Tattoos have had somewhat of a bad reputation, perhaps first bringing to mind triads and society’s seedy underbelly. Increasingly, tattoos have become a form of self-expression used to memorialise or inspire. Not many know that tattoos also have a practical dimension, used to emotionally restore and heal those with particular conditions. Sumithra Debi is one of Singapore’s few tattoo artists trained in creating medical tattoos.
Sumithra is the only one in the third generation of her family to continue the legacy of her late grandfather and tattoo artist, Johnny Two Thumbs. What sets her apart from other tattoo artists is her dedication in helping breast cancer patients. As a paramedical tattooist, Sumithra performs 3D areola tattooing and skin camouflage on women who have undergone mastectomies and breast reconstruction, helping them regain confidence in their appearances.
Sumithra at her Uncle Richard’s shop, Body-Décor Tattoo & Piercing Studio, at Singapore Shopping Centre. Photo by Chan Kar Leng.
A paramedical tattooist is a tattooist who is certified to work in a hospital. However, Sumithra chooses to work out of her own shop, Exotic Tattoos and Piercings, in Far East Plaza. She works with patients who have been cleared by their doctors and after their wounds have completely healed.
Coming from a family of tattoo artists, it was natural that Sumithra’s foray into the tattoo industry began early. Her her 20-year journey in the tattoo business started when she was just 16. At the time, she had no intention of becoming a tattooist and had decided to work with her Uncle Richard, who was also a tattooist, to learn art. “I wasn’t doing too good with my art, ironically,” said Sumithra. Her family was unable to afford extra art classes. “The next best thing was my uncle. I needed a parttime job after school, and he needed some assistance. So I said, okay fine, I’ll be the coffee girl or cleaner – how difficult could it be?”
But her coffee ordering and cleaning soon grew into a tattoo artist apprenticeship. Being in such an artistic environment inspired her to draw. Eventually, it was her uncle who suggested that she take up an apprenticeship after he saw her portfolio – and potential.
However, it was not all smooth-sailing at first. Sumithra’s parents were not keen on her apprenticeship. “My father’s conditions were: ‘She’s not going to be tattooing any men, and it’s going to be in a very protected environment’, and it’s exactly what they did,” she said.
And so she created her first tattoo at the age of 16. “Since then, I’ve never ever thought of quitting, it’s just gotten more and more interesting. As the years went on, I developed as an artist, matured as a person and eventually I went to art school,” Sumithra recounted.
While at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), Sumithra learnt other styles and art mediums which influenced her tattoos. “All my designs are done on computer. So I was not only taught the old school traditional tracing style as foundation, but at the same time, I jumped into a different style. I used that and manipulated my artistic point of view from school, and I started from there,” said Sumithra.
After graduating, Sumithra decided to return to tattooing, even though she could have become a graphic designer with her experience and qualifications.
“I realised that I already had a career waiting for me. Being a graphic designer is just a backup option for me, even though there are lots of people who say that being a tattoo artist is not the most prestigious, especially as a female.”
As she evolved as a tattoo artist and became a professional, she began to work with breast cancer patients, people with skin disorders and those with burn scars. This all started with a woman who came to her for a medical tattoo.
Sumithra creating a medical tattoo during the Paramedical Tattoo course. Photo courtesy of Sumithra Debi.
“[The woman] had gone to all the other tattoo shops and was discouraged to the point of tears. When she came in, she said, ‘Can you help me?’ I said I could, because why not? It’s almost like a tattoo, the only difference is that it is not a shape, it is not a design, it is not a stencil. You just use colors, and you’ve got to apply it differently in a more realistic style,” she said.
It was such a success that Sumithra was encouraged to do more for others like her. “I then started taking ladies who had gone through C-sections, massive surgeries that had removed their wombs, accident victims, burn victims and people who have vitiligo. Even guys who underwent major operations and had their areolas removed and people born with no nipples. It has evolved into a whole different set. But I’ve done it very quietly.”
Sumithra handles her clients with tact and sensitivity, and does not list her services as a paramedical tattooist online. Instead, she finds that “word of mouth is more sincere and authentic.”
“Every one of [these clients] is like a secret, I keep them within these four walls. Most of the time I don’t post about it. I feel that it’ll be wrong if we post something that is personal [online]. Somebody had to go through this. And others who have not gone through it might judge them,” she explained.
Sumithra wanted to help those with medical conditions and decided to pursue a paramedical tattooist certification. Photo courtesy of Sumithra Debi.
After receiving her paramedical tattooist certification, Sumithra started working with hospitals and patients eventually found out about her services. “The nurses [would] come by and take stacks of my [business] cards and give it to the patients. It’s a very straightforward thing,” Sumithra said.
“It’s such a blessing how this turned out because this is exactly what I wanted. They come in on their own terms. Like my uncle says, it is very difficult for them to walk into a tattoo shop. This is why we have two separate units,” said Sumithra, referring to her uncle’s tattoo shop, Body-Décor Tattoo & Piercing Studio, at Singapore Shopping Centre.
It takes three months to get an appointment with Sumithra and she charges a standard fee of $300 for everything: the consultation, tattoo, touch-up and follow-up.
“It is a one-time thing so it doesn’t matter how many times they come in. Be it one side, two sides or recoloring for certain areas. Because some people can’t afford it and insurance doesn’t cover it.”
Sumithra has had clients who were unable to afford her fees. She usually advises such clients to “just come by and let me talk to you about it, let me explain it.”
Sumithra usually tries to find a way to help these clients, of course, only after she has assessed them to genuinely be in need. However, there have been occasions where people have tried to take advantage of her generosity.
“[When it happens] I feel very insulted. When I get upset, then my family gets upset, too,” shared Sumithra. Still, it hasn’t deterred her from helping those who are truly in need. It is helping them that spurs her on. “I go back and think about why I am doing it, then, I move on,” she said.
Sumithra’s connection with her clients is undeniable. She takes the time to understand each of their stories and make them comfortable. The actual tattooing takes only about 20 minutes, but each session lasts for two hours.
“Within these two hours, you’ve got to talk to them, walk them through it, prepare them, explain everything from start to finish. Even at the point where the needle touches their skin, you’ve got to let them feel where your finger is, where the needle’s going to go. Don’t forget that they didn’t come in for a tattoo; they are having an internal argument – ‘Is this for vanity, or should I just be really grateful for my life?’ For them it’ll always be a beauty thing, but it is also to heal them, to give them back their self-esteem,” Sumithra explained.
Still, there are times when it gets emotionally taxing. “I’ve actually cried with the client. [One week] all day, every single day, I absorbed every single thing, every sadness, every miscarriage, every loss. That week was horrible. That particular time all of the ladies were going through so much. And because you listen to what they are saying, you’re so grateful after everything is done,” she said. “Once they’re done with the tattoo, and they stand up, their backs straighten up, they start crying but they’re happy.”
She hasn’t just made a difference in the lives of breast cancer patients and others who have undergone other surgeries. It’s also the regular people who get normal tattoos. “There was this lady who came in two years after the death of her father to get his signature tattooed. After it was done, she cried. That’s what killed me. One to two months later she came back and said, ‘I thank you, I feel better.’”
What Sumithra provides is catharsis for her clients, a sense of closure and a way for them to regain their confidence. Her perspective of the world of tattoos is fresh, filled with so much meaning that it drives her to continue to help these people in need.
Even in the face of adversity, she holds her own and is undaunted by her profession as a female tattooist. “There will always be obstacles. Not just in this profession. In every profession, there will always be some sort of obstacle. A lot of female tattoo artists are strong-willed, and that’s how they survive. You must have some sort of strong character to be able to survive in this.”
Written by: Catherine Nicholas
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