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Arts & Culture

Mulie Addlecoat: Meaningful Tattoos Only

Discover stories behind the ink.

Words by
b-side staff
Location
Indonesia

Hidden within an apartment complex in Jakarta, with no signboards or hint of what lies inside, is Mulie Addlecoat’s tattoo studio. It is almost a recreation of the forbidden atmosphere of the tattoo scene in New York City in the ’60s, when the art form was banned.

Walk through the doors and you would find yourself in an inspired space with white brick walls, sketches, art and even self-designed equipment. But be warned, if you do not know why you want to get a tattoo, you just might be sent away.

Mulie started his career in 2011 with about four clients a month. Today, his schedule is fully booked a year in advance. Beyond his unique oriental style that combines elements of origami, what sets him apart is his deep dives into the meaning behind every tattoo he creates. At the end of the day, Mulie transforms clients’ struggles and stories into meaningful permanent symbols.

Mulie shares with B-Side some of his most memorable exchanges with clients and how his life experiences shape his unique approach and style.

You started tattooing in 2011. What made you want to pursue it as a career and what was the learning process like?

The Accident

I never attempted to pursue a career as a tattoo artist. I mean, I love tattoos and getting them, but I detest the “artist” because most I’ve encountered are snobs and have selfish rockstar syndrome. I got into this career because I got into an “accident” in 2009, when I attended the 2nd Singapore Tattoo Show.

The artist I had booked wasn’t really friendly, and he had me wait for five hours and didn’t explain why. I was so disappointed that I told my wife, “Before we leave, can we take another spin around the convention just to cure me of my frustration?”

Just as I went into a corner, I discovered a Taiwanese tattoo artist’s amazing works. I recognised his works, so I went to him and asked, “Are you Diau An?”

He nodded and I immediately asked, “Can you speak English?”

With a friendly smile, he scratched his head and went “Uhhh…” I thought to myself, “Oh my god, how am I going to brief him?” Luckily, his apprentice translated our conversation and I asked for a Japanese octopus tattoo on my elbow.

During the first hour, the apprentice said to me, “My master would like to know if you are a tattoo artist?” I replied, “No, I’m a different kind of artist.” After four hours, the tattoo was nearly complete. However, before we could finish colouring the eye and a couple of tentacles, he politely told me that the convention was about to close and that we could finish it at the hotel or the day after at noon at the convention.

I said, “I’m already tapped out. Can we finish tomorrow?” and I remember hearing the crowds in the back sigh in disappointment.

When I returned to the convention the next day, I discovered that his booth was empty. At 3pm, I started to panic and his booth remained empty throughout the day. Later, I saw someone who was Diau An’s spectator and asked him if he knew where Diau An was. He told me that Diau An had a problem and had to return to his country. I was speechless.

I had two options: either I wait and search for him hopelessly or finish it on my own. At the time I thought, “How hard can it be? It’s just colouring red tentacles.” I figured since I couldn’t contact Diau Au in Taiwan or speak Taiwanese, I might as well go with plan B and I bought some tattoo equipment. I had never been so wrong. It was really hard to even attempt tattooing on a practice skin. All my lines wriggled like curly ramen.

So when I returned to Indonesia, I tried looking for an apprenticeship. I thought my luck had reached a dead end after months with no results. Then out of the blue, my friend called me and said, “Are you interested in learning how to tattoo? I just got an offer.” I told him that I was very interested and that was how it started.

At the time, my main purpose was simply to finish my octopus tattoo. But that purpose quickly changed. After five months of apprenticeship, when I finally figured out how to work the tattoo machine, something just “clicked” in me. It felt so natural to me how tattooing worked and I loved the process. I started figuring out on my own how to do other techniques and I could see so many possibilities. I was hooked.

Fast-forward to 2010, I found out that my wife’s friend speaks Taiwanese. We got her to write an email to Diau An and he said that he would be at the 2010 Singapore Art and Culture Tattoo Convention.

I booked a ticket and made my appointment. I flew to Singapore and finally had my octopus tattoo done with some additional background. After completion, Diau An politely asked me the same question again, “Are you a tattoo artist?” At that moment, I realised that I was going to be a tattoo artist and his humbleness showed me what kind of tattoo artist I should become.

So I answered, “Yes, I now am.”

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How did it feel creating your first tattoo? Was there a story behind that tattoo and what was the imagery?

It was excruciatingly nerve-racking because your canvas is a living breathing person who can move at any time. At some point, I was almost breaking down. But my mentor told me not to and said that it was OK to make small mistakes. Still, my hands were shaking and I was in a cold sweat.

It was a half-sleeve Hannya mask on my friend, the one who called me to join the apprenticeship. Unfortunately, there was not much of a story behind it because I didn’t have a deep understanding at the time.

You get very invested in your clients’ stories. How does that shape the tattoos you create?

At first I was simply curious to know more about my clients, what they did for a living and I wanted to know where they were going to take my artworks. I’m very possessive with my artwork, so I genuinely ask a lot of questions, like why do they want to get the tattoo and what does it mean to them.

Ultimately, it isn’t me that shape the tattoo that I’ve created. It is the meaning, stories and intentions that manifest in the tattoo. In the end, it is the tattoos that shape me as an artist and who I am today.

I understand that your approach goes both ways and both you and your client are touched by the process. What are some clients or stories that have left a profound impact on you?

Yes, my process is very much like a dance or a duet. I cannot dance alone and produce impactful tattoos. Dancing alone will take me no further. The approach has to be a collaboration of mutual understanding and synchronicity.

I will share with you three stories that have had a profound impact on me.

The father
He requested his second tattoo when we were in the middle of a back-piece project. He wanted an origami with the word father in kanji written on it. He wanted to promise his sons that he would be a model father. Little did he know that it was hard for me to process the idea.

He was a workaholic, and he once told me that after long hours of working, he would return to his private apartment instead of going home to his family. I struggled when designing and tattooing the tattoo. In my head, I kept asking myself,  “Does he deserves the title of father?” I did it, but I hated the tattoo and felt ashamed of it.

Years later, I got news from him that his father had been diagnosed with cancer and we had to postpone the back-piece project. He had to take his father to the Netherlands for treatment. We talked a lot over text messages and when he returned, he told me he was devastated because the chemotherapy had failed. He vowed never to set foot there again. He wanted to take things slow and spend more time with his sons and wife. At that moment I felt proud, that the “father” idea had finally manifested in him. He had become the father figure he always wanted to be and I ended up loving the tattoo.

The reunion
My friend Yola was separated from her twin at birth because a fortune teller suggested to their parents that it would be unlucky for the twins to grow up together.

Fortunately, Yola was reunited with her twin, Ochie, when she was a young adult. They shared personal stories and made up for lost time. That reconnection was immortalised in the form of matching tattoos. It was a beautiful reunion, and I got to be a part of that moment. It felt very fulfilling.

The depressed unicorn
She was in her 40s and worked in a book publishing company where she loved to translate sci-fi and fantasy books. She told me that she had been fighting depression. Everything felt out of control. Despite being the youngest in her family, she had to take care of her parents and brother, because her older brother was a mess. She felt she had no choice in life and attended many psychiatric sessions. Her psychiatrist eventually told her that she couldn’t rely on the sessions forever and that she needed to get better and find an activity or hobby that could soothe her. She chose tattoo.

I asked her: “Do you know why it’s therapeutic?”
She said: “I don’t know. Why?”
I said: “We as human beings, if we are stripped off our status, title, belongings, car and money, the only thing that we have left is our freedom of choice. And your freedom of choice happens to be your decision to get a tattoo. And that’s something that nobody can take away from you.”
And she responded with a very long “Aaaahhhhhhhh”.

Her tattoo is that of a unicorn inspired by the movie Blade Runner, where the main protagonist chose to fall in love with a “replicant” that he had to eliminate. He chose to let go of his own personal life and risk it all just to be with the woman he loved.

Your visual style is unique. How would you describe your visual style and how did you develop it?

It’s what I’d call the ‘Universal Appeal Style’.

I developed it in the aftermath of my personal apocalypse. Remember the 2012 prediction that the world would end? It was stupid, right? But it actually did happen to me.

Several years after my mother’s death, my family was under quite a bit of stress. In 2011, my father became schizophrenic and had a stroke, right after the birth of my daughter. At that time on his dying bed, with half of his body paralysed, he told me that he wanted to die. He passed away in 2012.

His words resonated with me because at the same time, my agency almost went bankrupt. I had to let my employees go, and I was left with $400 in my bank account to support my family. I had an average of only four clients a month. Nothing was working out and everything was failing.

Several months after my father’s death, while I was still coping with the grief, my sister-in-law was diagnosed with spine cancer. I went to the hospital to cheer her up and instead, she said: “I can’t stand it anymore. I want to die.” She passed away shortly afterwards.

The grief didn’t just end there. The next year, my grandmother-in-law passed away. And at my lowest point, my dog, my best friend, too died. I was ready to quit life. Fortunately, my family kept me hanging on.

I didn’t leave my room for a long time. I shut myself in and cried a lot. I was so traumatised by the series of events, and I was burdened with the awareness that anyone could die anytime. Every night for two years, I would put my head on my daughter’s and wife’s chest to check if they were still breathing. In desperation, I would bury myself in books and research crazy theories to counter my idea of suicide.

And what do these traumatic events have to do with my style? On one sleepless night, I happened to watch a documentary about Stan Lee. He struggled with his early cowboy comics and nothing seemed to work. Everything was failing for him too. Just as he was about to quit his job at Marvel, his wife told him to create a comic that he would at least love before quitting. He went on to create a series of superhero comics that would forever change pop culture history.

As I was watching the documentary, a light bulb lit in my head. It gave me hope and I changed my mindset. Right there, with a nothing-to-lose attitude, I let myself go, surrendered myself to faith and produced works that were true to my inner core — without doubt, self-judgement or filter. It changed my perspective and, eventually, changed my sense of style. Since then, I’ve been tattooing every client like it is going to be my last work.

You mentioned you had to let go of two apprentices. What does it take to tattoo at your level?

Yes, I’ve had to let two apprentices go because their main focus was on the instant — instant process, instant results and instant fame. I couldn’t accept their attitude. They had a lot of excuses, even before starting the lessons. When I began learning how to tattoo, I had a 9-to-10 job, an agency to manage and a baby daughter to care for. I would start learning tattooing from 1am to 4am, stopping to changing the diaper at 2am. I had no complaints because I loved it and it didn’t bother me.

When you love something so much, it feels like a calling and you’ll do it with all your soul.

To able to do what I’m doing now, you need to be purposeful and have a deep level of understanding. You need to understand why you want to tattoo people in the first place. You need to understand the history, culture and science, as well as the workings of the machine, the interaction between the ink and the skin, and the behaviour of various needle types. You need to understand the meaning behind the tattoo, symbols and philosophy; how your client reacts to pain and how to evoke their emotions so they can tell you the deepest truth about their tattoo.

What can we expect from you at the Singapore Ink Show in April?

I really don’t know, and that’s what I’m looking forward for.

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