Vietnamese tattoo artists push back against stereotypes


Tattoos are considered taboo in Vietnamese society. Photo: Dave & Lorelle (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Tattoos remain a social taboo in some countries despite significant importance attached to them, depending on history.

Sometimes, it’s not just ink – tattoos often hold religious and cultural value to many minority groups. In Taiwan, for the Atayal people, facial tattoos defined gender roles where the man’s tattoos symbolised bravery and virility and the tattoos of the woman demonstrated housekeeping skills.

Like China, Vietnam followed forms of punishment prevalent in the Liao Dynasty. They marked slaves on the face with different symbols to give them a perception that they were criminals and depict what crime they had committed. Offenders were tattooed on the body as well. In later years tattoos were redefined as a sign of rebellion against the ruling Communist Party enhancing their negative connotations.

In some parts of Vietnam, tattoos are still considered taboo due to historical backlash. A tattoo artist at N2N Tattoo based in Melbourne, Nick Tran, says tattoos still aren’t socially acceptable in his home country. Having a Vietnamese background, Tran says that although tattoos represent a growing industry many Vietnamese people still do not accept it as a form of art.

“Heaps of my relatives in a more rural area of Vietnam still think body art is a taboo and reckon whoever’s getting a tattoo isn’t a good person,” he says.

His fellow tattoo artist Ngoc Like, who is based in Vietnam, says Vietnamese people hold a prejudice against those with tattoos, with older generations associating them with gangs, criminals, or prostitutes. For them, people with ink are lower class or criminals.

“In the old decades, tattoos were associated with society’s vices – gypsies, prostitutes, and this made them naturally a marker of identity, that’s why many people still suppose tattoos are a bad thing, instead of art,” she says.

Despite the social stigma surrounding tattoos, more and more Vietnamese people have adorned their bodies with intricate art. But old habits die hard, and in 2015, a survey among 700 Vietnamese people showed 25 percent “felt scared” when they see people with body art.

Like says when she started her business 10 years ago, most of her friends weren’t supportive of her and thought she was doing something wrong. But after building a successful tattoo studio, she can push back against the negative connotations of tattoos in Vietnamese culture.

“Some good things will be distorted, but gradually people will change their perceptions,” she says.

Like knows the feeling of trauma and can see it in the eyes of her female clientele.

Recovering from complicated medical surgeries, women come to her hoping she can turn the scars  on their body, into art.

At 28 years old, Like is a renowned scar cover-up artist in Vietnam. She inks mostly middle-aged women and says that her clients had to live and see their scars but once tattooed, they feel better and have higher self-esteem.

“Covering scars does not only bring a new look to clients but also heals their wounds and broken hearts – life becomes better when people feel more confident and happier,” she says.

People get tattoos for many reasons but self-expression is why Like has a passion for her job.

“I think everyone has their own ideals, and I respect each person’s point of view,” she says.

“Maybe that’s why I have received a lot of thanks for giving a more positive life after tattooing customers; I feel very happy and that is the motivation to push me harder on keeping this work.”

In Australia, a study in 2012 showed people aged between 20-39 with tattoos showed higher risk behaviours, mainly around violence.

But Mr Tran says the world is different now, and people should learn to accept that having a tattoo is not directly attributed to negative behaviours.

“The world always has two sides of a face as some might think as negative and some as positive,” he says.

“People have their right to judge and freedom to believe in what’s right and wrong or good and bad.”