Marked for life

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A man having a compass tattoo on Bui Vien Street. Ho Chi Minh City with the believing it could guide him and stop him from getting lost

Not too long ago, they were more than a rarity, they were simply not there.

Today, nearly 20 tattoo shops have registered in Ho Chi Minh City's backpacker streets, including five on small section of De Tham.

In fact, two of most famous shops in the city at the present, Saigon Ink and Saigon Tattoo, each operate a chain of three to five shops, Tuoi Tre said in a report last month.

Dang Phuong Hoa, owner of Saigon Tattoo, said "Tattoo has been an industry in many developed countries. But in Vietnam, the art is just budding."

Hoa just spent two months attending international tattoo festivals in Texas and Las Vegas. The tattooist is planning to open another shop to the three he has in the city, this time in the neighboring beach town of Vung Tau. Hoa has attended tattoo courses abroad and won at several international contests, the report said.

Saigon Ink, run by Nguyen Dang Thien, in October sent nearly ten of its staff to a festival in Thailand as an annual training activity. They had earlier been sent to France and Singapore.

Hoa and Thien have both opened tattoo classes that have attracted a lot of young people, some attracted to it as an art and some immigrants looking to learn a skill so that they can set up shops elsewhere.

This surge in popularity for tattoos, not too long ago considered as something favored by criminal elements in Vietnam, is being seized upon by those offering the service to gain greater and long-term acceptance.

A plan to launch a tattoo association has been held back because of some disagreements, but the shops in town are still united in their efforts to boost the profile and prestige of tattoos in a society that is still considered conservative.

Because of the negative connotations that tattoos have had, the shops have set up regulations to shield themselves from criticism and win more tolerance.

They refuse to do work that looks too boastful or overdone. They also have a group of consultants to talk customers out of having tattoos that the latter can regret later, such as the names or images of boyfriends or girlfriends.

All four shops of Saigon Ink do not serve customers under 18 years of age. They also provide especially "strict consultation" to people who want "highly impressive tattoos" in "prominent" spots.

Nguyen Manh Cuong, a frequent customer at Saigon Ink, said "I think they are working not for profit but for the love of tattoos."

Saigon Ink owner Thien, who has spent nearly ten years studying and working on tattoos, said, "I have always wished that tattooing is recognized by the public as an art, and those working on them as real artists."

For a start, some people are using their tattoos to mark healthy and meaningful experiences.

Many adults, including office workers, people in showbiz and football players, have chosen tattoos that say good things about their lives.

Thien Di, 34, and her husband celebrated their 13-year marriage and two children by having a tattoo of her done on his body.

Actor Huy Khanh had a tattoo of a dog, as his son was born in the Year of Dog.

There's a popular story at the Lac Viet tattoo shop on Dien Bien Phu Street, where a notorious gangster came to have a portrait tattoo of his 14-day-old son.

Many businesspeople also looked for a suitable tattoo that could bring them luck.

Thanh, a 40-year-old property investor, said he spent six hours and VND9 million (US$428,510) to have a tattoo of a carp turning into a dragon as a symbol of luck and prosperity.

At the shop run on Bui Vien Street in District 1 run by Tery Do, a Vietnamese-French national, a tattoo means personal identity.

His customers say Do designs a tattoo for each person and never uses the same design for anyone else. The man learnt the art in his father's shop in France.

"A tattoo should go with you for all your life. There's only one you, so there should be only one tattoo," he said.


According to doctors, the risk of blood and skin diseases during the making and erasing of a tattoo is an issue that needs to be seriously considered by those who want to get tattoos.

Tery Do said that his Vietnamese counterparts should be more professional about hygiene and safety requirements if they want the best for tattooing as a profession and an art.

"Tattoo shops in France can only operate when they have training certificates and different hygiene recognition papers. But in Vietnam, they just operate with a business registration," Do said.

Tattoo ink is basically a kind of chemical and can cause possible skin hazards while the equipment used can potentially transmit blood infections, doctors say.

Le Duc Tho, a doctor at HCMC Hoan My Hospital, told Tuoi Tre last month that bacterial contamination would be the lightest problem that people should be concerned about tattoos.

Meanwhile, dyeing chemicals in the ink can cause itchy skin allergies and the condition can last for years, Tho said.

The Hoan My Hospital has received many requests from people who want to erase tattoos they got without thinking it through, especially when they want to work for state agencies or go abroad. There are also people who want to get their tattoos removed because they do not like the particular design or feature anymore.

Tho said there're different ways for erasing tattoos but there will always be scars left. Careless erasing can even cause cancer, he said.

Erasing a tattoo also costs three to four times more money than having one done and the skin can never return to its original condition, he added.

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