Tattoos. Those indelible body inkings stay with you for life. So we searched the city for three unique tattoo artists in Saigon to give you the artwork of a lifetime.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Tattooing in Saigon is not new. Legendary locations like Saigon Ink and Recycle have been around for years. But there’s a general perception that tattoos are less stigmatized than before. It’s much more common to see an inked arm or leg than a decade ago.
So, we set out to discover three artists creating unique artworks. From the fiercely original to the fine artist turned tattoo artist, to a secretive artist who’s part therapist, here are three tattoo artists in Saigon to know.
Surprisingly, Thinh doesn’t have any tattoos. “I made a promise to my parents not to take my work home with me…” the enigmatic artist smiles. However, he fell in love with drawing as a kid. And although he drifted between odd jobs, becoming a tattoo artist seemed like destiny. Avoiding being inked himself is also Thinh’s reminder that this is an art form. And he’s the artist…not the canvas. “I guess I want to prove people wrong about their expectations of tattooists…” he shrugs.
Thinh has been in the profession for four years already. And his work features delicate Japanese-influenced black line works with splashes of color. The golden horn of a gramophone. A burning red sun behind an animal skull. And yellow and red flames licking around a wrist. Understandably, he’s proudly original – ‘DO NOT COPY’ his Instagram profile reminds visitors.
“I really listen to the people I tattoo, and I spend a lot of time thinking about original designs,” he continues about his passion: “that grows bigger each day.”
What were your early forays into tattooing like?
Back then, I’d do designs suggested to my by the customer. That’s the starting point. But gradually, over the last four years, I began experimenting with my own style, this fine black line work that I love.
Who’s your typical customer?
I guess I’d always imagined them to be dressed in black; people who love rock music and the goth style. But the reality is quite different. Lots of my guests dress very simply, even minimally. They usually see my drawings on a friend or online, and are drawn to my way of working…
If you could choose one tattoo to help someone new understand your work, which would you choose?
I’d choose these two pictures, I think. My tattoos often express difficult emotions, especially loss and anguish. But that’s not intended in a gory or shocking way. I try to make my tattoos accessible, while loaded with meaning. The red dot you can see is a device I use to connect all the elements in the tattoo together. It makes the tattoo feel more harmonious.
And which tattooists here or around the world do you admire most?
I hope this doesn’t come across as arrogant…but I don’t really pay too much attention to other tattoo artists in Saigon or elsewhere. That’s partly because I don’t want to be influenced by them. I want to develop my own unique style. If pushed, I’d name @neosian and @tattooer_intat as two artists I admire.
What’s next for you as a tattoo artist in Saigon?
It’s always tempting to be washed along by trends. So I’m always debating whether to be egotistical and stick to my own world, and to incorporate some influences. Watering down my vision might mean a deluge of customers, and I’d rather stay small, and keep the quality of my work high. That might mean I develop slowly. But that’s fine for me. I just hope more people get to see my work and I get to meet lots of like-minded souls in the future. That’s all.
Hoang Nam Viet
Hoang Nam Viet was passionate about drawing growing up too. The difference is, he successfully turned professional as an illustrator and later as a revered artist despite being ostensibly self-taught. His work has been shown to acclaim at DIA Projects, The Factory and Galerie Quynh. But his work can be seen more informally at the café he runs at 14 Ton That Dam, called Hoang Thi.
He’s a very recent convert to tattooing. During the pandemic, a close friend bought tattooing equipment, and Hoang Nam Viet tried it out. He transferred his distinctive and technically astounding post-impressionist style to tattoos. Starting with some trusting friends. And he spent lots of the lockdown going back to school, obsessively learning about the history of tattooing and about famous artists in his new field. “It’s never good to get too comfortable and let life drift by,” he explains about his recent exploration of tattooing.
Do you have any tattoos?
No, not so many. One of them is the logo for my small cafe, Hoang Thi.
As a newcomer to tattooing, what are your impressions of the industry?
Although I’m new, I’ve been following the profession, through friends, for a long time. I definitely perceive some changes. The social prejudices are lifting. Young people can get tattooed without the judgement there used to be. It’s become a trend. As Saigon has developed economically, and people have grown richer, this is one of the modern developments that have come with it. Overall, I feel things are changing for the better.
Personally, what do you enjoy most about tattooing and what challenges are there?
For me, having spent a lifetime drawing, I’ve had a slight advantage switching over. I think visually. And there are elements of draftsmanship that transfer. I can create images relatively easily. But as I’m new, I guess the word on my tattoo works is yet to get out.
Who have your customers been so far?
As for any new or even experienced tattooist, there needs to be trust between artist and customer. To begin, that’s meant I’ve mostly worked with acquaintances and friends. Gradually, I feel my work is beginning to speak for itself and the trust in me is growing.
How would you describe your style to someone new to your work?
Ever since I became an artist, I’ve tried not to define my style. But my drawings are a good reference point for how my tattoos look.
Can you choose one tattoo you’ve done that epitomizes your work so far?
If I were to choose one work to describe my style, I’d choose a work I call “the small bee in the Buddha’s eye”. It was a fairly small and quick piece I did for a Singaporean friend. They were heading off to the airport to catch a plane to India, so we didn’t have much time. The friend suggested the general idea. Then I modified it a bit, and made it a bit more crazy! The bee’s sting points straight into the eyes, as a metaphor to always focus on the goal ahead of you.
Do you have any favorite tattoo artists in Saigon or beyond?
Yes, my favorite tattoo artist is Thomas Carli Jarlier. Thomas is a real artists, with real personality. I’d describe his work as stunning black ink, with occasional hints of blue.
What does the future hold for you as a tattoo artist?
This has already been a profound journey for me. I want to continue this path of self-exploration. Then, I’d like to travel the world, inking people wherever I go. I have big dreams, although realizing them won’t be easy.
The Tattoo Therapist
For The Tattoo Therapist, tattooing is a kind of therapeutic conversation between artist and customer. He’s such a purist, he asked for his photographs not to be shown here.
That’s for guests only who enter into the conversation. One that’s maybe not even verbalized. “Silence can be just as rewarding,” the tattooist begins about the process that can: “reinvigorate your emotions, help heal the soul, or just fill you with the simple joy that comes with being inked.”
That kind of spiritual warmth fills The Tattoo Therapist journey, or destiny. “When you have a desire for something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve it,” he smiles.
Do you have any tattoos you’d like to tell us about?
There’s one very unusual story. I went to get a tattoo, not realizing that the artist had exactly the same name as me. Some time into the process of getting the tattoo, as we began talking, we discovered it. We laugh about it often, even now. That’s because now we share a studio!
What are your perceptions of the industry in Vietnam?
Things seem to be going pretty well. There are lots of young artists emerging with their own unique styles. They’re adding to the richness of the tattoo industry in Saigon. Added to that, I feel customers are becoming much more conscious of what they want. I’d say they’re more knowledgeable than ever. From an artist’s perspective, I feel we’re becoming more aware and more respectful of each other’s work. There’s less copying and more original artworks.
Tattooing in Saigon, what do you love the most and are there any challenges?
I love working with clients. I’m deeply into exploring the line between art and emotion. I’m blessed to be doing this, and I’ve met people and developed ideas I never would have had the chance to without it. Of course, there are challenges. It could be hard-to-handle skin, the client’s pain tolerance, or the location of the tattoo. But every challenge brings personal growth.
If you could choose one of your tattoos to explain your work, which is it and why?
I’m a freehand obsessive. It’s everything to me. So I’d choose any of my works with a freehand style and lots of contrast and detail that comes together to create a harmonious composition.
Do you have any favorite tattooists in Saigon or anywhere else?
Yes, I think @eternal________________, is a very talented artist in the industry.
And what’s next for you as a tattoo artist?
I’d like to travel. To create more original work. And to make lots of new and long-lasting relationships. The future is ours to create.
All images are the artists’ own. Translation by David Kaye.