instead of doing it for marketing or advertising campaigns, her illustrations were inked on the skin of her customers.
But being a tattoo artist wasn’t something that crossed her mind initially. The chance to switch careers came by chance, thanks to the social media platform Instagram.
Wai Leng explained that among her peers, she was the last to sign up for an Instagram account in 2012 – doing so only to share her drawings as a way to cope with her “burnout”.
“I thought, ‘what could hurt, right?’ I would try to do drawings before I sleep every night. So I kept drawing and posting every day,” she said.
“Unbeknownst to me, there is a very strong tattoo following on Instagram. I was amazed with the number of good Singapore tattoo artists so I started following them. I came across my current boss’ (Lionel Ng) account and started liking everything he posted, because I was amazed at how clean the lines on his tattoo works were.”
This eventually caught her Lionel’s attention – “I think he noticed this person liking all his stuff,” Wai Leng commented – and he started to check out her drawings on Instagram in return. He dropped her a direct message on the platform, asking if Wai Leng wanted to have an apprenticeship at his tattoo parlour, Traditions Tattoo Collective.
While a talented illustrator, Wai Leng, who goes by the moniker Flee Circus, found out quickly that being a tattoo artist involved so much more than being good at drawing.
For example, a good illustration does not necessarily mean that it can be a good tattoo, as certain details in the illustration may look “off” on the skin. The aesthetics and placement of a tattoo also plays a part too.
“The apprenticeship was a learning curve for me. I had to unlearn a lot of things,” shared Wai Leng, who had to bid her time before she was allowed to touch a customer’s skin.
“It was very interesting because every mentor deals with apprenticeship differently. [With my boss], I had to earn the respect to deal with a person because you have to tattoo his skin. He drilled into me that when you tattoo someone, it’s a privilege.
“We actually practice on real people, but they have to walk away with a decent tattoo. So if I screw up in any ways, my boss will immediately stop me and step in to save the tattoo. So if I did a bad job, he will make sure I know it and for a few nights, I won’t be able to catch my sleep.
“He’s ingrained that mentality in me. This is not a job you can just do and pass it.”
These days, Wai Leng is a lot more confident when it comes to tattooing her customers. She’s also become popular too – with more than 18,000 followers on Instagram – and has a waiting list of customers.
Her day as a tattoo artist can be quite packed too. She starts work in the early afternoon every day and does consultations with clients, discussing the details of the tattoos, such as size, restrictions and costs. After she has a late lunch, she starts inking her customers, whom she charges about $200 per hour, until 8pm.
“I love [tattooing] anything that deals with nature – like plants, animals. I do get a lot of requests for pet portraits, especially memorial ones. I love doing that because I think any pet owners that are willing to ink their pets on their skin really deserve respect. That shows how much they love their pets,” Wai Leng shared.
“Normally I wouldn’t want to touch anyone who wants to tattoo their boyfriend or girlfriend’s name… That’s something I will not do. Also things that are a little more racially offensive. I try not to do that.”
These days, Wai Leng has noticed that more corporate professionals and females are willing to get themselves tattooed. She feels that times are changing and tattoos now seem more of an art or a form of self-expression.
To Wai Leng, tattooing is just another branch of the creative umbrella. She also had words of advice for those who aspire to create art as a tattoo artist in the future.
“It’s not a mainstream job… so in that aspect, you must persevere,” shared Wai Leng, acknowledging the challenge it takes to convince Asian parents that being a tattoo artist is a viable career.
“You must know where you want to go and set that direction. Regardless of where that direction will lead you, you have to stay on course.
“One thing is never be cynical. It might take you to a different route and make you do different things, but as long as you do it and put your heart into it, a lot of people are not blind. They can sense it through your artwork and they can feel you put your heart into it.
“Just practice and make sure your art has a little bit of finesse in it and just improve from there on. It might take two years, it might take 10 years, but you will get there. You just have to really stay on course and don’t give up.”
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