Tattooing A to Z #2: Indra Bahadur aka “Johnny Two-Thumbs”

“Johnny Two-Thumbs” was the trade name given to him by British soldiers who were his clients, but his real name was Mr. Indra Bahadur. He was Singapore’s first pioneer tattoo artist, and his reputation and fame spanned across the oceans. When asked why he adopted the name “Johnny Two-Thumbs”, he would explain with a smile: «When I was young, I used to be ashamed of the extra thumb, so much so that I would always use my left hand instead of my right. But now, my two thumbs have become my trademark and asset. Everyone who comes to my shop does not look for me. They look for the two thumbs».

Born in Nepal in 1925, Indra became a tattoo artist at the age 18, learning the art in India from a friend of his father. With many years of tattooing experience behind him, he left India in 1950 and traveled to Singapore, where he started New Lucky Store and spent his days inking sailors from across the seas. His shop was located on Bras Basah Road and was well patronized by tourists and locals who had heard of his skills. By the Eighties, Johnny Two-Thumbs had already become famous worldwide. Paul Jeffries visited Johnny at the Bras Basah Road shop in 1984 and reported that the shop walls were covered with Pinky Yun flash, uncolored, as most of the locals wanted outline tattoos only.

Johnny Two-Thumbs, Watercolour by Pepe
Johnny Two-Thumbs, Watercolour by Pepe

Johnny Two Thumbs tattooed with his unusual machines. He worked with very short tubes so the machine body rested on the back of his hand, between his thumb and forefinger. The machine he used was not much more than a doorbell bolted to a wooden backboard. This was then covered with a tin box, to conceal his machine design. Connector cords or clip-cords were fastened to the terminals on the side. His style in employing the minimum to bring out the maximum was the hallmark of his works. Shadings were used sparingly and were very cleverly deployed in incorporating the blank spaces within to create a sense of completeness as a whole.

Each of his work became unique classics never replicated successfully by anyone.

Johnny Two-Thumbs passed away in August 1988 and his two sons, Singha (Singha Tat) and Harka (Richard Tat) continued tattooing and brought tattoo art to new heights and pushed new frontiers. Today, the grand daughter of Johnny Two-Thumb, Ms. Sumithra Debi, continues this third generation of tattooing, and the legend of Johnny Two-Thumbs will continue to be perpetuated.