19-Year-Old Keith Ho Opens Anime Tattoo Studio In Bugis
Many of us, especially those interested in the arts and humanities, would have been told these infamous words by teachers or parents:
“There is no future for arts in Singapore.”
Keith Ho, 19, grew up hearing these words over and over and was resigned to the fact that his passion for art and drawing would have to remain a hobby.
But once he discovered tattooing, he couldn’t go back. Eventually, after 2 years of working tirelessly on his craft, he successfully set up his own tattoo shop at Waterloo Centre, Tempest Tattoo Studio.
Image courtesy of Keith Ho
Now with over 200,000 TikTok followers and 15,000 Instagram followers, along with a steady client stream, Keith has proven that a creative career can work — as long as you put in the hours and have a real passion.
Tattooing began on a whim
Speaking to MS News, Keith said when he was 17, he and his friends went to Geylang to get their first tattoo kit out of boredom.
Keith with his friends in secondary school
Image courtesy of Keith Ho
None of them knew what they were doing, yet Keith became the designated tattoo artist on account of his artistic talents.
The sterilisation and hygiene were rabz, and the tattoos were no less so.
Image courtesy of Keith Ho
He wasn’t even using the right gloves then.
But over time, with the help of strangely supportive friends who’d let Keith tattoo whatever he wanted on their bodies for free, he got to work on his craft.
This was an invaluable experience for someone self-taught and didn’t have someone to learn under.
Keith shared that as he watched people tattoo, his hunger grew and he wanted to tattoo others more and more — the fact that he enjoyed watching people grimace in pain while he inked them was a plus.
Later, he converted a spare room in his house into a workroom of sorts and continued giving his friends free tattoos.
It was there he worked until he finally opened a tattoo shop at Bras Basah in Jan 2021.
Anime tattoos drew a big reaction
The idea to combine the artform with tattooing didn’t come to Keith immediately, and he used to do fairly standard tattoos.
But that changed forever one day when Keith was eating KFC with his friend, and a lightbulb went off in his head.
Knowing his friend had nothing to do that day, Keith invited him to his place to try out an anime tattoo and posted the result online.
The reaction to that post was far beyond what Keith expected. It was even reposted on various social media sites like Pinterest.
From then on, he felt there was a demand for anime tattoos in Singapore and began making more and more of them, growing to what it is today.
Dropped out of school to pursue tattooing full-time
Every class has an artist, and Keith was that guy. But even though he loved to draw, he was always told, “Too bad you’re in Singapore”.
Having that drilled into his head made Keith think of drawing as a hobby and nothing more.
And due to financial problems in his family, he also skipped school often as he felt that asking his mum to top up his EZ-link card would be a waste of money.
So he started working in numerous jobs since he was 14, including:
- F&B service
- Bar waiting
But he never actually dropped out of school then—he only attended very sporadically. After school, he’d either work at his bartending job or do tattoos for free at home.
However, as his tattooing hobby became more than he’d ever anticipated, he knew he had to decide between school and pursuing a career as a tattoo artist.
If not, I’m not going to succeed at either.
And so, he eventually made the decision to stop his studies at the age of 18 after trying to balance both academics and his tattooing work for years.
Although there’s a mindset that “studies are everything in Singapore”, Keith bucked the trend and backed himself to make a living with his skill.
Unafraid to try the unconventional
From talking to Keith, we got the impression that he’s definitely unafraid to try things that many would deem unconventional.
Such as a hentai tattoo he proudly shared on Instagram. The tattoo – which is obviously not safe for work – wasn’t even a customer request.
Keith shared that the regular customer trusted him enough to put it on him.
“He came down to get some Junji Ito tattoos, and when I saw his plan, I told him, ‘Bro, your arm so big, you put this small small thing wasted la.’
He continued, “Just let me (tattoo this), and I give you discount.” And after 10 minutes, he successfully convinced the customer.
Now the customer has a tattoo that we’re not sure his mum will be proud of. Of course, it was above his sleeve, so it’s coverable.
Received memorably weird request
Tattoo artists receive weird requests now and then, but one request that Keith received was arguably “the weirdest”.
“There was this one request from a girl who asked if I was okay with tattooing people under 18,” Keith said.
“Then she said she wanted Orochimaru (a character from Naruto) licking her chest on a sensitive area.”
Orochimaru, an antagonist in the Naruto series
Even if it was a unique idea, the idea of tattooing a minor in that sensitive area was not a step he was willing to take, so Keith made up his mind there and then and politely declined.
He did note that he’s willing to tattoo people below 18 or tattoo sensitive spots as he is a professional, but that combination, he felt, was a step into territory too grey for him, given her age.
Watched anime as an escape from a broken home
Like many of us, Keith grew up watching anime, but Naruto, in particular, stood out as one of his favourites.
He considers Jiraiya – his favourite character – the “father he never had” in the same way Naruto gained a father figure.
Keith grew up in a broken home — his father would subject him to numerous verbal and physical abuse growing up.
Once, he said that he went to school with a giant handprint on his face, courtesy of his father, whom he’s no longer on speaking terms with.
Although he left his father’s home and moved to his mum’s at the age of 12, he felt a need to reconnect 4 years later out of filial piety and reached out to him.
Eventually, after a huge fight, Keith finally realised that his father couldn’t change.
Rather unsurprisingly, he relates quite closely to Naruto too. They share the same trait of playing pranks to gain attention to make up for what he lacked in a broken family.
But just like Naruto, Keith never stopped believing in himself, and while he doesn’t possess a nine-tailed fox within him, he does possess the passion and drive that brought him to where he is today.
Pursue your dreams & put in 100% effort
Keith advises others to find that same passion—and put in 100% effort to work on it.
An issue he finds with many people today is that they ask for opportunities but only dip their toes into the water instead of committing fully.
He noted, “Once they’re emotionally and mentally ready (and) they know what they want, they will definitely commit to (their craft).”
And that’s just what it takes if you wish to pursue your dreams. Another piece of advice Keith has is to ignore the naysayers as well.
His mother didn’t support him initially, and friends even made bets with him that he would fail, but he’s defied their expectations, and they’re now fully on board.
In fact, Keith shared that his mum seemed to be swayed by his relatives that came over for a Chinese New Year reunion dinner last year.
They saw his tattoo room and said,
Wow, your son is really good at this, he’s an entrepreneur!
Funnily enough, his mum was convinced after that to support Keith in his tattoo business, even helping him with paperwork when he was looking for a place to set up his shop.
Don’t be afraid to keep trying even after you fail
Having toiled for hundreds of hours working for free to build up his portfolio, Keith is familiar with the hustle life. He’s even quit smoking, drinking, and clubbing all for the sake of getting better.
While his mum is supportive of his career, parental pressure is definitely something that many others will have to deal with.
And so Keith’s last piece of advice to the young is this: youth is on your side. Even if you fail, there’s always time to try again.
Hopefully, Keith’s story might make some reconsider the textbook of how to succeed in Singapore.
While passion may not initially put food on the table, especially in the arts, if you’re committed, that’s already the first step in chasing your dreams.
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Featured image courtesy of Keith Ho and Instagram.