Frankie sits hunched over, his gaze intense as he etched line after line of ink into my skin with surgical precision. The piercing pain I felt was soothed in large part to Frankie’s convivial and comedic banter.
Not only was it my most comfortable experience in a tattoo parlour, but I also emerged from the shop with one of the most detailed tattoos on my body, a panel straight out of the Naruto manga depicting the touching last words of Itachi.
Fast forward three months later, I found myself once again at the doors of Singapore Electric, the familiar sounds of rotary machines buzzing in the air. Frankie waved at me briefly, before returning to his work with the same laser-like focus as before. This time, I wasn’t here to be inked, but to learn more about this man and the craft he takes so much pride in.
His name is Frankie Sexton. In layman terms, Frankie is a tattoo artist who specialises in transplanting your favourite manga characters, scenes, or even entire manga panels from books or webpages—whichever medium you choose—onto human skin.
Since the characters are already drawn out by manga artists, you might think that it is a matter of merely copying the drawing over onto skin—but it is not.
“I will never photocopy the manga panel onto the stencil,” asserts Frankie. “I will trace over the panel, and this will give me an idea of where the lines go so that I don’t copy it blindly during the actual tattooing.”
This is no easy task. Manga panels are usually filled with intricate designs, and Frankie will have to trace the panel line by line on his tablet, before inking these intricacies onto human skin—a task that requires his utmost concentration as well as patience.
To achieve this pinpoint accuracy, Frankie uses very fine needles to copy even the minutest of details. “These manga have a huge fanbase, so I cannot screw it up. With fine-line needles, even the tiniest mistake will be very obvious and I cannot cover it up.”
Not only is Frankie skilled in his craft, but he also ensures that his clients have an entertaining experience even as they are getting pricked a hundred times per second. For repeat customers, you can be sure that Frankie will not forget you—he remembered every detail of our conversation from the last time I was here.
“The artists in the shop are a very talkative bunch—since when is a tattoo shop so noisy? To make my clients more comfortable, I usually try to include my client in our conversation.” True enough, both times I was at Singapore Electric, I would share laughs with the whole crew and their clients as we chatted over a myriad of topics—from ghost stories to PSLE scores. Expletives would fly every minute, from every corner of the shop, and there was not a single dull moment. In fact, throughout my interview with Frankie, there was no counting how many times we went off track into the most random topics.
“If I’m alone with the client, I will usually just talk about manga and anime, and this often leads to them sharing their life experiences, and I will share mine too.”
Frankie’s interest in manga started at a very young age. “My father has a massive collection of manga from Hong Kong that is based on the mafia in the country. These were the first manga volumes I saw. It influenced my brother, who had a keen interest in basketball, and me to chase after volumes of Slam Dunk, a manga hinged on the same sport. I would also eventually express interest in the stories of Captain Tsubasa and later on, Dragon Ball.
Not only is Frankie grateful to his family for the interest in manga volumes, but he is also thankful that, unlike most people in the older generation, his parents do not stigmatise tattoos, and supported his career as a tattoo artist. Frankie recounted his brother coming home with tattoos when he was 14 and flaunting them to him, who was five then. When his brother was not punished for it, that was when tattoos became a norm to him. Frankie proceeded to get his first tattoo at the same age his brother did and subsequently covered the rest of his body with ink. “They won’t judge me for what I do, as long as I know how to look after myself.”
Frankie’s father then proceeded to get his first tattoo at the ripe age of 50. Frankie recalled the words of his father—“All my sons are tattooed leh, and I don’t have any. I’m already 50 years old. If I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it?”
While his childhood was smooth, the same cannot be said for Frankie’s tattooing career. Even though he was already covered in tattoos from a young age, Frankie only began tattooing five years ago in his mid-late twenties. Having dropped out of secondary school, Frankie has worked a vast number of odd jobs since then, from manning the counters at McDonald’s, to telemarketing, to driving a truck in the wee hours of the night to deliver pork to markets.
He was out of options. Taking a leap of faith, Frankie walked into a tattoo shop in Chinatown and asked if he could pick up the skill. It was a dodgy studio which did not have proper hygiene practices, and most of its clientele were foreign workers who would simply walk-in for tattoos. Frankie would observe the tattoo artists at work, and then he would buy pig’s skin from the market to practise. One day, the shop got too crowded, and Frankie, who was not a formal artist then, was instructed to set up his station. And that was how he did his first tattoo—a lion which Frankie deemed unrecognisable.
A friend then opened a parlour, and Frankie was invited to work there. However, due to the nature of his previous workplace, Frankie was unfamiliar with the proper tattoo processes, such as using an autoclave to wash tubes, as well as the use of a stencil machine. He learnt everything from scratch. Nine months later, Augustine, whom Frankie considers his informal mentor, invited him to work at Singapore Electric.
Despite tattooing since 2014, it wasn’t until 2017 that Frankie began tattooing the style he is currently famous for. “I used to do a lot of geometric pieces, all of which I have removed from my profile. I realised that everybody could do geometric tattoos. It’s just a matter of following the lines and rhythm.”
When Frankie had this realisation, a singer named yeule—whom he considers a Godsend—requested Frankie do a full sleeve of panels by manga artist Junji Ito. These were the first few manga panels he inked. “As I worked on each piece of the sleeve, I realised, that manga work is quite fun to do,” he mused.
Pictures of the tattooed sleeve became viral and were widely shared around on social media. It also went on Pinterest—the most used platform tattoo enthusiasts go to to look for ink-spiration. People became interested in his work, and Frankie became the go-to man for people looking to etch their favourite manga characters onto their skin.
When I requested to see his favourite piece of art on his skin, Frankie sportingly pulled down his pants (of course, there weren’t any females around) to reveal a portrait of his mother and his father on his thigh.
“I can’t give you an exact number for how many tattoos I have, but 90 per cent of my body is covered—I even have a portrait of my cat. However, I realised that I don’t have any tattoos of my family.” that was when he got Feroze McLeod, another artist at Singapore Electric to translate an old photograph of his mother and father into a tattoo.
I asked Frankie what success meant to him, and the answer was clear cut:“My daughter lor. She’s the reason why I work so hard. Other people want money or achievement, but to me, for my daughter to grow up happily, that is a success. I can’t think of anything else.”
“I only have one daughter, so my entire life revolves around her. She is the reason why I only do one to two tattoo jobs in a day so that I can go back home and spend time with her.”
People with tattoos and tattoo artists may look menacing on the exterior, but it is important to remember, that they are after all, human, and more often than not, they have gone through many experiences in life, with as many stories to share—hence their many tattoos.
Frankie Sexton is one such man—beyond his unique craft, his artistic talent, and the “Screw The Queen” on his neck, Frankie is a cheeky man who remembers his roots and exemplifies the virtue of always putting family first.
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