Getting a Tattoo
Safely illustrated in the city of Saigon.
Last Updated: November 05.2014
- Getting a tattoo in Vietnam can be a mark of a new start in a new land, but it’s not always safe
- Unsafe practices can involve toxic ink and the transmission of fatal diseases
- Lack of industry regulation has brought about a number of lax practices
- Exotic new inks can be rapidly adopted without proper testing
- When getting a tattoo, insist on sterilised needles and branded inks, and take a look through past clients
- Japanese-trained Tebori artists are generally more honourable by nature, but harder to find
- There are a number of reputable parlours mainly in the District 1 area
Whether or not you’re partial to becoming an illustrated man or a tattooed lady, there’s always some degree of mystique in the act of permanently marking the body. For many expats, the emotional and psychological transformation that accompanies leaving one’s home and putting down roots in an exotic country like Vietnam is most appropriately acknowledged with a thing of beauty that will forever change your body into an work of art. Without meaning to sound like an overly distraught parent, however, it’s worth pointing out – do some very careful thinking before you stick something in your body here, be it ink or otherwise.
Horror stories of shady Vietnamese tattoo parlours abound, especially concerning those around the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area where many expats on a tight budget just do not have the moola to walk into safe, higher calibre, and consequently pricier tattoo parlours. The most typical among these scare-em-straight tales involve cancer-causing toxic ink and reused needles contaminated with every strain of local transmissible disease available, HIV included.
The most pressing question for expats, then, is just how much truth there is to these tales? Sadly, the simple answer is that they’re very true – if said expats are not picky about who they trust with a needle.
Despite the fact that tattooing is a flourishing business in large cities like HCMC, Hanoi, and Danang, there is still no legal regulation governing this industry. Ideally, to open up a tattoo parlour, the owner/tattoo artist has to register the business with the local authority under the ‘body art - tattooing’ category and be subjected to regular inspections by the government’s medical department checking the appropriate hygiene standard. In reality, due partially to overly lengthy bureaucratic procedures, this doesn’t always happen.
Since tattooing deals with a lot with needles, the prospect of there being foreign chemicals or ‘medical garbage’ in the form of tainted human blood on them is quite significant. A good tattoo parlour should naturally submit to proper medical standards and maintain a meticulous level of hygiene where their needles are concerned. Again, this is something that is not necessarily the case in Vietnam. Because there is no regulatory department and no clear law regulating the tattooing industry, inept but enthusiastic tattoo artists can easily and cheaply open up shop registered under other forms of business, and thus not be hindered by such mild annoyances as medical inspections.
On the chemical side of the issue – namely the type of tattooing ink used – there is absolutely no regulation over which types of ink are safe for humans. The Vietnamese market is flooded with low-quality toxic inks due to its close proximity with low safety-conscious producer countries such as China. These inks are much cheaper than safe ink brands produced in Thailand, Korea, or the US, and are favoured by shady parlours that compete on cheap prices.
Since the tattooing industry is also influenced by new trends such as those from other fashion and beauty industries, when a new type of ink (such as glow-in-the-dark, neon ink, dark light ink, etc) is introduced on the market, there is no government-enforced chemical and medical test to ensure that the new ink is safe for human use, and adoption can be rapid and somewhat cavalier. While individual tattoo parlours can commission tests themselves, most don’t because of the costs in time and money involved.
Distinguishing Good and Bad Tattoo Parlours
Tattoos are for life, and unfortunately so are many of the health issues contracted due to a bad decision. It’s worth being a smart consumer and learning the cues to distinguish between good and bad tattoo parlours. The following details the bare minimum practices a tattoo parlour should follow to ensure a safe tattoo experience for its clients.
- Needle Inspection
Unlike the old days when tattoo artists had only a couple of needles with which to work their art, modern tattoo artists make use of mechanical tattooing guns with disposable needles. Industrial-manufactured needles are wrapped in bundles with each sterilised needle carefully separated from the rest so that each one can be taken out without contaminating the rest. There should also be a line on the packaging stating that these are sterilised and by which facility.Before committing to a parlour and before each tattooing session, ask to inspect the needles. If the needle package is torn and the needles inside have been exposed to outside contaminants, refuse to be tattooed. If there is no line specifying that these needles are sterilised, refuse to be tattooed. If the needles are presented in bundles with no proper industrial medical wrapping, refuse to be tattooed.
- Ink Check
The second most important check every expat looking forward to a new tattoo should perform concerns the ink itself. Bad quality tattoo ink can cause anything ranging from mild skin lesions or allergies to lethal chemical poisoning or skin cancer. While the range of bad tattoo inks are endless, the number of reputable tattoo ink brands is limited and can be easily listed: Intenze, Bloodline, Skincandy, Samo, Black Gold, Kuro Sumi (purely organic and vegan friendly), Tatwax, Eternal, AllaPrima, Iron Butterfly, Star Brite, Platinum 1 & 2.The inks listed above are more expensive than the average in the industry, but the safety they provide is well-worth the higher cost. Besides these, there are many other decent tattoo ink brands with much more forgiving prices. If you want to try ink brands from that list, take it as good advice to do some research about the brand before committing to it – after all, you’ll be living with that stuff under your skin. Check for words such as ‘sterilised’, ‘non-toxic content’, ‘non-metallic content’, ‘clinically tested safe for human use’, and so on.If the tattoo artist presents you with a tattoo ink with no clear labelling, brand name, or information on its production origin (e.g. company name, address), absolutely refuse to be tattooed no matter how cheap it is.
- History Check
A new quality check method that has only recently been recognised as important is a survey of a given parlour’s past clients. As a way to prove their credentials and reassure new customers who may worry about the dangers of getting a tattoo, many parlours keep a picture book of past customers. Picture books that have the faces of famous Vietnamese celebrities in them are a clear mark of quality. That being said, not all tattoo parlours maintain this book, and a tattoo parlour without a picture book does not necessarily mean it’s a bad one.
- Tebori tattoos:
Also called Tebori Ga, these are traditional hand-carved Japanese tattoos. True Tebori tattoo artists in HCMC are extraordinarily rare but not non-existent. Unlike with regular tattoos using mechanical tattoo guns, Tebori uses specific long metal needles and specific ink types – so quite obviously, the methods described above do not apply to Tebori. Tebori tattoo artists are much sought-after by enthusiasts. Although conmen pretending to be Tebori artists in HCMC are rarer than the real thing, they too are not entirely unheard of. A simple, rudimentary way to determine whether the artist you’re speaking to is the real deal is to casually ask which Horishi he/she underwent deshiiri under?Tattoo artists undergoing Tebori training still follow the artisan master-apprentice system even to this day (although there are changes to accommodate the modern lifestyle). The training time is called deshiiri and takes years to complete (the traditional length is five years of full-time apprenticing). The teaching master is called a Horishi. In Japan, Horishi is a way to address tattoo artists that still practice traditional Tebori. New-school tattoo artists are not called as such.There will also be a waiting time. Even in Japan, the homeland of Tebori arts, the number of true Tebori artists is a dwindling one, so any Horishi worth his salt will have a long waiting list of clients even without any marketing done.
These days, it’s no longer so difficult to find a place to get a tattoo. There are several streets within Ho Chi Minh City famous for being tattoo hotspots. These streets are mainly centred in District 1 – Nguyen Cu Trinh, Tran Hung Dao, Cong Quynh, and De Tham.
There are also several reputable HCMC tattoo brands and shops that are owned by known names within the Vietnamese tattoo aficionado community and/or Vietnamese celebrities. These shops generally have a higher price, but also guarantee a higher level of quality and safety. The two most popular tattoo chain shops in HCMC are Saigon Ink and Saigon Tattoo. Both of these franchises have five to seven shops in their chains, and the owners are known names in the tattoo community who have worked on many Vietnamese celebrities.
- Saigon INK | 26, Tran Hung Dao, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 38361090 | firstname.lastname@example.org
- Saigon Tattoo | 31B, Nguyen Du, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | | email@example.com
- Lac Viet TATTOO & Piercing | firstname.lastname@example.org
608, Dien Bien Phu, Ward 11, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 38304668
106, Pasteur, Ben Nghe, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam | 84 8 38217068
- Tattoo Guys | 102/59, Cong Quynh, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam |
(owned by Cuong Em, Vietnamese celebrity rocker and tattoo artist. That’s his personal mobile number, too.)