With a small but strong cohort of artists paving the way, getting inked in Vietnam is an increasingly popular option, but that doesn’t mean it’s not niche. I met with three tattoo artists of vastly different styles to discuss tattoo art in general, tattoo art in Vietnam, and what makes each of them an artist.
I first met Black Bear’s founder and prominent Vietnamese tattoo artist Pham Thanh Duy, who has been in the business for over half a decade. Next, on the Old Quarter side of the Long Bien Bridge, I chatted with Tats Studio’s owner, Tuan Vampire — he calls himself that in reference, or reverence, to the fang extensions he had put in his mouth years ago. Rounding out my research was a trip to Scarlett’s Inky Corner, where I visited the shop’s namesake and founder, Scarlett.
Both Duy and Tuan had been artists before they picked up tattooing. “I used to draw, I used to do graffiti, but when I found tattoos I knew it was the art for me,” Duy says. “With tattoos, you get only one chance.”
Tuan, like Duy, felt compelled to make the shift to tattoo art, and is primarily self-taught. Tattoos weren’t big in Vietnam when he started nearly a decade ago, so he travelled to Thailand to check out the scene there. “I desired to learn as much as I could and to bring the new knowledge back to Vietnam,” he says.
Scarlett, in contrast, had a less-expected career path. “Growing up, everyone encouraged me to study, and no-one encouraged me to do art or music,” she recalls. “I felt like I lost something, like there was this part of me that had never been explored.”
Tattoo art requires much more than the ability to draw with a needle on someone’s skin (though, to be fair, that skill on its own is immensely difficult). “Success doesn’t depend on skill,” Tuan says. “The most important quality of a tattoo artist is that you never stop learning, that you always push yourself to the new level, and stay open to learning from others’ experiences.”
For Duy, the success of a tattoo artist lies in his or her ability to feel. “You can learn techniques,” he says, “but you can’t learn feeling.” His growth as an artist has emerged from the relationships he’s formed with his clients, and has strengthened through conversations, careful designs and a slow but intense artistic process.
“You have to really know people, you have to really trust that you’re doing the right tattoo for the right person,” Duy explains. “That’s why I can’t earn much money.”
All the artists I spoke to have an intrinsic motivation. They’re not in this career for money or power. So what is it that inspires these tattoo artists?
Duy says it’s the change he sees in his clients after they get inked “for work, for life, for love”. As he was learning the art of tattooing, he spent months studying traditional Vietnamese culture and symbolism. Some of his most treasured tattoos feature dragons, phoenixes, tigers and other cultural indicators of luck and prosperity. If someone wants to do well in business, they get a carp fish. If someone feels strong, they’ll get a tiger. Dragons are very common, too. Peonies signify power, and cherry blossoms together with carp mean endless luck and money.
“A tattoo isn’t like a jacket that you can take off,” says Duy. “When you a have a tattoo you need it to symbolise something.” He explains how over time, the more people understand and revisit and explain the symbols behind their tattoos, they’ll come to take on more meanings.
“A tattoo can save your life,” he adds. “It is your story.”
Scarlett also feels her artistic passion “fuelled” by the stories and emotions of her customers. She recalls numerous moments of customers emailing her their stories, of customers sitting on her small parlour’s big comfy couch and chatting through their history, their motives and their fears.
Scarlett is part of a worldwide project providing tattoos of semicolons for people who have wanted to commit suicide but have continued living. “You want to end the sentence, but you continue it,” she explains.
All three artists draw motivation from the thrill of the art itself. “I’m always challenging myself to create the greatest tattoo ever, to try more, to do more, but I’m never satisfied,” Tuan says. “I’ll forever be striving for the masterpiece of my life.”
With the high emotional stakes of tattoo art, not to mention the permanence of a tattoo, these artists express a heightened sense of responsibility, not only for the tattoo’s bearer, but for the tattoo community.
The Vietnamese tattoo industry is still developing. Though tattoos are becoming more commonplace, they’re still considered taboo, something “for the bad guys,” Duy says
Duy takes great pride in showing me a work-in-progress on one of his customer’s backs; an expansive, intricate depiction of the American War. At its focal point is the painfully emotional portrait of an elderly woman weeping. “The portrait makes you feel,” he says.
Both Tuan and Duy say that their favourite tattoos involve portraits or otherwise realistic images.
“The way you make a tattoo reflects your feelings about the subject,” Duy explains, recalling an artist friend of his who could draw beautiful lips on tattooed portraits, but whose depiction of eyes lacked emotion. “That person, in their real-life interactions, always focused on people’s lips, never their eyes, and that showed in their portraits.”
At Vietnam’s national tattoo convention last year, one of Duy’s colour portraits won a top prize. He shows me the image it’s based on, and points out, bit by bit, the emotion within every curve, every rivet of the subject’s face.
The next tattoo convention will take place in Ho Chi Minh City this month, where international tattoo artists will converge to share artwork, stories and inspiration.
For now, the artists are making efforts to exchange knowledge and enhance connections. “I just want to make more excellent tattoo artists,” Tuan says, referring to his apprenticeship programme, INKademy. “Each person has his or her own process and method of improvement. Each apprentice has different styles, different skills, and I want to follow each of them to teach them personally.”
Scarlett hopes to see Vietnam’s community become more open and communicative. “Some people are born an artist, but I learnt to be an artist, and I am evolving as one,” she explains. “You have to take yourself seriously before you can earn someone else’s respect.”