A 50-year-old passion for body art

by | July 14, 2011

Photographic shop owner, avid photographer and traveler from Malaysia talks about his fascination and passion for tattooing and how it all started amidst the social turbulence in the 1950s.

BY: Edna Lam

Chan Chee Seng had his first tattoo done when he was 50 – it was the design of a lizard etched on his back during a trip to Papua New Guinea. Now he has 21 tattoos all over his body featuring different designs, capturing the images and sceneries from his travels around the world. With his love for working, travelling and tattooing, he has no plans to call it a break.

Agelessonline talks to 64-year-old Chan, from Mersing, Johor:


How did your fascination with tattoos start?

My dad was running a photographic shop in the small town of Mersing back in the 1940s until 1960s. After he passed away, I took over the business.

During the 1950s, Malaya and Singapore were not as organised and well-run. Triads and secret societies were rampant. Being secret organisations, the members’ badge of brotherhood was very discreet, distinguishable only through their attire, dress codes, hand signs and later, tattoos on their upper arms and chests hidden from view. These would feature religious motifs, western icons like Apache, eagles, panthers or Chinese characters depicting loyalty, brotherhood and even lines of poetry. 

In those days, many youngsters became triad members. They wore tattoos and had brushes with the law, getting involved in gang fights over control of the lucrative gambling and opium den and all sorts of operations of vice.

Following a major police crackdown, many of these young people went into hiding and tried to deface their tattoos using sulphuric acid. My dad took hundreds of photos of the defaced tattoos of these young fugitives hiding among the fishing stakes or Kelongs built deep in the sea off Mersing. Their burnt scars with the acid eating away the flesh were horrific sights that I would never forget. 


This sounds rather morbid. How would these events inspire you to be tattooed as well?

When I was 16 or 17, I first wanted a tattoo on my body but I wanted a design with a different motif that had no negative connotation or resemblance to those of the triads.
But my dad sternly said “no”. Whenever I came home from another bigger town after school tournament matches, debates or games, he would always demand to check my body to make sure I had not secretly had a tattoo done!


Your father passed away in 1968, why did it take you another 30 years before having your first tattoo done in your 50s?

My first tattoo was done when I was visiting Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The designs there were all tribal art, with dots, lines, triangles, waves, animals and flowers. I had a lizard done on my back. It was very crudely done but a tattoo nevertheless.

Back home from the 1970s up to 1990s, tattoo artists were a dying trade, and the designs and inking instruments were still the same as those used in 1950s. So I started having tattoos done while I was travelling as many tattoo parlours overseas offer more modern methods of inking using hygienic disposable needles, approved dyes and in a clean environment. So all in all, I have had 21 tattoos done on my body so far. All of them are small because they are easier to take care while on the move, in terms of hygienic and proper healthcare.


Where are these tattoos and how did you pick the designs?

The 21 tattoos are on my back, front, left and right inner arm. The most noticeable ones are on my right forearm.

Since my first tattoo done in Papua New Guinea, the more places I visited, the more tattoos I collected. All my tattoos were done during my travels in the last 14 years, depicting important scenes and images of the places I visited. Every tattoo carries with it a lot of symbolic meaning as well as fond memories.

My tattoo of bald eagles was done in the US, the peregrine falcon in Alexandria, Egypt, the masks of the warrior characters from The Three Kingdom Romance were done in Chengdu in China, the butterflies in the ancient Chinese town of Lijiang, the Egyptian god Anubis and ancient texts in Egypt and my name in Jawi (Arabic alphabet) in Xinjiang. I also had a tattoo of a butterfly, leaves and branches from Johor Bahru to hide the scar of my gall bladder operation and I even had the operation date inscribed!

My other tattoos feature a crane, a dragon and the Eye of Horus. Horus is one of the oldest and most significant deities in ancient Egyptian religion and the Eye of Horus is a symbol of protection and royal power from the deities. I also have a tattoo of ankh – the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic character that means “eternal life”.

At the moment, my favourite and most eye-catching tattoo is the one on my forearm depicting Anubis with Egyptian hieroglyphs. It also looks mystical when I view it upside down.

Why do you choose such a painful way of capturing an image from your travels? You are a professional photographer as well, isn’t it simpler just to take a photograph?

Tattoo designs are like photography, you see a nice scenery and you want to capture it. But a tattoo is permanent and indelible; you really have to think more than thrice before you do it.

Every one of my tattoos are done in a place I visited, inked in pain through thousands of needle pricks, leaving a permanent imprint. It makes the imagery even more precious and memorable.


I still don’t understand the satisfaction that comes with tattooing. Is it really worth enduring all that physical pain? 

Of all the pain you endure, you get immense satisfaction from the result. It is an art that is painstakingly acquired.


Have you ever worried about the stigma that people may have about tattoos?

Having a tattoo is strictly a personal choice. It is also normally very private and covered by clothing. Of course, some exposed tattoos have more universal designs such as nice patterns or tribal art. They are usually decent, pleasing to the eye and not offensive, not carrying any message of violence, horror or images of nudity. So there is no stigma if the design is viewed in this context.


How does your family feel about your interest in tattooing? Have you inspired anyone else in your family to take an interest in it? 

My wife neither encourages nor objects to my interest in tattooing, as long as I do not inscribe the name of another woman! She believes that it is my personal choice – the body is strictly mine and so is the pain I endure. She does think they look good on my old ageing body.

As I have stressed, tattoo is a body art that is distinctively personal and private, I will never influence nor encourage anyone else to have one done. It is strictly their decision.

Remember the Tsunami that hit India, Sri Lanka, Phuket and Aceh? Many of the dead were unidentified and mass buried, those with tattoos managed to be claimed by their loved ones.


Do you ever plan to stop tattooing? 

Since my tattoos are all quite small, I still have plenty of space for more. Whenever I travel, there is no reason for not inking another one! Where I visit next and what tattoo I will collect will depend on timing and relevance.



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