In her tiny Hanoi apartment, tattoo artist Ngoc inks middle-aged women whose lives have been upended by divorce or illness, each of them searching for healing through an art form that is still largely taboo in Vietnam.
Although attitudes are changing, tattoos remain associated with gangsters, prostitution and the criminal underground in the communist, broadly conservative country.
“I met many women who told me they loved tattoos but they were born at a time when no-one supported them, ” said Ngoc, who goes by the name “Ngoc Like”.
But some are choosing to push back against those old ideas, seeing body art as emancipation from some of the rigid societal norms they have lived by.
Getting inked is often a landmark moment in these women’s lives, Ngoc, 28, says.
“They have overcome that fear of social prejudice and have a personal wish to renew themselves... to open a new chapter in life.”
Educated and business-savvy, Ngoc was ridiculed when she started out as a tattoo artist less than a decade ago – with many assuming she did not go into the industry out of choice.
But she has since built up a solid, mostly female clientele.
“Being a tattoo artist, I have had to accept the fact that people dismiss my skill, my studies, my personality... They say: ‘You do this because you did not get good grades’.”
Just 4% of Vietnamese have tattoos, according to a small survey in 2015 by Vietnam market research firm Q&Me, the most recent data available. It also suggested that 25% of people “feel scared” when seeing body art.
But for Tran Ha Nguyen, a high school teacher, getting a tattoo was an act of celebration following a divorce from her “conservative and rigid” husband.
“My ex strongly opposed any tattoo on my body, ” she recalled.
After the separation, the 41-year-old said she wanted a clean break from her old self and to do things she would never have dared do in her previous life.
Also recovering from trauma, 46-year-old Nguyen Hong Thai chose a rose tattoo over a scar on her stomach, and the words “forever in my heart” on her arm, months after her husband died of lung cancer.
He had always wanted her to get inked.
“Now he’s gone, I think he would have wanted me to be strong, to be the person I had always been with him. The tattoos have given me strength and confidence (to do that)”, said Thai, with a huge smile. — AFP