This article was first published as part of a three-part profile feature on T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 03 July 2019.
The cosmetic industry is often hit with bouts of bad publicity, especially when it promotes impossible-to-achieve standards of beauty and the insecurity that they breed in consumers. But the very same products and technology that can be used to shackle us, can just as easily be harnessed for a good cause. Restorative treatments and cover-up makeup don’t just bring about healing on a physical level. They also boost confidence and bring back a sense of normalcy to those who suffer from scarring, hair loss and skin conditions, which have marred their sense of self-worth and adversely impacted their psyche.
T Singapore speaks to three women who have been quietly using their respective skills to serve a higher purpose than merely beautifying an individual. They offer restorative treatments that aim for a more holistic healing of the individual.
Sumithra Debi is a third generation tattoo artist, whose realistic nipple and areola tattoos for breast cancer survivors, are a culmination of her life’s work, artistic ambitions and her own way of giving back to women who are seeking closure after a long period of illness and trauma. Debi grew up in a family of tattoo artists, so her foray into body inking seemed almost predestined. At 15, the granddaughter of the late Indra Bahadur — or “Johnny Two Thumbs” — started learning the nuts and bolts of the trade from her uncle Harka Bahadur in secrecy. A year later, she became one of Singapore’s youngest female tattoo artists when she landed her first client, tattooing the Chinese character of “love” onto her friend’s body.
With more than two decades of experience in the industry, the 38-year-old is more than familiar with the negative associations within the tattoo industry in Singapore. However, Debi decided to combine her artistic flair with the paramedical license she had earned, for a good cause — to offer a beacon of hope to a particular group of women. To date, her family-owned parlour in Far East Plaza, Gurkha Tattoo Family, not only attracts ink enthusiasts from all walks of life, it is also fast-becoming a hotspot for an unlikely crowd — women who are breast cancer survivors, who have undergone mastectomies and breast reconstruction, flock to Debi to seek one thing: a three-dimensional nipple and areola tattoo. Clients come a-calling from neighbouring countries and even further, all seeking Debi’s specialisation in the realm of paramedical tattooing. The demand for Debi’s skills is a given, but it’s her quiet confidence and ability to empathise with these women — many of whom might not be comfortable getting a tattoo in such an intimate spot from a man — that perhaps, round out the healing process.
“Before the procedure, an assessment of the client’s state of health and the affected area as well as a discussion on what can be achieved needs to be done. They need to have completely recovered and have their doctor’s approval before I proceed with the tattoo sessions,” says Debi.
The insurmountable courage that many of these women have displayed in battling their illness often meets a final hurdle, when they do not want to undergo further procedures or nipple reconstruction even if their new breasts are often “incomplete”. Many of them, Debi reveals, are just grateful for surviving the disease. “But every time they take a shower and every time they look in the mirror, they feel incomplete,” says Debi.
To bear witness to the life stories of so many different women does take an emotional toll on Debi as well but she has learnt how to deal with it. “I am an artist and I overcome this by turning it into a positive aspect. My inspirations are drawn from my clients and their courage to overcome their ordeals. Being able to tattoo changes the mindset and I don’t carry it on to the next day,” says Debi.
For Debi, the reconstructed breast is by extension, a blank canvas. In most instances, she draws references from her client’s other breast. Her “masterpieces” will take two to three months to complete in the span of several appointments. There, she meticulously complements the skin’s undertone, evens out the pigmentation, and at times, draws out the imperfections of the areola all for the sake of a realistic representation.
“At the end of the process, when (the survivors) see the difference, you can see their smile of approval. They straighten up and look into the mirror in disbelief,” Debi shares, smiling. “That’s when I realise that it takes time for them to process all that has happened.” Often the silent refrain that Debi has learnt to recognise is that of, “Why didn’t I come sooner?”
Debi’s inks give her clients a new lease of life and a renewed sense of confidence and empowerment. These, in turn, are energies that continue to motivate her to thrive on as both a female tattoo artist and a life-changer. “I feel like my choice of career has been made more meaningful. From a young age, I have always been raised to give back to the society. This literally ties in with my job, my passion for art, and my love. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Gurkha Tattoo Family is at Far East Plaza, #04-11,14 Scotts Road.
This article was edited by Renée Batchelor. Thank you.