Starting a tattoo business at 19 while studying may seem like a pretty cool idea for a liberal arts kid somewhere in the States.
But for a Malaysian, that’s probably our parents’ biggest nightmare.
Unsurprisingly, Esther Choong’s parents weren’t prepared nor happy to hear about this path she’d chosen 2 years ago.
“I’m still surprised I didn’t get whacked, honestly,” she said.
What was then a shock and horror to her parents then has now transformed their very own living room into Poking Duck’s tattoo parlour.
Prior to tattooing, Esther was really into drawing and painting.
Wanting to explore more of that eventually led to her love of tattoos.
“I had half a mind to drop out of university and take up a tattoo apprenticeship!”
“But after doing some research, I found that a lot of tattoo artists came up into the scene by self-learning with the hand-poked method, so naturally I was really drawn to that,” she shared.
This was when she realised that it would be a win-win situation for her to pursue her passion while continuing her studies.
Her First “Quack” At Tattooing
Starting from scratch on her own meant hours of research spent on Google and Youtube before getting a tattoo kit.
While there were plenty of videos on hand-poking for beginners, Esther still needed to filter out sketchy videos.
These videos included using sewing needles to hand-poke and cleaning the materials with just soap.
Hence, reaching out to several established tattoo artists was important to her before she started inking.
Once she learnt what she needed to, Esther started out by practicing on her body first.
Eventually, she started tattooing her friends when she became confident in her procedures and techniques.
6 months later, Poking Duck was born in her living room.
Her makeshift home studio contains all the basic things a tattoo parlour has, such as a tattoo bed and proper storage for her tattoo materials.
Esther also takes notes of the strict SOPs that most parlours have and applies them to her own.
Clients are required to wear masks and sanitise during this period, and the number of people in the room at any one time is limited.
“A lot of my clients comment that they feel like they’re going over to a friend’s place to get a tattoo as opposed to an unfamiliar location, which makes them feel more comfortable. That makes me happy,” shared Esther.
Inking On The Skin And Paper
Studying while tattooing makes Esther’s schedule unlike those of full-time tattoo artists.
Her schedule changes every few months according to semesters, though generally she works 4 to 5 days a week.
With her classes shifting online due to the pandemic, it has made juggling between the two much easier for her.
Her normal working days now are attending online classes till 12PM, printing her tattoo stencils outside, then tattooing for two sessions until 6-7PM.
She’ll have dinner afterwards and complete her assignments at night.
Whenever she has time, she’ll work on custom designs for her clients.
Starting out as a student tattoo artist doesn’t allow her to have a fixed revenue or number of clients monthly.
Exam seasons are when she cannot afford to take in clients as she needs to take a week or two off to prepare for her tests.
In a way, this pandemic was both a blessing and curse to Poking Duck.
On good months like the last when she didn’t have a ton of assignments, she made RM3,500 when she took in 25-30 clients.
On bad months like these, she made about RM700 when she took in only a week’s worth of clients.
This was due to her preparing for midterms coupled with canceling several appointments due to the recent CMCO.
That being said, however, Esther has already broken even with her business.
It did take a while though, because her prices are relatively lower than full-time tattoo artists’ and she doesn’t charge a deposit.
While she understands the hard work that goes into the art, thus leading to its priciness, she shares a different sentiment.
Her target audience is mostly students, and as a student working part-time herself, she understands how demotivating it can be to get inked given how much you’d have to scrimp and save for it.
“When I started tattooing for others, I wanted to make tattoos a little more accessible price-wise to people who were in the same situation as me.”
“The ability to appreciate, own and support art should be accessible to everyone,” said Esther.
Beyond The Home Parlour
Although her parents are supportive of her journey as a part-time tattoo artist now, they’re still hoping that Esther would get a traditional 9-to-5 job in the future.
This clashes with her dreams of pursuing a full-time tattoo artistry career to sustain both herself and her family.
She’d like to be able to travel the world and work in tattoo parlours that she’s admired for years.
However, given the conflict of interests, she’s just taking life as it comes as she’s still torn between her ambitions and making her parents happy.
As for how she’d like to grow Poking Duck, her main goal is to find her personal style.
“I’m pretty fickle, so my style changes every ten minutes! But it would be amazing if someone saw a tattoo I’ve done and be able to recognise it without asking who the artist is, like ‘Hey, I know that style! It’s by Poking Duck, right?’”
Featured Image Credit: Esther Choong, Founder of Poking Duck