Tattoo tourism

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Swiss customer Christian Schalch of Zurich has a chest tattoo done at Saigon Ink in Ho Chi Minh City's District 1

When Christian Schalch, now 25, began visiting his mother's native Vietnam as a young adult, he encountered the social stigma of tattoos. Born to a Swiss father, he sports full sleeves of intricate tattoos. The Vietnamese side of his family, he says, thought that body art was "only for prisoners or footsoldiers." Since then much has changed, including Christian's own extensive collection of skin art.

Last summer during his yearly trip from Switzerland, Christian endured fifteen hours under the needle for a full back piece. The work began an important friendship between him and the artist, Vietnamese-New Zealander An Pham, also 25. They keep in touch via Facebook, and now when Christian visits Ho Chi Minh City, he can be found hanging out at Saigon Ink, chatting with staff or having tattoo work done by An.

"It's important to have an artist that you trust," he said when we met the other day in the low-ceilinged hangout spot underneath the tattoo work area. "It's a piece of art, and a collaboration between the artist's style and your personal expression."

Christian said that for him there's always been a deep meaning behind the tattoos that he gets. This trip to HCMC was for the funeral
of his maternal grandfather. "The last time I saw him, the last conversation we had I told him about the meaning behind my tattoos, and he said he was really impressed that the tattoos were pieces of art." Such a sentiment expressed by an older person may be a signal of the shifting perceptions of the Vietnamese public regarding body art.

It isn't just the children of Viet Kieu visiting family who get inked at the seven-year-old Saigon Ink, owned by local Dang Tien Nguyen. Australian tourist Simon Richards said he "basically refuses to
get tattoos done in Australia" because of the high cost and difficulty in getting an appointment. He was in HCMC for the first time, and having already been tattooed in Thailand, was keen on having work done during this most recent trip.

Another of the shop's devotees is Elliott Thomson of New Zealand. Initially introduced to Saigon Ink during a travel stint through Southeast Asia, Elliott has since returned to HCMC for the express purpose of being tattooed by An.

"I booked 10 days straight out at the shop," he said. "People told me I was crazy multiple times for doing this." Working closely with An, he developed an impressive full back piece and large leg tattoo, both in a vibrant, traditional Asian style. Citing the quality of work and relatively low cost, Elliott already has plans to come back for more. "The quality of artwork in this shop is amazing," he said. "They take their work personally and they take great pride in it."

Owner Dang Tien clearly loves his work, and he has been fascinated by tattoos since he was a teenager. He believes that tattoos carry a certain kind of spirit that can bring a recipient luck or encouragement. While he admits that most of his clientele are foreigners, his hopes for the Vietnamese market are that "they'll think about the meaning of their tattoo first instead of going with something fashionable. The right tattoo and the right artist can make a big impact on someone's life."

While he waits for Vietnamese interest to pick up, he makes
sure to donate 10 percent of his profits to alleviate poverty via charities throughout Vietnam. Engaging in this way with the public is very important to Dang Tien, who also visits Buddhist temples regularly. He says he does his work "not to follow money, but for love of the art."

Apparently that devotion comes through to tourists searching online for places to pick up permanent souvenirs during their trip to HCMC. Most of the tourists I spoke with had found Saigon Ink by performing a simple Google search.

Among them was Indonesia native Aang Sunadji, who currently works in Cambodia. He got his first tattoo in Singapore and came to like the idea of collecting tattoos from the places he visits. After a quick look at Saigon Ink's website, he was duly impressed by the quality of the work and especially of the color, and made an appointment along with some of his colleagues.

"In Indonesia tattoos are socially acceptable," he said. "Tattoo is fashionable."

Dang Tien said his shop operates on appointments only, and that he isn't trying to attract foot traffic from the nearby Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area. He insists on a consultation before making an appointment. An books only one appointment per day, and refuses to do a tattoo that he doesn't feel personally invested in. He shares his boss Dang Tien's deep appreciation for the art form, saying, "I don't do it for the money. I do it for the art itself."

An has several repeat customers who are tourists, and said that many of his clients come to Saigon Ink because of the Asian and "old school" American design expertise the staff has accumulated. He also noted that many tourists choose to have Vietnamese themes tattooed on their bodies, including coi fish and women wearing traditional ao dai. An came to Saigon Ink in order to study under Dang Tien, who offers a course in tattooing, unlike many western artists who require long-term apprenticeships for budding artists. As far as he knows, he's the only Viet Kieu tattoo artist in HCMC, having immigrated to New Zealand at the age of nine and returned four years ago to study here.

As far as the Vietnamese public is concerned, An sees the tides turning. "People in Vietnam have become generally more accepting of tattoos," he said. "Now having a tattoo is associated with having a lot of money."

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