Singapore Sling - Craigy Lee

Published: 29 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 210, April, 2012

As I fly over the tiny island of Singapore, I look out below and see a sea sparkling with the lights of cargo ships reflecting in the water. Over the last two centuries the island has served as a port for many countries, both commercial and military. Some things in life just need investigating.

Navy ports and army towns have always been where tattooing has thrived, there is a strong bond that goes back many years. In Hawaii for example, Sailor Jerry was well known to have a queue of eager servicemen out the front of his shop and down the street when a ship was in port. Similarly, Singapore has its own tattoo legend, Johnny Two Thumbs. Sadly, over the years the history and name have become somewhat muddied and confused by imitators and family members. So one of my aims whilst in the country was to get to the bottom of the tales and separate the myth from the reality, but that will have to wait.

We arrive late in the evening to a humidity so thick I feel like I’m walking through soup and all I can think about is sleep. We jump on the underground from the airport, which delivers us straight to Chinatown where I will be tattooing at Galaxy with Niccku Hori and his team. We are met by the lovely Louise and taken to our hotel where we dump our bags and fall into a sweet slumber that only a full 24 hours of travelling can warrant.

We wake up early to explore and discover that the city is extremely multi-cultural. Beautiful Buddhist temples and Indian Mosques are sandwiched between the bustling stalls of Chinatown. Hawker food centres, which cater for more local tastes and budgets, are a must visit and offer every type of food you could ever want for, while the Raffles Hotel and City Hall areas still have their old English colonial charm and the reclaimed land around the marina give the city its 21st century face.

Singapore is a strict place to say the least. Chewing gum is illegal, and there are hefty fines for littering and for pretty much anything else you can think of. Tattooing here still has a stigma attached to it, not helped by the city’s gang members who are visually very heavily tattooed. The government in turn has a disliking of tattooing, the first Singapore tattoo magazine lasted three issues before it was banned, and the organisers of last years tattoo convention were not allowed to advertise the show anywhere in the city. Regardless, I settle into Galaxy Tattoo where I am doing a few days work. The shop is in the heart of Chinatown where it was set up by Niccku as a custom shop, with Colin, Shawn and Louise, making up the rest of the crew. It’s a fun studio to spend some time in with a good vibe.

Niccku himself is well travelled having worked many conventions overseas and travelling to Japan multiple times to be tattooed by Horiyoshi III. As a result, the studio has had many guest artists from around the world; Jo Harrison, Lionel from Out Of Step in France, Davey from Poland, and New Zealander, Sam Rulz, have all been through the doors recently. Nick specialises in Asian influenced art and does a lot of large-scale work, mostly back pieces and body suits, which in the flesh are amazingly executed. Perfect line weights, soft grey shading and bright colours are created, and because of this, Galaxy has become one of the most well-known studios in Singapore for this style.

Which brings me back to the Johnny Two Thumbs story. The tattoo studio today resides inside Far-East Shopping Plaza, a shopping mall housing eight other tattoo shops. I meet with an extremely friendly and welcoming Lionel, who has been tattooing in Singapore for the last 15 years, and for the past year at Johnny Two Thumbs. He is well travelled and has just returned from Perth, Australia. Lionel is an excellent host for the day, keen to share his knowledge of Singapore’s tattooing culture with us. We enter the shop and meet Jaws and Chak, the studio’s co-owners, and sit down to set about the business of trying to get to the bottom of the man and legend that is, Johnny Two Thumbs.

Johnny Two Thumbs, whose real name was Indra Bahadur, was born in Nepal and worked in India until the end of World War II. He moved to Singapore in 1942 and opened a trophy engraving shop on Bras Bazar Road with a tattoo studio at the rear. Tattooing at the time was still very taboo, so his main clientele were the army and navy soldiers still stationed in the country. It is interesting that throughout his working career, his shop was in fact called ‘Lucky’s Store’ – he picked up his nickname from the English and American soldiers as he called them all ‘Johnny’, and having two thumbs on one hand, they in return called him ‘Johnny Two Thumbs’.

Chak started working for Johnny and his son as an apprentice in 1985, and was the first non-family member to be taught the art of tattooing. There were only four studios in Singapore then, three were owned by one family and the other by Henry Gold. “Tattooing was very secretive back then,” Chak explains. “Johnny had a special case to cover his machine so people couldn’t see how it worked.” Which along with other old equipment is now displayed in the entrance to the shop. Chak set up the Johnny Two Thumbs tattoo studio in 1988 along with Jaws to keep the legend and name alive. “We didn’t want the name to get lost in history, so we set up the studio so people would always associate Johnny Two Thumbs with great tattoos.” Chak is happy to share his stories and the truth about the legend with anyone interested enough to seek it out.

Lionel then takes us to another shopping mall a short cab ride away where the Henry Gold studio is situated. Henry passed away three years ago and handed the studio down to his sons. Sadly however, when we arrive, the shop is quite bare with just a couple of chairs in the empty room, and some very old tattoo machines and books in the window. “I hope they are just refurbishing,” Lionel says sombrely. “This shop is a real part of our history – all the guys that worked here were real old timers. It will be sad if it is gone for good.”

I only scratched the surface in my few days here, but I kind of understand what Lionel is saying about losing the old timers and the history they hold. Singapore is often described as ‘diet Asia’, but I had an amazing time exploring the city and learning a little about its rich history. I will most certainly be back in this old port before long.


Text & Photography: Craigy Lee