Tattoo culture is booming in Vietnam and the Saigon scene is thriving with talented artists. Hundreds of tattoo parlours have opened in the city since the 1990’s and it is not uncommon for foreigners and locals alike to get inked here. Saigon is a place where world-class work, by world-class artists, can be done at the fraction of the cost of cities synonymous with tattoo culture like London, San Francisco, Tokyo and Tel Aviv. According to many tattoo artists, one of the things most people worry about when getting their first tattoo is the pain. They always want to know how many sessions it will take and how much will it hurt? 28 year old Irish-Woman Romy was no stranger to pain, so this question wasn’t even on her mind in the slightest the day she walked into Saigon’s first and most famous tattoo parlour, Saigon Ink, to inquire about getting a tattoo on her leg.
Romy suffered from juvenile arthritis and pain was pretty much a constant growing up. She coped with multiple surgeries a year, including a hip replacement at age 18. But according to her, the worst was the year she spent in an ilizarov apparatus. This device is a type of external fixator used in orthopedic surgery to lengthen limbs and looks almost medieval. The bones in her leg needed to be broken and stretched and then re-fused together so that her legs would be the same length. She wore the device on two occasions to complete this process, each time for over a year and it was agony.
“ By the time the device came off, I was a bit traumatized by the whole experience and had frequent nightmares” says Romy. “I’d spent much of my teens in chronic pain, in and out of hospitals, constantly having my leg looked at by teams of doctors who were trying to fix it”. I guess when I decided to get the tattoo, it was about reclaiming this part of my body. I wanted to cover up the scars on my leg but also I wanted to own my experience, my body and my femininity, because so much of all this happened during a time when I went from child to woman”.
Romy walked through the doors at Saigon Ink and instantly felt like this was the place that could give her what she wanted. A tattoo that was not only beautiful but also infused with enough meaning that she would always love it and give her a new set of eyes to look at herself. Saigon Ink, run by Danis Nguyen, a pioneer of tattoo art in Vietnam is home to several artists all specializing in different styles. Romy was referred to Bonbon who is known for his neo-traditional style, black, grey and watercolor tattoos. He has built a name for himself for his flower designs and his cover-up work.
The initial tattoo covered just the front of her leg and took about 7 hours. It looked like a shield, starting from just above her knee and coming all the way down to her ankle in a point. “It was feminine and beautiful and I knew I wanted more, so over the course of that year, I decided to go for a full leg sleeve.” Says Romy. But the ink didn’t stop there, Romy decided on two more tattoos on her arms both done by Bonbon. “At first I was nervous, I didn’t want to look too aggressive with tattoos on my upper arms, but again the response to them has been so positive.”
Romy says that so many people stop and talk to her about her tattoos now and the interactions are always positive. “ Once while I was riding my motorbike and stopped at a traffic light, I had an entire conversation with a fellow motorcyclist about my leg sleeve. After I got the sleeve, my nightmares stopped and since then, this tattoo has been nothing but a bridge that has helped my get back to myself and connect with others.”
Looking down at her leg sleeve, you can tell straight away that it was expertly designed by a real artist. The work is intricate and beautiful spanning the whole of her lower leg. A complex design with shading and swirls, it’s a gorgeous shield covering a leg that Romy once thought was scarred and ugly. Now to her and to the world, that very same leg is an unmistakable thing of beauty.
More info Saigon Ink HERE
Naomi Sutorius-Lavoie is a freelance writer based in HCMC. Vietnam
If you want to get inked in Saigon, here’s a list of some of the most popular tattoo parlours in town:
Saigon Ink – Tattoo Tadashi – Recycle Bin – Monster Ink – Alchemist – Viên Tattoo Studio – Tam Quoc Tattoo – Saigon Tattoo Club – Chun Huck Tattoo – Spade Art Tattoo