The artist and owner of a tattoo parlor on Hoang Hoa Tham Street in Hanoi’s Ba Dinh District deftly uses a tattoo gun, whose screech engulfs the place.
On the table is Nguyen Kim Ngan, 34, who knits her brows as the tattoo needle touches her flesh. This is the second time the mother of two is getting a tattoo.
She says: “I would have loved to have tattoos when I was young, but I was too shy. Only when people started to be more accepting did I screw up the courage to get a tattoo last year.”
The artist says in the last few years her customer demographics have changed greatly. In the past most were youngsters, but now they are mainly married office workers and their numbers are increasing, she says.
For instance, that day, after Ngan, she will have four more customers, all married and around 40.
Phan Phuong Anh, 22, an employee at a tattoo shop on Xuan Dieu Street in the capital’s Tay Ho District, has the same thing to say.
“Over the past year the number of married women coming to my place has increased one and a half times, and many of them have become regular customers.”
She says for most young customers tattoos are a form of decoration and so they often choose small, simple images on exposed parts of the body such as shoulders, ankles, neck, and arms.
But housewives often want tattoos for a different reason: covering C-section scars.
However, after getting the first tattoo, they soon get “addicted” and keep returning for more.
Besides, they choose to get tattoos in places normally covered by clothes and prefer larger and more sophisticated ones often as some kind of statement.
Last year Ngan got her first tattoo, a bodhi leaf to celebrate her birthday and express her appreciation of Buddhism.
She says: “I had thought it would be painful and was mentally prepared for it, but it turned out the pain was slight and the process only took 20 minutes.”
Her husband found her tattoo attractive, making her feel assured.
This year she is having another in memory of a child she lost due to a miscarriage, a daisy she herself designed.
“The daisy is the flower of April, my birth month. It also symbolizes enlightenment.”
For Tran Anh Tu, 25, an English teacher, tattooing is like psychotherapy.
“I got this tattoo after getting divorced,” she says, pointing to a fish skeleton tattoo on her hand. In 2020 she broke up with her husband after nine months of marriage since she could not “keep trying to be a good housewife to please him.”
Before her marriage she had a rabbit tattoo on the back just below her shoulder. “My friend opened a tattoo shop and casually asked if I wanted a tattoo. I agreed right away without thinking much.”
An art enthusiast, she wanted to get more and more tattoos to express the paintings she loved, but her husband disliked the idea.
The day she and her husband walked out of court after their divorce, Tu went straight to a tattoo parlor as a mark of protest against the control.
Since then she has had a new tattoo once every few months.
She has 10 of them now in all sizes stretching all over her arms. “The tattoos are symmetrical, showing balance and reminding me not to live to please others while losing myself in the process.”
Nga says: “Someone flew from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and back within a day to get a tattoo to temporarily forget some family sadness.
“For these women, tattoos are a way to process difficult emotions.”
For Tran Anh Tu, 25, of Hanoi, tattoos are messages that remind her to stay true to herself. Photo by VnExpress/ Minh Trang.
As tattooists like Nga and Anh say, society is now more accepting of tattoos.
“A married woman came to get a tattoo accompanied by her husband and children as cheerleaders,” Anh says.
Nevertheless, the stigma has not totally disappeared.
Nguyen Dieu Thuy, 41, a department head at a media agency in Hanoi, had always wanted to get a tattoo but desisted because her husband did not seem to like the idea.
But last year, on her 40th birthday, she decided to simply indulge herself since “otherwise, when can I be true to myself?”
She decided to get a small four-leaf clover tattoo on her wrist to symbolize good luck as she was about to change her career.
When she returned home that day, she was teased by her husband.
“Why do people accept eyebrow tattooing but stigmatize body tattoo?” she asks.
The answer is not hard to find: Tattoos once used to be associated with gangsters, criminals and prostitutes, and ink on the body was a sign of antisocial behavior.
This year Thuy got another tattoo but did not tell her husband in advance. She got a queen bee on her right ankle.
“I want more tattoos, but need to plan carefully” she says.
Despite her husband’s support, Ngan remains cautious. Before getting any new tattoo, she explains its meaning to her husband and chooses discreet parts of her body.
She tells her children her tattoos are not some kind of fad she but simply for self-expression.
Tu’s experience with her ex-husband means she no longer wants to please others at her expense. She openly talks about her tattoos with her colleagues and family.
She has also found a new boyfriend, a tattoo lover.