Home People Conversation with: Joseph Siow of Visual Orgasm

Conversation with: Joseph Siow of Visual Orgasm

Published on

Some of Singapore’s best tattoo studios have made the streets of Kampong Gelam their home ground. But for Visual Orgasm’s Joseph Siow, who set up shop in Haji Lane back in 2009, this decision was unprecedented (and perhaps even slightly taboo) in the Malay-Muslim quarter. Over a decade on, the ethnic enclave’s identity has evolved into a vibrant space where cultural heritage meets urban art – a process imperceptibly influenced by pioneers like Joseph and his ilk.

Drawn to Kampong Gelam

Visual Orgasm
Image credit: Visual Orgasm

Founded in 2005, Visual Orgasm’s brand of edgy illustrations and dedication to “freedom of expression” resulted in unique custom tattoos that drew a robust roster of clients. When it came time to relocate, Joseph had his heart set on the pre-urbanised Haji Lane. “I loved the laidback, hipster vibes of Haji Lane. Kampong Gelam wasn’t as widely explored as it is now; not many people knew of its existence.” Joseph shared, “My studio was in a conserved shophouse mostly surrounded by Malay heritage shops, eateries and landmarks. Being open to new cultures, I was excited to promote my art form to the community even though tattoos still carried a stigma back then.”

As the first and only tattoo studio in the area, Visual Orgasm played an intrinsic role in Haji Lane’s burgeoning street culture. “When I first moved in, only the immediate area around Blu Jaz had some street art, and there were a small handful of blogshops.” Joseph laughed, “The street became livelier after we arrived. More indie stores and fashion boutiques popped up – and with the opening of Aliwal Arts Centre, Haji Lane and Kampong Gelam’s street culture flourished.”

Inspiration at Every Turn

While tattooists typically design their pieces according to their client’s requests, a great deal of creativity goes into the process. So where does Joseph get his ink inspiration? “The diverse community, cultural influences and art in the area are a source of inspiration for me,” he revealed. “Even within Kampong Gelam’s collective of tattoo studios, we inspire each other; there is no competition as every artist has a different style. We exchange creative visions, and that spurs us to push artistic boundaries.”

Art in Memory

As a veteran artist, Joseph has created his fair share of amazing tattoos. “We deal with different clients from all walks of life every day, hearing their stories and motivations to get inked. The ones I post online are pieces that I particularly enjoyed. Still, my favourite to do are memorial tattoos,” he shared. “These are created through private moments you share with the client, having intimate conversations that do not take place anywhere else but the studio. This process is also where I get to go beyond expressing art, to making a real impact on someone’s life through a tattoo.”

The Kampung Spirit

Scene shang
Image credit: The Peak Magazine

Joseph’s creative endeavours have on occasion extended beyond the studio. One instance was his collaboration with furniture and lifestyle brand, Scene Shang for a furniture line that debuted in Singaplural a few years back. He reminisces, “I’m always open to new opportunities even if I’m not in Kampong Gelam. My heart is there; my friends are there – I’ve been at Haji Lane for 11 years, and I’ll always want to go back to meet these familiar faces. The community is very united and supportive.”

His daughter, Lilith (also known as Singapore’s youngest tattoo artist), is also no stranger to Kampong Gelam’s charms. “I brought her to the studio during school breaks, where she cultivated her skills and love for drawing.” Joseph laughs, “I’ve brought her around the neighbourhood, and she loves the ‘arty-farty’ feel of the area. It’s an eye-opening experience for her. Besides being exposed to local street culture, she now knows that there’s such a cool place in Singapore.”

Artist-Turned-Tour-Guide

As a Kampong Gelam insider, Joseph’s recommendations are definitely on point.”Friends visiting from overseas are always thrilled to see the neighbourhood, as they’ll get to see Singapore in its full hipster glory,” the tattooist laughs. “Aside from hanging out at my studio, I’d bring them to the eateries nearby for a taste of authentic Malay and Indian cuisine. Then they’ll usually explore the whole district, from Haji Lane to Aliwal Street, to Jalan Kelapa.” Joseph adds, “After taking loads of cool photos, we’ll hang out at Piedra Negra or Blu Jaz – those are some of my favourite bars. They can easily spend the whole day here, and experience the crowded streets and nightlife as evening falls.”

Visual Orgasm has relocated to 8B Canton Street, Tel: +65 9856 9478