Once associated with gangsters and secret society members in Singapore, tattoos are slowing shedding much of the social stigma and their association with sleaze and the underworld. Attitudes and perceptions towards the art of tattoo have changed in recent years. Not only have tattoos become more acceptable and mainstream – made all the more popular by celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Rihanna, David Beckham who have numerous tattoos each – many youths of today see tattoos as a form of self-expression or a statement of their individuality. Whether you’re an enthusiast or looking to ink your first, the name Johnny Two Thumbs would definitely ring a bell, or two. Although he has passed on, his legacy continues to live on though his children and granddaughter.
Walking along the florescent-lit hallway of Far East Plaza, one could be forgiven for missing the shop. Tucked away in the corner away from the main thoroughfare, with only a nondescript lighted signboard, is Johnny Two Thumb Tattoo Studio. It was founded as a tribute to its late namesake, the tattoo artist Johnny Two Thumbs, who was renowned for his skill and inimitable style. Now, his children carry on his work and continue to preserve his iconic name. Despite all the lore surrounding this larger than life personality, not many people knew the real Johnny Two Thumbs.
Johnny Two Thumbs was born Indra Bahadur in Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1920s. Back then, there was no border between Myanmar and India, and Johnny travelled freely between the two countries looking for employment. He would frequent bazaars and, one day, while watching an Indian tattoo artist ply his trade, Johnny was asked if he was keen to learn. Possessing no skills whatsoever, he immediately jumped at the chance. In the 1950s, armed with his newly acquired skill, Johnny left Burma and came to Singapore in search of a better life.
Johnny Two Thumbs taking a break at his New Lucky Store in the 1960s. Photo courtesy of Sumithra Debi
Johnny started a shop called Rose Tattoo with his brother and built his reputation as a tattoo artist from there, before setting up a separate shop in Bras Basah in 1959. However, the shop named New Lucky Store, was in fact a gift shop selling knick-knacks, ranging from clothes to musical boxes to little Japanese dolls. The nickname “Johnny” was given to him by the many British military personnel and sailors who passed through Singapore’s shores; they made up the majority of his clientele back then. Johnny had two thumbs on his right hand, hence the moniker “Johnny Two Thumbs”.
“The tattoo parlour was located at the back of the [gift] shop, so that nobody could see the business openly,” shared Singha, Johnny’s eldest son. “At that point in time, in the 60s, tattoos were associated with gangsters. Because of that reputation, our father took cover behind the shop. In front we have New Lucky Store, and behind we have Johnny Two Thumbs in operation.”
Singha, along with his siblings Richard and Debi, spent their formative years in the shop, assisting their father whenever necessary. The shop was opened six days a week, with Sundays reserved for the maintenance and cleaning of equipment.
“On Sundays, the shop transforms into a workshop,” said Singha. “My father would take out all his tools to make his tattoo equipment. Nobody knows this but all the equipment he used was actually made by him, and I’d help with the cutting, filing and fine-tuning.”
“That’s how I spent time with my father, Johnny Two Thumbs, while he smoked and drank his beer,” Singha recalled.
Some of Johnny’s old tools and drawings. Although Johnny made all the tattoo equipment himself, he would stamp “MADE IN USA” on it because it was trendy and practical to do so back then. Photo courtesy of Sumithra Debi
Singha and Richard eventually followed in their father’s footsteps in the tattoo trade. But before they were allowed to tattoo designs on customers, they were tasked with easier jobs as a start. This included the “cancellation” of tattoos on former gangsters.
“These gangsters were ordered by the police to ‘cancel’ their tattoos,” said Singha. “It was an easy job. Just make it black.”
But what were the tattoos popular with people in those days?
“Whatever designs we had – from Mickey Mouse to Jesus Christ – were framed on the wall,” said Richard. “The customers would just sit and choose. Those were all the options they had. Not like now where you can browse the Internet, bring your own design to the shop and say, “I want this”. Back then, all the designs were displayed on the wall for people to choose.”
Left: Some of Johnny’s original drawings of his tattoo designs, with accompanying serial numbers. Right: An NFLP-labelled tattoo. Photos courtesy of Sumithra Debi
“The framed designs had numbers on them, so customers would just mention the tattoo number and it was done,” added Singha. “A lot of these designs had the letters ‘NFLP’, which meant ‘not for local people’. These were designs given to us by the CID. They were emblems that gangs used, and we were banned from tattooing these on the locals.”
“Many people who came to get their first tattoo wanted their names tattooed,” shared Richard. After Singapore gained independence in 1965, there was a surge in people getting their IC numbers tattooed as well.
“They were very proud to be Singaporean,” said Richard. “A name and an IC number together cost around $2. A more elaborate dragon design was between $5 and $10.”
What about tattooing the entire back?
“Nobody did back pieces then!” Richard remarked. “Nobody did one whole back piece – it was always one tattoo here, one tattoo there. The back pieces were popular only after the 80s, when magazines [featuring such designs] started appearing.”
“Back then, even when they got a dragon, they’d do it on the side of the body,” continued Richard. “And they’d get it in pairs. If you have one shark here, they’d want another shark there. One leopard here, another leopard there. And to fill in the spaces between the tattoos, they’d ask for stars and dots. It was all about balancing it out.”
While Singha and Richard picked up the needle, their sister Debi remained behind the counter at New Lucky Store, looking after the retail side of the business.
“After school, my father would make me go to the shop. I couldn’t go out to work,” said Debi. “So I helped man the shop in front.”
“I wasn’t allowed to touch the needle or be anywhere near the men and sailors,” continued Debi. “My father was very strict about that.”
Aside from the tattoo artist that people know, Johnny was, in fact, a family man. On Sundays when the shop was closed, he would bring his family, friends and even neighbours to Changi beach and Coney Island for picnics, or to Mount Emily and River Valley swimming pools for swims.
“Our neighbours used to call him ‘babu’,” said Debi. “It means ‘father’. They looked up to him a lot.”
“For years at the place where we grew up, there was a dumping ground where people would throw their rubbish. It was a small area and when children played there, they would get cut and injured by broken glass,” said Singha. “My father got some contractors to clear the area and turn it into a badminton court.”
“He also bought a second-hand projector so that the children in the kampong could watch all those documentaries that we got from the embassies,” recounted Singha. “They weren’t movies, just documentaries. But just as good.”
In those days without television and the Internet, that was a magnanimous act appreciated by many. Johnny’s generosity and benevolence contrasted with the negative perceptions that people have of tattoo artists. Through simple acts of kindness, Johnny hoped to overcome the misconceptions and stereotypes faced by tattoo artists and people sporting tattoos.
Johnny’s family: (from the left) Debi, Singha, Sumithra (Debi’s daughter) and Richard. Photo by Chan Kar Leng
Today, Johnny Two Thumbs’ legacy is carried on by Richard, who runs Body-Décor Tattoo & Piercing Studio at Singapore Shopping Centre, and Debi’s daughter, Sumithra, who helms Exotic Tattoos & Piercings at Far East Plaza.
Written by: FJ Sai
This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign