What’s in a Tattoo?
To the public eye, tattoos are a taboo. The idea of leaving a permanent visual on one’s skin doesn’t favour with most people. When I was younger, I imagined tattooed individuals to be people of few words, leaving their inked bodies to tell their tales. I assumed them to be unapproachable, constantly unhappy and going anywhere near them was a violation.
But how many people see beyond the intimidating visuals and instead see fine artistry with a needle? What really goes on behind the parlour’s closed doors illuminated with lucid red lights? How often do we stereotype these artists from their trade and instead see them as living canvases of art?
1. Carrying on a Legacy - The Granddaughter of Singapore's First Tattoo Artist
Sumithra Debi is the owner of Exotic Tattoos & Piercings and granddaughter of Singapore’s pioneer tattoo artist, the late Johnny Two-Thumbs. During his apprenticeship with a street artist, Johnny Two-Thumbs created his own tattoo machine which is still in custody with the family. The machine has been on display at Amsterdam's world famous Tattoo Museum.
“The lecturers were disappointed to hear of my trade and sent me for counseling.”
“I’ve been a tattoo artist for 19 years from a very long line of tattoo artists. My late grandfather is Johnny Two-Thumbs and I took over the business, still running three generations later.
I started my apprenticeship at 15 by working part-time at the tattoo shop. I went to Nanyang Academy to major in arts and the lecturers noticed I was featured in the newspapers where I was rising in the scene as a tattoo artist. But when I get a grade of Distinction, they’d raise an eyebrow and literally throw my work back at me to prove that I was as good as the papers say.
Adding on to the line of hurdles, it was such a male-dominated industry at that time and as a female, it was hard to penetrate into the scene. They were constantly watching your every move, expecting you to trip and fall. On top of that, the clientele then comprised of sailors and it was unheard of to be drawn by a young female artist so they were intrigued and came up with designs to test you.
Even my father was upset at one stage to learn of my route towards tattooing; I was expected to be a journalist or a teacher. At Nanyang Academy, the lecturers too were disappointed to hear of my trade and sent me for counseling. Back in those days, being in the arts meant that you have no career and it was more of a dead-beat job.”
“I became the “bad” girl, the one who will potentially do drugs”
“Majority of tattoo artists have dark backgrounds and it comes with a stigma. My girlfriends are teachers and holding desk jobs but when I come along I get the “stay away from her” remark. So I became the “bad” girl, the one who will potentially do drugs, etcetera. So I fought for the image that being a tattoo artist doesn’t mean I have to behave or look like one - I don’t have any tattoos.
Then again, having no tattoos makes it hard to deal with when I go to conventions because I don’t have the right “image." I was checking out a tattoo machine and I commented that it didn’t sound right. The person then said to me, “are you sure? Get your tattoo artist to analyse it instead.” To me, all that matters is we’re part of the same trade and what matters is how well you do your work, not the image you portray.
In this day and age, I still encounter people who are averse to tattoos. I hang out with a group of guys who are heavily inked and people have asked me why I’m “with trouble.” So automatically, they already associate you with that. On the street, you get eyes locked on you and tongues wagging, not hiding how they judge your company. My friend who is heavily tattooed and sporting pink hair has gotten her entry denied at clubs because she wasn’t the SPG-image the bouncers were looking for, and I have friends who couldn’t re-enter after they stepped out for a smoke.”
“I felt like a gynecologist, with her legs splayed open.”
“I’ve done a few penile tattoos. On one occasion, a husband and wife team came and he requested to get his wife’s name inked on his penis. He had his own way of anaesthetising his johnny - he filled a condom with numbing cream and wore it over his junk. But about four to five days later, he came back and asked to get it blacked out because they got divorced. But I was past the stage of doing penile tattoos so I had to refuse him.
On another occasion, I had a female client who came to the shop with just a trenchcoat on. She wanted to get tattoos of angels on her groins pointing up to her vagina. It was such an awkward area to place the stencil and tattoo so I refused; there’s nothing artistic about that. So she found another tattoo studio but she only managed to get it halfway done. She came back to me and I decided to help her get it completed, though I did feel like a gynecologist with her legs splayed open.
I do tattoos for breast cancer patients. Breast cancer survivors undergo reconstructive surgery for their chests. Sometimes the reconstructive procedure for that fails and the nipple will fall off the chest so it gets demoralising for them. Where I come in, I will recolour the areolae of the breasts with a 3D-perspective. This is not commercialised and I do not charge for these.
But sometimes when these patients come for their appointment, they get intimidated because it is a tattoo studio. So in my recent renovations, I created more privatised rooms and softened the facade. I'm also thinking of expanding, providing an outlet that will solely serve female clientele.”
In the Future ...
“My vision for the studio now would be to shed the “rough” image people associate tattoos with and make it more accepted as a real art form. I believe I’m on my way there. To appreciate not just tattoo artists but tattoos themselves and have more respect for the industry.”
2. From Apprentice to Founder of the "Best Tattoo Studio in Singapore"
“I knew nothing about tattoos. I just know I was getting a cleaning job at a weird shop.”
“I went into the tattoo industry in 1996 when I was 16. I was out of a job so I went to Orchard Towers to look for a job as a waiter. The pub I chanced upon didn’t want me because I was too young. So I wandered around and found a tattoo shop that was looking for a cleaner. I worked my way up to an apprentice of the trade to a shopkeeper then as a shop manager.
When I was 16, I never saw myself involved in this. How can a 16-year-old know what he wants to be? [Laughs] When you’re 16 and being paid $5/hr, you are already very happy. I knew nothing about tattoos. I just know I was getting a cleaning job at a weird shop. The tattoo world is a taboo as much as it is seductive. Once you’re in, it’s hard to get out because of the lifestyle and the people you meet.
“He wanted us to tattoo a skull on his piles.”
The weirdest tattoo request I’ve ever seen was too foul that we rejected it. A cowboy from Texas walked in after gambling at MBS and he probably hit the jackpot because he was willing to pay any amount. He wanted us to tattoo a skull on his piles. People with too much money are crazy.
In the Future ...
My favourite tattoo is of Hanuman (a Hindu god) on my forearm to serve as a religious reminder. As I get older, I start to worry about life [laughs]. I don’t know what will happen in the future. The tattoo industry isn’t part of the corporate world where there are goals to achieve everyday. We just take it day by day and do what we want to be happy.”
3. The Tattoo Artist Who Started at 15
Glenn Tan, tattoo artist at Familiar Strangers Tattoo Studio.
“When people stare at me, they don’t hide it when they whisper to their children.”
“Since I was 6 or 7 years old, my mother sent me to painting classes. I started drawing ink when I was 15 so it’s been 7 years now. From drawing, I ventured into tattoos because I was influenced by my friends who had them and I liked what I see.
On my 14th birthday, my dad consented for me to get my first ink which is a gun on my right pelvic bone. It has no meaning whatsoever as I just picked it out from a magazine. My favourite tattoo is the one on my chin simply because it looks cool. I also tattooed “Mom” and “Dad” on my eyebrows because I want it to be prominent.
When I get on the streets, some people look at me in a weird way, probably wondering why this guy has so many tattoos. When people stare at me, they don’t hide it when they whisper to their children. So it gets really obvious when they judge me but I have already gotten used to it. People stare at me on the street all the time but I don’t care anymore. I do have aunties coming up to me to ask if they’re painful.
The weirdest tattoo I’ve inked was two wings on the butt because the customer wanted to hide his skin pigmentation.
In the future, I’ll still be drawing tattoos, living in a big house and maybe have another kid.”
May 2017 update: Glenn is no longer working at Familiar Strangers and can now be found at Inkvasion Tattoo Studio. He can be contacted at 81275371 for enquiries.
4. The One Who Almost Majored in Aerospace
“Dabbling in the arts doesn’t really bring you places in this country.”
“I’ve been drawing tattoos here for two years. I’ve always liked to draw but truth be told, dabbling in the arts doesn’t really bring you places in this country because it’s such a small industry. So I drifted away from that and had ambitions of being an accountant, a pilot and an engineer. I studied electronics engineering with an intention to major in aerospace but it wasn’t what I expected in spite of having an interest in aviation.
This is the longest job I’ve held to date. Working in a tattoo studio has made me realise how spontaneous every day is. It’s very enjoyable so there’s nothing much to complain about.
I got my first tattoo was when I was 19. It’s a chinese character of my name on my left wrist which was experimented on by a friend.
A strange tattoo request I’ve received would be from a Chinese customer who wanted to do the word “marijuana.” The thing is she doesn’t smoke even though I told her what it meant but she insisted on it because she likes the pronunciation. So that left me with an impression on people who are willing to get tattoos for various reasons. I also get a few requests for tattooing moles even though you hear about people removing their real ones.”
5. The One Who Thinks It's The Best Job Anyone Can Have
“I’m sure people think I’m satanic.”
“I’ve been a tattoo artist for two years. I was 18 when I started to draw ink. When I was growing up, I thought I’ll get a regular job and be a regular Singaporean. When Whopper first offered me the job, I wasn’t too sure if I could make it. But it’s really good so far and I think it’s the best job anybody could have.
I got my first tattoo when I was 16. It’s covered up now because it wasn’t done very well. It was an image of Jesus and I chose that because my mother isn’t very pleased about me having a tattoo so at least it’s something religious. But I definitely plan to get more. Tattoos are a bit like money - it’s never enough.
When I was younger, I got tattoos to satisfy the rebellious part of me. Now I see them as a form of body decoration. If people pay good money to get body modifications or botox, I think tattoos work the same way.
I like tattoos that have gory depictions or images that look very sinister. Because of the images I like, I’m sure people think I’m satanic but I don’t blame them. I do get positive comments on the street about how my tattoos look and I appreciate that.
I once had a Caucasian customer who wanted the word “irreplaceable” but when it translated to Mandarin, it meant “irresistible.” We advised that it was the wrong meaning but he had a Chinese girlfriend with him at that time and she insisted for him to get it. So we did it anyway. I also had a lady who wanted a fairy with a fairy dust trail that ended with the words “Lucky you” at her nether regions.
In the future, I want a big house, a car, a lot of tattoos, a lot of money, and good health. And I’m still drawing.”
Where to Find Them
14 Scotts Road, Far East Plaza, #04-11, Singapore 228213
Familiar Strangers Tattoo Studio
20 Upper Circular Road, The Riverwalk, #01-10, Singapore 058416
With special thanks to the individuals featured for their participation in the interviews.