Taboo tattoos: Vietnamese women find healing through ink


In her tiny Hanoi apartment, tattoo artist Ngoc inks middle-aged women whose lives have been turned upside down by divorce or illness, each seeking healing through an art form still largely taboo in Vietnam. .

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

“I have met a lot of women who have told me that they love tattoos but they were born at a time when no one supported them,” Ngoc, who calls herself “Ngoc Like,” told AFP. “.

But some choose to push back on those old ideas, seeing body art as an emancipation from some of the rigid societal norms they’ve lived by.

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Getting a tattoo is often a defining moment in the lives of these women, says Ngoc, 28.

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

Educated and business savvy, Ngoc was ridiculed when she started as a tattoo artist less than a decade ago – many believing she didn’t enter the industry by choice.

But it has since built up a solid clientele, predominantly female.

“As a tattoo artist, I had to come to terms with the fact that people reject my skills, my studies, my personality… They say, ‘You’re doing this because you didn’t get good grades.”

Strength and Confidence

Only four percent of Vietnamese have tattoos, according to a small survey in 2015 by Vietnamese market research firm Q & Me, the most recent data available.

He also suggested that 25 percent of people “get scared” when they see body art.

But for Tran Ha Nguyen, a high school teacher, getting a tattoo was a celebration after a divorce from her “conservative and rigid” husband.

“My ex was strongly against any tattoo on my body,” she recalls. “For my part, I was afraid of losing my job if I had something visible.

After the separation, the 41-year-old told AFP she wanted a clean break with herself and do things she would never have dared to do in her previous life.

She chose a daisy pattern for her thigh, high enough that no one could see it unless she was in a bikini.

“It’s just a little tattoo but I feel like I’ve found my real me,” Nguyen said.

Also recovering from trauma, Nguyen Hong Thai, 46, chose a rose tattoo on a scar on her stomach and the words “forever in my heart” on her arm, months after her husband’s death. ‘lung cancer.

He had always wanted her to get a tattoo.

“Now that he’s gone, I think he wished I had been strong, that I was the person I’ve always been with him.”

“Tattoos gave me strength and confidence (to do this),” Thai said, with a huge smile.

“I live for myself”

Ngoc decided to focus his tattoo work on women with scars, both physical and mental.

Demand is increasing – her schedule is completely filled, she says.

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

One of them, Huong, a 33-year-old office worker – her real name – has been ashamed of her body since an appendicitis operation 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?”

Eyes closed in anxiety, Huong lies down in the chair, waiting for the needle to start walking through his stomach.

It’s not just about beautification… Beauty here gives a woman the chance to be herself, says Ngoc.

“I was worried that if (my family) saw this big tattoo, they would think I was a party girl.

“But the most important thing is that I live for myself. If I can lose the shame around my scar, life becomes more interesting.



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