Alden Boon

Tattooist Sumithra Debi: Creating Art Beyond Skin Deep


The tattoo gun fires up, emitting a spine-tingling buzz. For Sumithra Debi (Su), the sound has been a kind of music since she was 15. Human skin is her canvas, on which she lays ink and creates permanent art.

Exotic Tattoos & Piercing, Su’s business, is decidedly cosy, and that is by deliberate design. It boasts an open concept where clients can freely walk in and not feel intimidated. “There are private rooms where customers can get tattoos and piercings. We also place a huge emphasis on service and attitude.”

Tattooing is an elaborate process, one of utmost intricacy and honed finesse. It begins with design conceptualisation, and segues to body preparation. The stencil design is then transferred to the specified body area. Depending on the design, the duration of each inking session ranges from 10 minutes to 12 hours. Scabbing and skin peeling are common during the recovery process, which takes about three to four weeks.

A ray of light, a perennial form of beauty

The Chinese character for “love” (爱) was Su’s very first tattoo. “I was nervous, and so was the client. It was both our firsts.” Today, Su’s creative spark ignites whenever she is greeted by beautiful nature, from flora to fauna and landscapes.

Despite having inked innumerable tattoos, Su surprisingly does not sport any herself. “All in due time,” she says. “I have yet to find a meaningful tattoo, one that I think will evoke the same excitement whenever the 80-year-old me sees it.”

Su attaches meanings to tattoos. But we learnt in school that tattoos are taboo, and their meanings are evil. A stigma, they are synonymous with gang affiliations. Contrary to old-school teachings, not all who bear tattoos are big bad wolves. One of Su’s most memorable assignment was for a breast cancer survivor. The client had undergone a unilateral mastectomy and breast reconstruction, and her scars were a painful reminder of her ordeal.

“The tattoo took on the look of a three-dimensional nipple and areola. Using her existing areola as reference, I created a design to match its shape, colour and detail. I also came up with a bespoke motif of delicate flowers and vines to cover up the scars.”

Su’s masterpiece changed her client’s life, imbuing her with confidence. “She told me that after her mastectomy she experienced low self-esteem, and felt incomplete as a woman. When I saw her again a month later after she got inked, she exuded a positive glow.” That she can be a part of someone’s recovery, to help fix what is broken, means the world to Su.

A tattoo is a commitment. I see it as a constant reminder of the need to express who we are in the form of art.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.