Permanent ink draws Vietnamese youth

By Long Nguyen   June 16, 2020 | 09:30 pm PT
Influenced by foreign culture, Vietnamese are growing accustomed to having their bodies tattooed.

When Do Hai An broke up with her boyfriend last month, she wanted to get a tattoo, which, according to the 26-year-old in Hanoi, would help her "get rid of the melancholy."

Several days later, she came home with a small four-leaf clover inked permanently on her left arm, shocking her parents.

"They yelled at me, telling me to remove it because only gangsters or prostitutes have tattoos," An recalled, adding her parents gradually accepted her new ink.

"[My mom] once asked me whether the needle hurt me, saying my tattoo did not look bad."

In Vietnam, tattoos used to be associated with gangs, criminals, or prostitutes. People with ink used to be a sure sign of terrible behavior.

In the past few years, more and more Vietnamese have turned to having their bodies adorned with intricate art.

A man gets inked at a studio in Saigon. Photo by Shuttlestock/All themes.

A man gets inked at a studio in HCMC. Photo by Shuttlestock/All themes.

In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, dozens of tattoo studios, which usually attract thousands of "likes" on their social media pages, have opened in recent years.

According to Le Viet Anh, a tattoo artist in Hanoi, there are dozens of tattoo shops with "varied styles and prices" across the capital.

He opened his studio in 2014 and has never served less than 40 patrons a month, except for during the social distancing period imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"It is a soaring industry," Anh said, adding he earns up to VND25 million ($1,074) per month, mostly from millennials.

In metropolises, youngsters with tattoos are not rare.

According to Nguyen Thanh Hung, 28, a white-collar worker in Saigon's District 4, having tattoos is not taboo among his friends. The group of six even have their own common "symbol," a small pixelated T-rex near their ankles.

"It is like a bond among us, people see our common tattoo and know we are close friends," Hung said.

Local tattoo studios attract a host of online followers, like Hanoi Tattoo Club with more than 180,000, and Saigon Ink with 78,000, offering discounts to those weary of the price.

"You cannot bargain when it comes to working on your own body," Anh maintained.

With the soaring popularity of tattooing, Vietnam had its first-ever tattoo expo in 2018, drawing more than 150 local and international artists, alongside thousands of ink enthusiasts.

"Tattoos have slowly become accepted as a modern art form, proven by the growing number of tattooists etc.," said Le The Son, an organizer.

Pick up the trend

"My first tattoo was an avocado on my right arm, which I got after seeing singer Miley Cyrus, my idol, with a similar design," said Ta Quynh Tram, a university student in Hanoi's Long Bien District.

With their inked bodies, increasingly popular in Vietnam thanks to the development of the Internet, international stars have enticed local youngsters with the lure of body ink.

Many Vietnamese celebrities, including leading national footballers, have also picked up on the trend, spreading the love to their fans.

With inked bodies often exposed via newspapers, TV, YouTube and social networks, many feel more open to the idea.

Tran Hoan, 39, a civil servant in Hanoi, has a portrait of his daughter on his chest, which caused him no trouble as long as it is covered up.

In fact, the law does not ban people from having their body inked, even in the army.

Last year, a seminar in Hanoi found some army units have up to 10 percent of soldiers tattooed. According to the Ministry of National Defense, individuals with tattoos are allowed to join the army as long as they are not offensive and obvious.

Vietnam Tattoo Expo attracts thousands of visitors in July, 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

The Vietnam Tattoo Expo in Hanoi in July, 2018 drew thousands of visitors. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Nguyen Trung Anh, 25, an English teacher in Hanoi, said most of his students' parents were skeptical when seeing a tattoo on his right arm.

"But I do my job well, so they have no concern over my ink," he said, adding he always tried to cover it with long sleeve shirts.

When barriers to having tattoos are dropped, young people, especially millennials, feel more confident when it comes to committing to ink.

Breaking up with a partner, a birthday, new year’s, etc. are all occasions to get a new tattoo, according to Nguyen Hoang Nam, 29, a tattooist in HCMC's District 3.

Nam added most of his clients are youngsters who want to keep a memory or mark a special occasion.

"They think a tattoo can make them look cooler, or feel better. Some get addicted to having needles penetrate their skin."

Not just a needle

"I always wore long sleeves to cover up my tattoos, but some people saw them at a party last year and judged me, thinking I was a bad woman," said Le Thuy Quynh, hotelier in Hanoi's Tay Ho District.

Although attitudes towards tattoos are much more relaxed than in the past, stigmas around tattooing in Vietnam has not totally disappeared.

Many workplaces, especially in the service industry, still require staff to cover their tattoos or hide them from patrons.

Elders are also more prone to discriminate against those getting inked.

"Many older colleagues touched my tattoo and asked me why I scarred myself with permanent ink, some even scolded me," Quynh recalled.

Despite criticism, there are certain risks to getting tattooed, since Vietnam has no specific regulations managing the soaring industry.

The minimum age of consent to get a tattoo, or medical requirement to open a tattoo studio, are not mentioned in any law.

According to Nam, there has been a lot of underage visitors to his studio, asking to have new tattoos.

"I always tell them to show me their ID card, else I refuse to help them," Nam maintained, adding apart from using new medical gloves and masks, he covers the mattress and chair with plastic and changes it for each new patron.

"There are no hygiene standards; I have to make sure it is safe for them and me."

An is also afraid of the risk of infection and disease transmission, but at least her new tattoo made her feel better after having her heart broken.

"The only thing I can do to protect myself is to accept the high price, which means that they use good and clean equipment, I hope," she said.

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