The tattoo artist
Tattoo artists in old Singapore fixed permanent designs on the bodies of their clients. Most tattoo artists began as five-foot-way traders and later set up small shops.
The different cultures in early Singapore had different purposes and designs for tattooing, making tattooing a thriving business. As in other parts of the world, tattoos were believed to protect a person from evil. The most popular image for tattooing among the Chinese was the Dragon. Tattoos were also popular among men who wanted to be soldiers. Their endurance of pain during tattooing was a way of showing off courage. Indian women saw tattooing as a way of beautifying oneself. Some tattoo were even respected as "medicine men" as their tattoos could cure a customer from his long standing aches and pains. The Japanese occupation was the most troubled period for both the tattoo artist as well as for those wearing tattoos in Singapore. The Japanese soldiers would arrest anyone wearing a tattoo. By the 1950s to the 1980s, however, tattooing gained a negative connotation as to became associated with triads, gangsters and secret societies. Each triad or gang had its own distinct tattoo, and members who owed allegiance to the group had to have the mark of a tattoo on themselves. Tattooing therefore came to be associated with anti-social activities and people with tattoos were looked down upon. The number of tattoo artists thereafter dwindled.
Earlier methods of tattooing were primitive. The skin was punctured repeatedly to form the desired pattern using needles before ink was applied. The ink was permanent and once applied to the skin, a tattoo could not be removed. Each tattoo artist had a set of designs that was exclusively his own. The tattoos were usually a shade of green or grey. Later, tattoo artists began using a "tattoo gun". The tattoo gun was powered by electric current and a needle could be inserted into it. The tattoo artist could draw a design into his client's skin easily. Still later, inks of many colours were introduced and the designs became more and more complex and intricate. The old method of tattooing is no longer used and the old reasons for tattooing are no longer relevant either. But the art of tattooing is very much alive, being practised as body art, using myriad colours and complicated designs.
From being linked to gangsters to being considered works of art, tattooing and tattoo artists in Singapore have come a long way. Tattoo shops today look more like clinics. Most of the equipment is disposable. The tattoo artist sometimes wears gloves. An injection to cause numbness is given to clients who are scared of the pain. Permanent ink is used for those desiring a permanent tattoo otherwise tattoos can be drawn using ink that can fade away in about three weeks.
Today the usual method of tattooing is to puncture the skin using a sterilised, electric needle which can be preloaded with ink and the coloured pigments stain the skin as the tattoo artist continues to draw. The skin is cleansed with methylated spirit to prevent infection and after 3-4 days the scabs peel off, revealing the tattoo beneath. In Singapore, tourists and sailors were initially the most popular customers. Today it is not unusual to find young and old, working executive and teenagers, paying for a tattoo to beautify their bodies. In the 1970s and 1980s, a small tattoo would cost S$10 with larger drawings costing between S$200-S$300. Tattoos today can cost from S$50 to hundreds of dollars depending on the design, size and colour.
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
Tattoo artist. (1981). Goodwood Journal, 2nd Qtr., 19, 25.
(Call no.: RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
Mulchand, A. (2001, April 26). Skin alive. The Straits Times, Life!, p. W6.
Mulchand, A. (2002, September 23). Tattooists want less of a free hand for industry; There are few controls on tattoo shops; established body artists say standards in newer shops are often questionable. The Straits Times, Singapore.
National Archives of Singapore. (n.d.). Archives & Artefacts Online, Singapore. Retrieved December 27, 2004,
Ho, M. (2000, July 13). Su exotic. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 12.
Le Blond, R., & Vasoo, S. (1996, August 12). Teen sport tattoos for looks, but parents express concern.The Straits Times, Home, p. 33.
Television Corporation of Singapore. (1996). Things people do. Series 1, Episode 4 [Videotape]. Singapore: TCS.
(Call no.: RSING 331.7 THI)
The information in this article is valid as at 2002 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
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