From The Straits Times    |
rinku sherpa, owner of mantra collective singapore

Do you like your job? Or wonder what it would be like if you’d gone against your parents’ advice and pursued your dream career? Her World’s Career Confessions column spotlights the professional journeys of its subjects and reveals how each individual’s career path and the choices they have made can have an impact on their personal finances, psychological health, and interpersonal relationships.

For the vast majority, pursuing a career as a piercing artist is still a niche speciality, despite the fact that multiple ear piercings aren’t seen as anything out of the ordinary these days. Rinku Sherpa, however, is not one to conform to societal norms.

The professional piercer and former tattoo artist, who has about 25 years of experience in the industry, runs Mantra Collective, a popular piercing studio located in Kampong Glam that specialises in earscaping, which involves personalising multiple ear piercings based on one’s ear anatomy.

Her business is booming – customers of all ages and gender identities flock to her to get their ears or body parts pierced, and you’ll need to book an appointment at least a month in advance to get a slot.

Taking the path less travelled has not been easy for Rinku, who is in her 40s and has a youthful sense of style with highlighted hair, artfully curated piercings, and a botanical tattoo on her forearm. Originally from Nepal, Rinku grew up in India and was studying for a political science degree at an Indian university during the late ’90s, when she discovered an interest in body art.

Rinku Sherpa is the owner and head piercer of piercing studio Mantra Collective.

“I met my Singaporean husband through mutual friends and relatives, and I was fascinated by a tattooed portrait of a Native American on his arm. He had a strong presence in the Singapore tattoo industry – while he wasn’t in the tattoo business himself, many of his family members were owners of tattoo studios here.

“Many of my friends were also talking about the body art industry and mentioned the good pay it offered. So, I thought to myself, ‘Why not give it a try?’ This led me to explore the tattoo business and subsequently, the art of piercing,” she says.

Rinku decided to withdraw from her course – a decision that was met with scepticism from her family, who wanted her to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps, who was a judicial magistrate, and become a lawyer. “Coming from a traditional Nepalese family, there was a great emphasis on obtaining a university education, but I was always passionate about art and design.”

The popularity of body piercings, a traditional practice in Nepal and India, was also in decline then as “people started embracing modernisation”, while ironically becoming a fashion statement in the West during the ’90s.

Says Rinku: “In the past, it was common to see people with septum and nose piercings. There were spiritual and health benefits associated with these piercings – traditional remedies were relied upon as there was no Western medicine readily available. If you visit the rural areas in Nepal today, you can still see elderly women wearing large septum rings. Even my great grandmother had a septum piercing.

“In our culture, we believe there are gods that represent both masculine and feminine energies. Women used to pierce the left side of their nose because it’s considered the feminine side, and it was believed that piercing the left side of the nose enhanced femininity, while helping to alleviate menstrual pain and labour pain during childbirth.”

Today, Rinku has not only established herself as a stalwart in the art form, but also as an astute entrepreneur. Seven years ago, she established the retail arm of her operations by introducing fine body jewellery brands to Singapore.

“I tested the local market first by sourcing from just a handful of jewellery brands. As demand increased, I expanded my inventory and formed partnerships with more brands,” she says.

Here, Rinku speaks to Her World about her journey, and what it’s like to strike a balance between being an artist and a business owner.

Name: Rinku Sherpa
Highest Education: Studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science, but withdrew halfway
Job Title & Industry: Owner and head piercer of piercing studio Mantra Collective
Years of Work Experience: 25 years

Rinku with her son, Dylan, who helps out at the studio.

How did you get started as a piercing artist?

My husband’s elder brother owned a tattoo and piercing shop, and I received training from him. As I learnt more about tattooing and piercing, I realised how much I enjoyed it. Eventually, I became particularly interested in fine jewellery, and decided to specialise in piercing. In 2014, I started my own shop and became more immersed in the industry.

What’s your day-to-day schedule like?

My day-to-day is pretty busy. In the mornings I handle e-mails, plan appointments, and respond to inquiries. My working hours usually start from 12.30pm and continue until 6.30pm. During this time, I am always attending to clients, and it’s common to have five to six appointments or even more in a day. Some days, I even have back-to-back piercings. I also have clients who walk in to purchase jewellery – my staff is trained to assist them with jewellery changes and other related services.

You’ve been in the piercing business since 1998. How has the practice changed over the years?

Back then, piercings were relatively simple compared to the more intricate designs today. The procedures were quick and straightforward. Clients would come in, select jewellery that we had already sterilised and stored in pouches, and we would perform the piercings.

The use of piercing guns was also popular then, but many places didn’t have piercing guns that were properly sterilised. Guns are also not suitable for piercings as the impact of the tool can shatter the flesh and cartilage, and cause tissue damage. Here, we use needles, which are sharper and more precise, hence providing a smoother piercing experience.

Body jewellery designs are also a lot more luxurious today. At Mantra Collective, we offer fine jewellery designs made of 14K or 18K gold, and set with gems such as diamonds and other semi-precious gemstones. This is something that’s not commonly available at many places that offer piercings, as they usually carry mainly titanium or silver designs.

Is this the career path that you’ve envisioned for yourself? Would you change anything about it?

So far, I’m really happy with where I am right now. Of course, there’s always room for improvement in terms of running the business. I used to contemplate whether I should continue tattooing or focus solely on piercing, but I’m glad I made this change.

Tell us more about the challenges you’ve faced on the job, as well as your proudest accomplishments.

I’m more of an artist, so balancing this creative side and running a business can be challenging, because I have to be more organised and have systems in place.

Right now, my team is pretty small – there are three of us, including my son, Dylan, who helps out at the shop. I’m currently training one girl who shows a lot of potential; I want to pass on my skills and knowledge to her – she has a similar vibe to me, and one of my regular clients thinks she’s great too. It’s been a year of training her to communicate with clients, study the body anatomy, and learn procedures such as sterilisation. Now, she’s already progressed to doing actual piercings.

I think clients can see my artistic side, and that’s why I get recommendations. It’s great when clients appreciate what I do.

What are your future plans for Mantra Collective?

We currently offer fine jewellery collections imported from established brands from across the world, including BVLA from Los Angeles. Moving forward, I would like to design an exclusive range of fine jewellery under the Mantra Fine Jewellery brand, and perhaps expand the business with more outlets.

Do you have any advice for women who are inspired to follow in your footsteps?

I don’t believe in taking shortcuts. When I commit to something, I delve deeply and extensively into it. Even when I initially wanted to pursue tattooing, there were no classes available, so I would prepare meticulously for each tattoo appointment by researching references and reading books. The same dedication applies to my approach to piercing.

PHOTOGRAPHY Nur Athirah Annissa
HAIR Aung Apichai, using Kevin Murphy
MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using NARS