Considered a shady business by some, tattoos are seeing a slow but certain attitude change in Vietnam led by the urban young and hip – its growing middle class.
HANOI: Nguyen Trung Kien bought a tattoo iron when he was 19 and taught himself body ink by surfing the Internet.
He had a talent for drawing but had no idea how to use the machine - a model meant for eyebrows and not at all suitable for body art, he later found out.
"I tried it on my own body," he said, a shy grin lighting up his boyish good looks as he pointed to a tribal design on the inside of his left arm.
Six years later, that first try expanded into an elaborate pattern of swirls and shades and Kien, now 26 and boss of a studio in his home city Viet Tri, is recognised by peers as one of the most promising young tattooists at the Hanoi Ink Fest, touted as Vietnam’s first international tattoo convention.
A tattooist at work at the Hanoi Ink Fest. (Photo: Do My Linh)
Hundreds of tattooists from 12 countries set up booths at the Quan Ngua stadium in Hanoi for the two-day event on 23-24 Jun. Above the whir of tattoo machines and a boisterous crowd of the capital’s young and hip, a pastel watercolour portrait of Uncle Ho smiled benignly high up on the walls of the convention hall.
'PROSTITUTES & CRIMINALS'
Once considered a shady business, a legion of young, self-taught Vietnamese tattooists like Kien are lifting their practice out of the underground, trying to prove it deserves official recognition in the country as an art form as well as a decent livelihood.
According to Ta Cham Anh, one of the convention organisers, tattoos used to be associated with prostitutes, gangsters, and people who have been in jail - however, society is more open-minded now. Better known as Cham, she is the 29-year-old manager at one of Hanoi’s leading outfits, Tats Studio.
Ta Cham Anh manages Tats Studio in Hanoi. (Photo: Do Khuong Duy)
National papers covered the convention, including state-owned English daily VietnamNews which described the event as giving “tattoo artists the chance to exchange experiences and ideas on the art of tattooing”. Only a few years ago, tattoos never featured positively on mainstream media, said Cham.
Hollywood movies, YouTube and tattooed Vietnamese stars like the wildly popular, late metal-rocker Tran Lap have all helped accustom the country’s young urbanites to body ink.
The majority of visitors at the tattoo convention are in their twenties, but not all. Pham Viet Anh, a 32-year old finance officer at a leading local insurance firm is getting inked for the first time with a photo-realistic tattoo of his two-year old son.
“He’s adorable. My wife said she’s addicted to my son so I want a tattoo of him on my shoulder.” Many young people at his office have tattoos as well, he said. “10 or 20 years ago, it was terrible (to have a tattoo). But now, it’s an art.”
Hanoi Ink Fest is touted as Vietnam’s first international tattoo convention. (Photo: Do My Linh)
An indication of Vietnam’s tattoo boom is the number of studios that have popped up across the country. “It’s growing like, crazily,” Cham said.
With no official data on the tattoo industry in Vietnam, equipment suppliers like Le Ngoc Anh help paint a picture. In 2010, the year Ngoc Anh left his full-time job as a Chinese teacher to start his tattoo supplies firm CMC, there were no more than 70 tattoo studios in northern Vietnam. The number is now 800, he estimates – a tenfold increase. His business has grown with it.
A tattooist at work. (Photo: My Do Linh)
But the sector is starting from a low base and the convention’s chaotic, free-for-all atmosphere said it all.
Visitors crowded around the exhibiting tattooists as they worked in their booths, too close for comfort in the stuffy air of the stadium that had no air-conditioning. Ticket stubs and cigarette butts littered the convention floor.
“You see people smoking here, normally that’s not allowed near tattooing,” said Ael Lim, a participant from Singapore.
Despite their growing numbers and soaring popularity, Vietnam’s tattooists essentially operate in a lawless industry.
No specific regulations govern tattooing, no minimum age of consent to get a tattoo and no certificates or licenses required to become a practitioner or to set up a studio.
Tattoo enthusiasts at the Hanoi In Fest. (Photo: Do My Linh)
Fly-by-night outfits still exist, but most responsible parlours register as beauty or spa businesses – categories tattooists say have little or no relation to their work.
Many like Cham and Ngoc Anh hope for more government attention and regulation to develop the fledgling sector, but in the meantime, the onus has been on tattooists to maintain strict hygiene standards to protect their customers as well as themselves from the risk of infection and disease transmission.
Self-regulation is the name of the game and many are thriving, like Cham’s Tats Studio. Set up in 2008 by a friend, the studio started seeing profits two years later and has never looked back.
“We’re busy every day,” said Cham, whose mobile number is also the studio’s booking line. “My phone never stops ringing.”