It was two and a half years ago when I first met Danis Nguyen. I was writing for now defunct Word Magazine and we had heard about a tattoo artist in Saigon who was gaining recognition for his work internationally, specifically among Australians who would arrange a holiday around their main reason for coming to Vietnam – to get a tattoo at Saigon Ink.
This had the makings of an interesting story. Usually (we thought at least) people got tattoos when travelling overseas as an afterthought, or because they had had such a great experience they wanted a permanent reminder or keepsake inked onto their bodies.
However, in this case, it appeared that things were happening in reverse. People were coming from Australia and other parts of the world expressly to Danis in Vietnam for a tattoo. A holiday before or after was an add-on if time and money allowed.
What had also piqued our interest with the story was that Westerners were willing to place their trust in an artist in a developing country where both tattooing skills and hygiene had a poor reputation.
However, Danis was building a trusted name globally for his creativity, precision and hygiene, so a growing number of people were willing to take the punt based on reviews and board a plane for nine hours from Australia just to get a tattoo done by him.
“I found he was doing large-scale work at a high level of precision and artistry”Anna Felicity Freedman, The World Atlas of Tattoo
Then in 2015, Danis was included in The World Atlas of Tattoo as one of 100 contemporary practitioners who are exemplars of the state of tattooing today. Compiled by American tattoo history and culture scholar, Anna Felicity Freedman, the atlas features a unique blend of historical and culture overviews of tattooing in different regions of the world.
When I contacted Ms Freedman, she said she had been “blown away” by Danis’ work: “I found he was doing large-scale work at a high level of precision and artistry. He was working in a variety of different styles that reflected global tattoo culture awareness and experimentation.”
During our editorial meeting for the issue that Danis’ story would ultimately feature, I put my hand up to do it. It appealed to me. We hadn’t covered a story like it while I was writing for the magazine; it was rare that stories like this came to us.
There had also been a whisper that he was planning to open a studio in Sydney or Melbourne, so our initial angle pushed by our editor was potentially about how this could be a new Vietnamese export to rival the success of Vietnamese nail salons in the West. I think in the end, our stand-first went something along those lines.
He stepped off the overnight bus from Nha Trang at 21 years of age with just the clothes on his back, enough money for two months rent, and probably the most valuable belonging in his possession, a dream
The story in general appealed to me because we would typically churn out expat, travel and street food stories. And if it was a story about a Vietnamese person, the angle might be about how they had picked up a skill or idea from abroad and were replicating it here in some form or another. The story of the couple who were inspired to take up making wax replicas of famous Vietnamese people after seeing Madame Tussauds in London comes to mind.
But Danis’ story was different.
Here was a local lad from a very modest family background who had grown up in Nha Trang on Vietnam’s southern coast and was now starting to do very well for himself. He had never lived or trained abroad, in fact, as I was about to find out during my interview with him, he had never been to Ho Chi Minh City until he stepped off the overnight bus from Nha Trang at 21 years of age with just the clothes on his back, enough money for two months rent, and probably the most valuable belonging in his possession, a dream.
“I saw Guns N’ Roses for the first time and I saw a photo of Slash who had a lot of tattoos,” Danis said at the time of our interview. “I loved them from then on and I started doing some research. That’s when I knew I wanted to come to Ho Chi Minh City to learn more about art and tattooing.”
And so I left that editorial meeting thinking I would meet this guy, squeeze enough information from him to write a 600 word piece on his plans to open up a tattoo studio in Australia, and move on to the next story for the issue and perhaps never see him again. How wrong I was.
We arranged to meet at his studio Saigon Ink on Tran Hung Dao Street in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1. At the time, the studio was undergoing renovations. He was juggling many things at once – phone calls, staff questions, construction work and now me. I expected the interview to bomb. It would be hard to get him to sit down, let alone expect him to summarise his life story in an hour uninterrupted.
In the shop next door which he had rented while Saigon Ink was getting its facelift and his 11 full-time artists who were labouring away on clients amid the clutter, we sat down for the interview.
Danis had taken his time replying to my requests for an interview because he was simply so busy. I had the feeling this story might go the way of others that just don’t get off the ground. But at least we had made it this far.
Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that here I was sitting in front of an individual who valued having his story told. Over numerous cups of tea, I listened to him tell that story.
He told me his recollection of Ho Chi Minh City the first time he saw it: “I don’t think it felt like home. It just felt like my place,” he said.
How that just six years after he stepped off that Nha Trang bus at 4am onto the gritty streets of Ho Chi Minh City, he had opened his first tattoo studio; remembering that this was the early 2000s and tattooing was still done underground in fear of getting caught by the authorities.
And how he had opened Saigon Ink (then in District 10) with money saved from working multiple jobs, including one he had selling powdered milk.
Indeed, since then, Danis has found his place and then some. Now on the eve of the opening of his new Saigon Ink Art Centre in the city’s District 2, a multi-purpose venue that includes a restaurant and outdoor events space called Saigon drInk, the next stage of Danis’ extraordinary story is about to add another chapter or two. The space is exceptional.
That we have managed to keep in touch since that first interview and become good friends is testament to his ability to unite people. I attended his wedding and like many others in his wide circle of friends, have enjoyed nights drinking and eating with him, sometimes on the gritty pavement in front of Saigon Ink on Tran Hung Dao Street.
We also worked together in promoting the very successful inaugural Saigon Tattoo Expo in November last year, in which he was an integral part of the organising committee. He seems to take everything in that gangly stride of his.
When I ask him why he set a precinct up like this, he replies in his usual self-deprecating way: “It’s a place for sharing our experience and skills in tattooing for the next generation,” he says.
Indeed his mantra hasn’t changed since our first meeting when he said: “I like to think that I’m someone who has changed the image of tattoos in Vietnamese society by encouraging others to look at it as art.”
Saigon Ink Art Centre and Saigon drInk are the manifestations of Danis’ dreams and ideals. Yes, he enjoys the trappings of what comes with hard-earned success, but you can tell that he enjoys them infinitely more when he shares them with others.
It comes as no surprise then that, with some of his closest friends, he has created a space so all the things dear to him in his life can coalesce – art, food, drink, and most importantly, family and friends.
I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds.
Saigon Ink Art Centre is at 37 Xuan Thuy Street, District 2, HCMC.
Saigon drInk starts its soft opening phase on Sunday Apr. 21