From The Straits Times    |
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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.

Rejection is never easy. It can be painful and, at times, devastating – but for graphic designer, artist and illustrator Toh Bee Suan (who goes by the moniker Almostasthma), it was exactly what changed her life when her application to a Singapore university fell through.

“I had an interest in geography, and I applied to a local university to pursue it, with the intention of getting a job as a geography teacher in Singapore,” says the 32-year-old, who is also known as Bee.

As she was mulling her next step following the unsuccessful application, her sister encouraged her to consider applying to Lasalle College of the Arts as Bee had been drawn to creative activities since joining an arts-related CCA in primary school.

After graduating in 2014 with a degree in Fine Arts, she carved out a career as a graphic designer while trying to establish herself as an artist with various side projects, such as producing and selling her own Almostasthma merchandise at events, and creating eye-catching murals.

Graphic designer and visual artist Toh Bee Suan, also known as Bee, is currently a tattoo artist’s apprenteice at Time Tattoo

Since then, Bee has grown to become a full-time creative whose quirky, technicolour designs have been featured on the facade of HDB blocks and shophouses, and most recently, at the S.E.A. Aquarium at Resorts World Sentosa.

Not one to rest on her laurels, she’s also been experimenting with AR (augmented reality) and 3D software, creating AR filters for attractions like the S.E.A. Aquarium, and working on 3D-focused projects for numerous brands and organisations, from the likes of home-grown craft beer company The 1925 Brewing Co. to the National Library Board.

This year, she has been pursuing another creative outlet – tattooing – an interest she discovered at the Singapore Ink Show some years back. Inspired by the artists she saw, Bee began hand-poking her whimsical designs on a clientele mostly made up of close friends in her own bedroom, before deciding she could do a lot more. She is currently undertaking an apprenticeship at local studio Time Tattoo.

“In March this year, I did my first tattoo pop-up at co-working space Crane in Joo Chiat. My next one will be at the Illustration Arts Fest on July 29 and 30,” she says.

When asked what being a tattoo artist means to her, Bee opens up about her own battle with body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), a mental health condition that disrupts how one sees and feels about their own body and appearance. She explains that after getting tattooed, she slowly grew a sense of acceptance for her body, and gained confidence about the way she looked.

“My first tattoo was a ‘reverse mermaid’ tattoo – I loved it so much. As I got more tattoos, I began to see my body as a space for things and designs I like, and I grew to appreciate it more for being a vessel that lets me experience life,” she says.

Bee also shares that while she’s lucky to have her family’s support, she does sometimes fantasise about landing a more conventional and higher-paying job that’s perceived as “more stable”.

“In another life, I think I would be a banker or something,” she says with a laugh, pointing out that sometimes, as a creative, she feels “left behind” in life compared to her friends who are buying their first homes and raising kids. “But I keep myself in check by remembering I have something that many don’t, and that’s passion. It’s better to have a passion for something than to live a life not knowing what you truly want and love,” she says.

Name: Toh Bee Suan
Highest Education: BA(Hons) in Fine Arts
Job Title & Industry: Graphic designer, visual artist & tattoo artist’s apprentice
Years of Work Experience: Around 7-8 years

Bee’s mural for independent arts centre The Substation in 2020. Photo provided by Bee

Tell us about what drives you as an artist

I started “Almostasthma” as an outlet for me to document and curate all my creative work. For outsiders looking in, it’s a peek into my world. I see art as a space where I can be free, and as an artist, my belief is very much linked to growth. I avoid being stagnant, and I believe that it’s important to keep up with the times.

As much as I’m trying to do a little bit of everything, I also simply want to enjoy my creative pursuits and the journey along the way. People take themselves too seriously; I want to have fun [with my work]. As one might say about life: I’m here for a good time, not a long time!

What has your career path been like?

When I enrolled at Lasalle, I had already recognised the limitations of becoming a full-time artist in Singapore. One of these challenges is the lack of capital that’s required to kick-start your career – you need funding to be able to create and exhibit your artworks.

The next best option I had was to become a graphic designer. I spent about seven to eight years doing that as my day job, and on weekends, I created my own art. This was when I started to branch out into AR, 3D, tattooing, and so on. The one project that really put me on the map here in Singapore was being commissioned in 2020 to do a mural for The Substation.

What are your biggest achievements so far?

My biggest achievement to date is my collaboration with the S.E.A. Aquarium. As part of its “Sea of Unseen Colours” campaign, I was approached to create four different key visuals and AR filters for social media. Another project that I’m proud of was a collaboration with HDB.

I was given the opportunity to run some workshops about Figma (a graphics editing and user interface design app), and the people who participated used the knowledge gained from those workshops to create large scale banners of lovely facade art displayed on the HDB blocks of Taman Jurong between February and July 2022.

From freelancing as a graphic designer to taking on a tattoo apprenticeship – it’s no secret that you juggle quite a bit. How do you ensure a work-life balance?

This is a tricky one. I think work-life balance is something I did not pay much attention to at first, because art is a form of self-care to me. It’s what I enjoy doing.

It was all fine and dandy, until a bit of burnout crept up on me. At the end of the day, I guess this is something I’m still figuring out. But I try to do little things, like force myself to squeeze in time to exercise (despite not liking it very much) after work and between my freelance projects.

Any tips for aspiring creatives?

One big lesson for me is that no matter how much you love something, you should always remember that overwork will still lead to burnout. No matter how passionate you are about your work or hobbies, you need to establish boundaries and take care of yourself first.

Another tip is that one should know their worth and ensure that they are fairly compensated. Learn to ask for what you deserve when negotiating rates with clients, especially if you’re working in the creative field.

PHOTOGRAPHY Veronica Tay
ART DIRECTION Adeline Eng
HAIR & MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using NARS