Eyeing an eyeball tattoo? Risks high, say experts

Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28 has an eyeball tattoo done by American artist Luna Cobra. -- ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH
Singaporean tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28, got his eyeball tattoo done in Sydney by an American who pioneered it. Mr Lee says he went for it with his eyes open after doing a lot of research and considering all the risks.
Singaporean tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28, got his eyeball tattoo done in Sydney by an American who pioneered it. Mr Lee says he went for it with his eyes open after doing a lot of research and considering all the risks.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Tattoo artist Chester Lee is possibly the first person here to undergo the irreversible procedure which experts say may cause blindness.

Eyeball tattoos are gaining a small following in countries like the United States but experts here warn of the severe risks.

This extreme form of modification involves dyeing the whites of the eyes by injecting ink into the eye's protective outer layer called the sclera.

Experts warn that the irreversible procedure could cause infections and even blindness.

"We totally advise against it because the sclera can be a site for infection, especially from multiple tattoo injections. Infections can lead to blindness," said Professor Donald Tan, senior adviser at the Singapore National Eye Centre.

Some who went through the procedure say they felt pain or swelling for days afterwards, and those in the industry recount chilling tales of people who had to have their eye removed due to complications.

Singaporean tattoo artist Chester Lee, 28, who is possibly the first person here to get such a tattoo, felt he had done his research and took the risk.

"It was just on my to-do list," said Mr Lee.

He got his eyeball tattoo done by the man who pioneered the procedure in the subculture scene in 2007 - an American "body modification" artist who goes by the name of Luna Cobra.

His procedure has been researched and refined with friends and family from the medical industry, Luna Cobra claims.

Nonetheless, when Mr Lee was sitting at the man's Sydney studio last year, he admitted feeling extremely nervous.

"Imagine a guy putting a needle into your eye and you cannot flinch," he said.

"My eyes swelled for a day and I teared like crazy, but after that seeing and sleeping was okay."

Even Luna Cobra - who says he has done eyeball tattoos on hundreds of people from all over the world - warns people, particularly those who are young, to think long and hard before undergoing the procedure, because it would make job hunting difficult.

"You can never take it away so unless you have a very solid job that accepts the look, then do not do it," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Lee, who is single, said most people thought he was wearing contact lenses.

"They are often shocked when they find out it is an eyeball tattoo," he said.

"I like my new look but my mother freaked out when she saw it."

Despite his facial tattoos, forked tongue and stretched earlobes, the friendly Mr Lee hardly cuts a threatening figure as he answers questions while sipping milk from a tetrapack at his tattoo studio Fatboystattoo at High Street Centre.

In Singapore, no tattoo artist is known to attempt the procedure.

And despite the risks, Mr Lee said he went in with his eyes open.

"Well, I did my research and I did it with the best," he said.

"So far so good, and I hope it stays that way."

kashc@sph.com.sg