Tattoos rise in Vietnam as prejudices fade

By Dong Thuy   September 15, 2023 | 12:23 am PT
Nguyen Truong An of HCMC quit his office job as an illustrator six years ago to become a tattoo artist after getting his first tattoo and recognizing the potential for a business.

He started as a part-time tattooist while maintaining his job at the advertising agency at the same time. As his business gradually grew, he made the life-changing decision of quitting his job and starting a tattoo business of his own.

"I only had one to two customers a day when I first opened my shop in 2015," he says. "Now I serve between 100 and 200 customers every month."

An currently works with seven other artists at his shop, which now also has a marketing executive. He is also planning to expand his business even further in the near future.

The Vietnamese tattoo industry is booming thanks to a culture that is destigmatizing the art form. Tran Thanh Nam, head of the board of organizers of the Vietnam Tattoo Convention, gave more insights as an insider. According to him, there are around 1,000 tattoo shops in HCMC as of now. This figure rises between 30-40% annually.

In An’s words, a new tattoo shop opens in the city "every few days."

Industry development could also be seen at the Vietnam Tattoo Convention. Nam said when the event was held for the first time in 2012, there were only 30 labels and 70 tattooists that participated. Now, 11 years since then, the numbers of representatives have reached 100 and 250, respectively.

The numbers of tattoo artists and tattoo shops in Vietnam are rising. Illustration photo by Freepik

The numbers of tattoo artists and tattoo shops in Vietnam are rising. Illustration photo by Freepik

Still, these figures cannot be treated as official statistics about the domestic tattoo business. According to An, there are many other "underground" tattoo artists and tattoo shops that are active in a more "low-key" manner.

"I know many artists who do not establish any physical shop and are available for personal schedules only," he says. "But that does not mean they are not famous."

Correlating with this rise in the number of tattoo establishments is tattooists’ average income. As An and other tattooists estimate, a person working in the industry can now earn VND150 million ($6,220) a month on average, while monthly earnings of popular artists can fall in the range of between VND300-500 million.

On top of these trends, tattoo quality and the rising level of autonomy in creativity that tattoo artists increasingly enjoy are other benefits of the field’s development.

"Tattooists in Vietnam simply copied the images shown to them by customers in the past," An explains, adding that most now design tattoos on their own instead of relying on other artists’ creations.

One of the reasons behind these positive developments is how Vietnamese people are changing their attitudes about tattoos, says Nguyen Phuong Thao, owner of a Hanoi-based tattoo shop.

"I once had a 50-something female customer who was working for a state-owned institution," she says. "When I asked her whether her supervisors allowed her to have tattoos on her body, she replied that she did not care, since getting a tattoo certainly wasn’t against the law."

The customer also said she felt it was ridiculous that eyebrow or lip tattoos were considered normal cosmetic procedures in Vietnam, while body tattoos were viewed in a negative light.

An confirms that there is a shift in the way people around him see tattoos.

The artist says his parents did not favor tattoos and even discouraged him when he told them that he was about to get his first tattoo, as popular culture of the time often portrayed those with tattoos as law violators and "thugs." However, when An explained to his parents that the tattoo design he wanted was one that would remind him to be grateful to them, they grew more understanding.

From a more feminine point of view, Thao adds that many people, especially women, now consider body tattoos a cosmetic procedure. She says more than just a few of her customers are women who have had C-section deliveries, and they turn to tattoos as a method to cover their scars, aiming to regain their confidence and treat their bodies with even more care.

These positive developments have given tattoo businesspeople hope about an even more prominent future for their careers.

According to Nam, tattooists have not been officially recognized as a professional job in Vietnam. This lack of regulation poses challenges regarding consistent hygiene, safety, and skill standards across establishments nationwide.

As the public is growing more understanding towards the industry, Nam hopes authorities can acknowledge the business in the near future and consequently impose a system of standards that individuals and businesses working in the field should follow. Both customers and service providers can benefit from the act, Nam claims.

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