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In Singapore, Three Women Reconstructing Beauty for Others

By Renée Batchelor and Sng Ler Jun

Tung Pham

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.

Nipple Tattoos

Tung PhamSumithra Debi does her nipple and areola tattoos from the privacy of her studio that is set apart from the rest of the Gurkha Family Tattoo parlour.
Sumithra Debi does her nipple and areola tattoos from the privacy of her studio that is set apart from the rest of the Gurkha Family Tattoo parlour.

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.

Cover-Up Makeup

Tung PhamJiayun Fang manages the centre’s schedule, but also ensures that volunteers are well-trained and deal with customers in a sensitive manner.
Jiayun Fang manages the centre’s schedule, but also ensures that volunteers are well-trained and deal with customers in a sensitive manner.

Jiayun Fang shares that managing a beauty centre that imparts cover-up makeup skills to those with serious skin conditions has shown her and her customers that even simple cosmetic application can have a positive and deep impact on someone’s life.

For most women, a bad makeup day is one when a few pimples and dark circles threaten to mar their appearance, and more concealer than normal is needed. However, for women who live with more obvious skin conditions like scars or even port wine stains, these marks will not easily escape notice and will tend to attract stares and even probing questions on a daily basis. More often than not, these women simply want to cover them up, just so they can go on with their lives, but they lack the know-how and the right products to do so in a proper manner. Japanese beauty brand, Shiseido, opened its Life Quality Beauty Center in Singapore in May 2019. As its name suggests, the centre is all about helping customers with serious skin conditions achieve a better quality of life through the power of makeup.

The centre offers free consultations to anyone who seeks to improve their serious skin condition. “Overall, our centre supports people who experience skin concerns which may occur as a result of the side effects of cancer treatments, skin discolouration, vitiligo, burn marks or acne. However, we don’t tend to limit ourselves to a specific disorder. Our consultations are available for anyone who is affected by appearance-related concerns, and we treat each consultation and skin concern on a case-by-case basis,” says Fang.

At the centre, customers can make an appointment for a 90-minute consultation, which is offered free of charge and each customer has the option to purchase the Perfect Cover MV series — the special range of Shiseido makeup that has been created to offer both coverage and staying power for those with serious skin conditions — to recreate the effect at home. “The centre offers private, complimentary consultations with our specialised consultants and will take approximately 90 minutes per consultation. Each consultation and the techniques used are tailored to best suit the needs of the customer. There is also time given for the customer to learn how to apply the makeup techniques so that they will be able to do so on their own post-consultation,” says Fang.

The consultants are all volunteers from Shiseido, who, besides imparting makeup skills have also been trained to practice sensitivity towards their customers. The makeup products, designed to be convenient to use and easy to remove at the end of the day, are also specially formulated to cover up blueish or reddish discolourations and uneven surfaces. “The products are specially formulated for a wide range of skin concerns to provide long-lasting coverage. The Perfect Cover Foundation has a waterproof formula [that] resists sweat, water and product transfer to clothes and towels, producing a natural-looking finish which lasts for a long time, even if customers engage in activity like exercise,” says Fang. The range, which is non-comedogenic and fragrance-free, also includes a cleansing oil designed to help thoroughly remove the heavy-duty foundation at the end of each day.

The centre has recently opened but it is already making an impact, partly thanks to the discretionary approach it takes with its clients. In addition, the light wood touches and cosy furniture creates a private and comfortable space; satisfied customers are already expressing gratitude for the service and products, which simply allow them to live their lives more confidently. “It is truly hard to put it into words, but we appreciate that our customers put their trust in us and it has been very special to be part of their personal transformation journeys,” says Fang.

Consultations at the Shiseido Life Quality Beauty Centre are by appointment only and can be made by phone, +65 6430 9969, or email SLQC@shiseido.com.sg

Scalp Micropigmentation

Tung PhamSerene Seah of Freia Aesthetics takes pride in perfecting her scalp micropigmentation technique as she sees the impact it can make on her clients’ confidence.
Serene Seah of Freia Aesthetics takes pride in perfecting her scalp micropigmentation technique as she sees the impact it can make on her clients’ confidence.

Serene Seah, director of Freia Aesthetics, says that perfecting scalp micropigmentation for hair loss has bestowed a sense of freedom upon her clients, and given her a new purpose in the running of her aesthetic studio.

The inevitability of hair loss for a large slice of the population does not make its eventual occurrence any less traumatic. For men, the process can age them prematurely and affect the way others perceive them and in turn how they see themselves, while for women, conditions like alopaecia and thinning hair can put a major dent in their self-confidence.

Many of those who have had unsuccessful hair transplants, or who still bear the scars of their past procedures, have to then suffer the indignity of unwanted scrutiny and a barrage of questions, that over time, does take a toll on the individual’s self-esteem and even mental health. Scalp micropigmentation (SMP) is a new, medium-term solution used to disguise certain forms of hair loss. The fact that it is quick and tolerable, makes it a good fix for those in need of immediate intervention.

Seah, a former banker, picked up SMP skills when she was supposed to aid her husband Dr Harold Ma, who runs the medical arm of Freia Aesthetics, in these procedures. She soon found that she had a knack for it and underwent intensive training in Korea, the US and Europe, to hone her skills. Seah now exclusively carries out the procedure at Freia Aesthetics. “Scalp Micropigmentation is the skilful placement of random dotted pigments just beneath the surface of the scalp. It gives an optimal illusion of hair follicles,” explains Seah. The procedure can be used to create a buzz-cuteffect, cover scars from follicular excisions and transplantations, create an optical illusion of density for both men and women, and enhance the final results of a hair transplant.

And while it may sound simple, Seah stresses that skill and artistry is needed to get it right. Telltale signs of a poorly done SMP procedure include the formation of dots, which are too large, an unnatural hairline that is too low, too high or of the wrong shape, as well as the unwanted spreading of pigments that form patches and blotches. Another sign that an SMP procedure has not been well executed? The micropigmentation has an unnatural sickly green or purple-ish blue tinge due to wrong inks used in the procedure.

Freia started offering the service four years ago, and it has plugged the gap for those who were unable to undergo a hair transplant for technical reasons (such as not having enough hair) or who sought to improve the final result of their hair transplant. For Seah, perfecting her SMP technique served a two-fold purpose. “I’ve always had a penchant for intricate things. Some might even call me a closet obsessive-compulsive. When I first saw what SMP could achieve, I was blown away. The confidence it instantly restores, the years of age it shaves off, the liberation it gives someone who relied on a hair system half his life — this was what drew me into learning and honing my SMP skills,” she shares.

Although quicker than a hair transplant, SMP does take time, and is usually done over several sessions. “Ours is a 3D SMP layering technique, which takes three to four sessions for someone to obtain an optimal result. We use a semi-permanent ink as we find that that gives our clients the flexibility to allow the pigments to fade out naturally should they outgrow the look and it also gives us room to adjust the hairline should a client’s natural hairline continue to recede or grey out,” says Seah.

Once the sessions are completed, the look typically lasts between two to three years, depending on the individual’s metabolism and how active their lifestyle is. As for the discomfort, Seah says most patients rate it a three or four out of ten and that it can be made more comfortable with numbing cream. Still, any pain felt it a small price to pay once most clients see their results. “You see their eyes light up as they see an instantly younger, more confident version of themselves. Restoring their bald scalp with SMP frees them to be more confident, to think less of their receding hairline, and to be able to enjoy life more, to relate better to others and to concentrate on what really matters in life,” says Seah.

Freia Aesthetics is at Wisma Atria Office Tower, #19-02, +65 6735 8180.