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Ngoc Like inks over a customer’s scar at her studio in Hanoi. Tattoos are an art form that is still largely taboo in Vietnam. Photo: AFP

Tattoo artist helps Vietnamese women heal in a country that still frowns on permanent ink

  • ‘Ngoc Like’ says many of her clients get tattooed out of a wish to renew themselves and open a new chapter in life
  • Although attitudes in Vietnam are changing, tattoos still remain associated with gangsters, prostitution and the criminal underground

In her tiny Hanoi flat, tattoo artist Ngoc inks women whose lives have been upended by divorce or illness, each of them searching for healing through an art form that is still largely taboo in Vietnam.

Although attitudes are changing, tattoos remain associated with gangsters, prostitution and the criminal underground in the communist, broadly conservative country.

“I met many women who told me they loved tattoos but they were born at a time when no one supported them,” says Ngoc, who goes by the name “Ngoc Like”.

But some are choosing to push back against those old ideas, seeing body art as emancipation from some of the rigid societal norms they have lived by.

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Tattoos help Vietnamese women heal from physical and emotional trauma

Tattoos help Vietnamese women heal from physical and emotional trauma

Getting inked is often a landmark moment in these women’s lives, Ngoc, 28, says.

“They have overcome that fear of social prejudice and have a personal wish to renew themselves … to open a new chapter in life.”

In pictures: Chinese tattooist offers help to cover mums’ birth scars

Educated and business-savvy, Ngoc was ridiculed when she started out as a tattoo artist less than a decade ago – with many assuming she did not go into the industry out of choice.

But she has since built up a solid, mostly female clientele.

“Being a tattoo artist, I have had to accept the fact that people dismiss my skill, my studies, my personality … They say: ‘You do this because you did not get good grades.’”

Ngoc Like designing a tattoo over a female customer’s scar at her studio in Hanoi. Photo: AFP
Just 4 per cent of Vietnamese people have tattoos, according to a small survey in 2015 by Vietnam market research firm Q&Me. It also suggested that 25 per cent of people “feel scared” when seeing body art.

But for Tran Ha Nguyen, a schoolteacher, getting a tattoo was an act of celebration following a divorce from her “conservative and rigid” husband.

“My ex strongly opposed any tattoo on my body,” she recalls. “I, on the other hand, had been afraid I would lose my job if I had something visible.”

Nguyen Hong Thai chose to get a rose tattoo over a scar on her stomach, and the words “forever in my heart” on her arm, months after her husband died of lung cancer. Photo: AFP

After the separation, the 41-year-old says she wanted a clean break from her old self and to do things she would never have dared do before.

She chose a daisy design for her thigh, high enough that no one can see it unless she is in a bikini.

“It’s just one small tattoo, but I feel I have found my true self,” Nguyen says.

Nguyen Hong Thai posing with her tattoo made in memory of her late husband. Photo: AFP
Also recovering from trauma, 46-year-old Nguyen Hong Thai chose a rose tattoo over a scar on her stomach, and the words “forever in my heart” on her arm, months after her husband died of lung cancer.

He had always wanted her to get inked. “Now he’s gone, I think he would have wanted me to be strong, to be the person I had always been with him.

“The tattoos have given me strength and confidence [to do that],” says she says with a huge smile.

Ngoc was ridiculed when she started out as a tattoo artist less than a decade ago. Photo: AFP

Ngoc has decided to focus her tattooing work on women with scars, both physical and mental.

Demand is growing – her schedule is completely full, she says.

Her clients in Hanoi, where average monthly income per capita is less than US$500, are often willing to spend double that amount on their body art.

Ngoc has decided to focus her tattooing work on women with scars, both physical and mental. Photo: AFP

One of them, 33-year-old office worker Huong – not her real name – has felt ashamed of her body since appendicitis surgery 14 years ago left her with an “ugly” vertical scar.

“I considered going to a clinic to see if they could get rid of the scar. But then I thought: why can’t I have a tattoo to hide it?”

Her eyes shut tight in anxiety, Huong lies on the chair, waiting for the needle to begin its march across her midriff.

The Chinese tattoo artist turning traditional watercolour paintings into skin art

This “is not just about beautification … the beauty here is giving a woman the chance to be herself,” says Ngoc.

Hours later, looking in the mirror at a string of flowers across her stomach, a grin breaks out over Huong’s face.

“I was afraid if [my family] saw this big tattoo, they would think I was a party woman,” she says. “But the most important thing is I live for myself. If I can lose the shame around my scar, life gets more interesting.”

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