December 1, 2017

If you have been to Far East Plaza during your younger days, nostalgia hits you once enter the sliding doors. Regulars who spent their weekends at the mall (which doubled up as the quintessential teenage hangout spot) were dubbed as the “Far East kids”—many of which got their first piercing at the now defunct, 77th Street—a rite of passage for anyone who wanted to be cool. However, the current Far East Plaza is a shadow of its former self due to the rise of sprawling mega-malls and steep rental prices, resulting in a significant number of stores shutting down. While many shop owners couldn’t bite the bullet, a few old-timers have managed to stay afloat— a good cluster of tailors, beauty salons and tattoo parlours since the 90s—and today, I am in search of one.

Johnny Two Thumb Tattoo Studio is a historical pioneer in Singapore’s tattoo scene. And upon first glance, their brightly-lit, clean and cosy parlour, with a mass collection of caps by the counter may be easily mistaken for a hat company, only to be given away by the soft buzz of the tattoo gun. Joshua Ong, the current partner, goes by the moniker of Jaws, yet unlike his nickname, he doesn’t bite and is quite an open book. His witty disposition and sense of humour are proving to be a charm, as two customers in the shop break out into a giggle every now and then. When I ask how he got into the Arts, he says, “I used to draw when I was younger but my parents were against it. They said that I was wasting paper and time, and that I should concentrate on studies. So, to stop the nagging, I stopped drawing and quit studying altogether.”

In between our conversation, his daughter runs around the shop, in an attempt to break out of her boredom. When quizzed about her exposure towards the tattoo scene at her age and her interest, Jaws says “ One day, if she wants, I can tattoo her. I am quite open about it. I rather we talk about things than she hiding them from me.” I learnt from Jaws, the art of being a cool dad and why he picked Peranakan inspired tiles for a tattoo parlour.

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HNW: How would you describe the space?

Jaws: We purchased the unit in 2010 and tore down everything and renovated it. The tables are made from weeping tree’s wood that I went sourcing for at the timbre. I did up the electrical wiring and handpicked the tiles. Unlike most tattoo shop, which is dark with yellow lights, my place is like a sports stadium. I put up a lot of spotlights to bring in sufficient lighting. The flooring is reminisced of the typical housing in Singapore during the 60s to 70s. I wanted something in the shop to have a sense of Singapore. In terms of decoration, we have things sent to us from customers, we have a Dutch guy who sent us a retro car tyre that was made into a hanger. An old clock from Germany, tattoo convention posters that we have attended from the UK, Japan, Italy and Vancouver dating back to the 90s and majority of the wall is plastered with our own tattoo designs. By the counter are many caps, accumulated over the years from different sailors of different navies and aircraft carrier. The collection here is 50% of what we have. When I was renovating, it was never my intention to make the place intimidating. We keep the place clean in terms of look and also in value.

Can you share with us the story of Johnny Two Thumb Studio and how you got in the business?

We are one of the oldest tattoo parlours in the world. We started back in the 40s when the original “Johnny” was still at Hotel Rendezvous and the tattoo shop was called “New Luck Store”. The name itself came because then, while under British rule, people used to call each other Johnny like how the Australians call one another mate. Because of an extra thumb next to his original one, sailors will say that if you want a tattoo, go and look for Johnny with the 2 thumbs. When Johnny passed on, those that were working for him and his son, Richard who was returning from the Philippines came together to open a tattoo shop and named it “Johnny Two Thumb Studio” in remembrance of him.

I came into the business in 1998. Prior to that, I used to work as a scuba diving instructor and also did underwater construction. During the 80s, there was a big wave of interest in diving and that was how I got acquainted with one of the partners. There were times that I will go into an underwater capsule for 20 over days at work and then return and have nothing to do until maybe a month later. So I used to just hang around here. Subsequently, I joined the business, became a partner in 2005 and in 2010, I purchase the current unit.

What is the biggest misconception of Johnny Two Thumb?

People always thought that we were a family run business but actually, all along we were a partnership business. We opened another outlet in Perth with the same name. We were the one who built up the Johnny Two Thumb name but there was a lot of internal conflict within the shop. When you pass by the front (to get to the shop), there is a store call Exotic and it is run by one of the old partners that left. To us, this is not a multi-million business, we don’t want to complicate things too much by bringing in a lawsuit or what’s not but the business itself began to feel a lot like a toilet. You come in, do your business and go. A few partners came and go and now it is only left with me and the partner who brought me in, so we are doing well now.

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What do you think is the Johnny Two Thumb style?

We are a very versatile shop. We can do our own designs and we also have people coming in with their own designs and we can act as a photocopier as well. We will adjust the proportion or the aesthetic look of it if there is something wrong but we would not go too far off. We will try to stick a little of our element in.  If I have to say, I guess you can call us old school new twist. In our shop, unlike most tattoo shops in Singapore, we do a lot of brainstorming. We look at each other’s sketches and give constructive comments on it.

What is the trend of tattooing in Singapore?

I will say in the 90s, new artists were starting to rise and the old school people were more of a tattooist. In the past, on the walls were tattoo flash like the typical Ed Hardy designs or those of eagles, skulls and they were numbered, so you come in and tell the tattooist what you want and they put it on you. In the late 90s, with the artists coming in, they are definitely better than the tattooist because they are very flexible with what they can do. Johnny Two Thumb studio was stuck in the old school system and I came in to progress it.

I used to be against people tattooing on the neck or face but I have slowly come to accept it. The new generation has an intensity that they want to voice out. I am starting to compromise but for a tattoo virgin, I will definitely turn them down. I am changing with the society but I can’t find a term for myself. I am hovering between the old school tattoo and new age tattoo.

Who is the clientele of Johnny Two Thumb?

The people here are more Navies, Westerners or Caucasians. Our pricing is a little higher compared to tattoo shops at say, Peninsula Plaza. We have lawyers, doctors, surgeon, judges to psychiatrist too. We also have people who come in after they go through life and death situations like overcoming cancer or some form of ailment. These survivors will request for tattoos like crab, symbolic to remind themselves of overcoming cancer. These people leave a deep impression on me. Tattooing is a very personal job. Sometimes it feels as though we are like counsellor during the 2 hours procedure and within those time, it’s possible for me to know where you stay, where your dad stays and your grandma’s address too. People may laugh at us for having tattoos; for looking different but I am also laughing at them because they all looks the same.

What do you think of home-based artists?

I have no qualms. Worse come to worse, we actually benefit when these people working out of home screw up, those customers will come to us for repair and in turns, bring us revenue. It’s just that, I feel that home-based artists should grow a conscience. You should not be screwing up any one’s life. But do you know, in Singapore, it is not illegal to practice at home but in Australia, where my second outlet is, the bikers gang will burn down the home of home-based artists. For a very minimum sum in Australia, the bikes (biker gang) will come round collecting money from tattoo shop as a token to support their effort. If you run into any issue, they will settle it for you.

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What’s the future plan for Johnny Two Thumb Studio?

I don’t see any reason for expanding the studio. I think status quo is the best, perhaps when my oldest partner retires, I will bring in another artist and I will move on to taking over a more PR role. For the Perth outlet, we are looking to purchase the unit instead of renting it.