Love black and grey tattoos? You'll want to know about Taiwanese artist Josh Lin

Josh Lin shares his journey from being a record store boy to fine arts student and finally, a tattoo artist
For Josh Lin, choosing a career in tattoo art meant choosing freedom. The 37-year-old, who originated from Taoyuan, only moved to Taipei when he enrolled in the Taiwan Arts University Department of Fine Arts. It was then that he began his career in the tattoo industry — now, Lin has clocked in 15 years of experience and is the founder of Synthetic Lab Tattoos. People around the world over flock to his studio and visit him at tattoo conventions for a stab at his signature aesthetic: Black and grey tattoos with a stroke of realism.

We first met Lin at the Singapore Ink Show at Suntec in June. Spending six hours on one of his clients at a crowded convention is no easy feat, but Lin says that the hype doesn't affect the quality of the work. Of course, the comfort of his own studio is ideal, setting an intimate stage for greater things to come. Clients often throw in reference photos after firming up an appointment with him, but it's through a chat that he'll grab more elements to make a well-rounded design.

"Some clients might dive a little deeper into why they're getting a tattoo," said Lin, as we met again in an industrial office building in Lavender. The consulting process is an interesting one. "Clients share a lot of their own secrets. When I'm done tattooing them, they leave and I may never see them again. It's almost like we're boyfriend and girlfriend for that moment, but now we're strangers. It's the most intimate stranger relationship."
Being a life confidante was something he never expected when he signed up for this. When he first moved out of home at age 15, Lin was looking for a way to live more comfortably and earn his own income. In his self-proclaimed punk rock phase — tight clothes and all — he turned to record stores, hanging out with bands and label professionals. 15 years ago, there were no tattoo shops on the street, nor were there any social media platforms that exposed the world of tattoo art to him.

A compulsory stint in the Taiwanese army gave him time to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Lin thought about what he was best at. "When I was a kid, I was already pretty weird," he recalled, laughing. "My mother told me that as soon as I picked up a pencil, I started drawing." Back then, the newbie didn't even know where to get tattoo guns. In fact, when he first started, neighbours around tattoo shops would protest at the presence of one. It wasn't something that was considered a serious job.
Studying fine arts exposed him to all facets of technique and history: Landscape, sculpture, oil painting and the works. "Sure, there's no direct link from a fine arts education to tattoos," he said. "But for me, tattoo art is about history. Like the stained glass you see in churches and cathedrals, you see the church as the body, the same way I see the body when I tattoo. First and foremost you have to respect the body, just as much as you respect the church and cathedral."

A perfectionist at heart (he's a Virgo, after all), Lin has never been quite satisfied with his works — even if they're good to go from his client's eyes. He's been given the utmost responsibility in inking a person's idols onto skin: Captain America, Salvador Dali, and even someone's late grandmother. "I always see where I could have done better," he shared. "But the client doesn't see what I see."

Lin's own personal Everest is ever so evolving. "What is perfection or success to me is always changing," he summed up.

Text: Adibah Isa
Photography: Vanessa Caitlin
Translator: Wendy Wu Lin