Just 4% of Vietnamese respondents reported having a tattoo in a 2015 survey conducted by Q&Me. However, culture is beginning to shift, and body inking is drawing more interest across the country, with Vietnam’s first tattoo expo hosted in 2018.
Throughout the world, the status signified by a tattoo has changed significantly across the ages, and Vietnam has a particularly interesting story to tell. Asia Insiders reports.
Protection And Status
Tattooing is now believed to be an ancient art form, with the oldest evidence of tattoos dating back to 3370-3100 BC on a naturally mummified body found in the Otzal Alps. However, ancient tattooing was not restricted to this area, and evidence of tattoos throughout history has been found across the world.
In Vietnam, the earliest permanent inking dates to the 14th century, when fishermen would tattoo their bodies to represent the eyes and scales of a sea monster in order to remain safe while they were out at sea. Throughout the Ly and Tran dynasty, tattoos were a symbol of the aristocracy, and were officially required in order to enter the imperial court. The more tattoos someone had, the higher in status they were thought to be. Popular designs at this time were powerful animals amongst men, and birds and flowers for ladies.
The Wrong Side Of The Law
After the 1407 Ming occupation, tattoos began to lose popularity, and their association with status and wealth declined. When the French invaded in the 19th century, tattoos acquired a bad reputation: colonists inked codes on prisoners for identification, marking them out as law breakers. Tattoos had become an identification system rather than an art form.
When the Japanese occupied Vietnam during the 1940s, Irezumi tattoos were common in prison populations. They were becoming a work of art again, but they still signified someone who had broken the law, and intricate designs were seen amongst sex workers and gang members. Organized crime was prevalent in Saigon during the later end of the 20th century, and tattoos were widely linked to this movement.
Times Are Changing
Attitudes only began to change around the year 2000, and the first tattoo parlor in Ho Chi Minh City was opened in 2004. The authorities were cautious and suspicious, but Saigon Ink, owned by tattoo artist Danis Nguyen, stood strong and eventually gained international recognition.
Although stigma around tattooing remains, the younger generation has shown a strong interest in body inking, and there are now numerous tattoo parlors in many cities. Older generations remain suspicious, however, and consequently, many young people opt for designs they can hide from their families.
Despite this, it is now much more common to see tattooed staff in establishments catering to younger crowds: tattooing has become a sign of a trendy venue and has largely shaken off its association with organized crime.
The link between tattooing and a criminal underworld has meant that permanent ink in Vietnam has taken a long time to shake free of stigma. While tattooing is still frowned upon by older generations, however, attitudes are now finally starting to shift, and Vietnamese tattooing is entering a new era.