CLEO’s Coolest Creatives: Kevin Elijah Tan, Handpoke Tattoo Artist


He started at his home and now he’s at The Shipwreck Tattoos – that’s the story of self-taught hand-poke and machine tattooist, Kevin Elijah Tan. Though he has long since moved on from practicing on “voluntary live canvases” (a.k.a closest friends who don’t mind trying something a little experimental, literally), what started out as a spontaneous date idea has left a bigger mark on his life.

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How’d you first learn the art of tattooing?

It was rather spontaneous. In mid-2013, the girl I was dating and I figured it’d be a romantic yet badass idea to tattoo each other. We didn’t know how to operate a machine so instead; we got the needles and ink for a hand poke tattoo. The first for her were three dots and mine, a Braille tattoo.

Moving on to more advanced designs sparked the interest in me. I’ve always loved drawing and art, so I decided to pursue it. Once word got out that I was doing stick-and-poke tattoos, the requests started coming in and my friends even volunteered to be live canvases.

But why stick-and-poke tattoos?

I thought it was a rather interesting as well as challenging way to get the design onto your skin. There really wasn’t anyone who was really doing it around here, and because I enjoyed the art so much, I wanted to push the limits of the designs that could be done through this technique. I aspire to create and produce designs that handpoke tattoo artists around the world have yet to attempt.

How is your designs special or different from others?

Hand poke tattoos out there normally consist of just lines to make up a fairly simple illustration on the skin. My designs, on the other hand does consist of other styles that are more complex. I’ve improved my technique so I can tattoo designs with different styles such as brushstrokes and  dotwork shadings. I am still pushing the limits and coming up with new styles for hand poke designs.

The most memorable tattoo you’ve done?

My best friend spontaneously asked me to do a brushstroke piece at 1AM, one random night. It was pretty challenging since I was just starting out but nonetheless, I was excited and nervous. It took several hours to complete and we finished just as the sun was rising up. It came out beautiful and it felt so rewarding accomplishing that.

How a handpoke tattoo is done

You were an engineer before becoming a tattoo artist. How has this career change influence the way you view the world and yourself?
I believe instead of this career changing my views, it was my views on the world and myself that made me decide to change my career path. In this world, we only have so much time to commit to what we really want to do. Some take faster to decide, some only realize later, and some when it’s perhaps too late.

I love both science and art. There’s a different yet similar beauty in both but when it all came down to that moment to truly look inside and choose what I loved more, I chose art. Art felt so much more personal and abstract. To me, it’s not as straight forward as how science chooses to serve mankind. Art, most of the time, is not about what the artist creates, but what the audience receive.

People perceive and receive things in different ways. With a design, you can paint a thousand words that speak to people in a thousand different ways.

In order to be a successful tattoo artist, what qualities does one need to possess?

I would probably say patience, perseverance and attention to detail. Those are important qualities but I believe the most important quality.
would be passion. When you’re passionate about art and tattooing or anything in general, other needed qualities will eventually fall into place.

Growing up, you were interested in…

Oh, too many things but those that actually stuck with me throughout my life was music, drawing, video gaming and my love for science fiction. 

How do you stay inspired?

I look at different kinds of arts, old and new. But I believe just creating tattoo designs can put a boundary on my creativity and inspirations, so once in a while, I do designs in different mediums such as graphic designs or illustrations. It helps expand the approaches I bring to my future tattoo designs.