A licensed English tattoo artist has opened his own studio in District 2, ushering in an element of professionalism for the local ink scene. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Fred Wissink.

In a dark alley, Lee Holman might be an intimidating sight. The tattoos covering his body and face create a menacing air, but he is friendly as he welcomes me to his tattoo shop in District 2.

Holman has lived in Vietnam for four years, working at bars and tattooing out of his home in Ho Chi Minh City. But just three months ago, he opened Exile Ink with business partner Matt Ayres. The studio is arguably the only tattoo shop in the country that could compete at international standards. Holman, from Plymouth, England, has more than 20 years of experience as a tattoo artist, and is licensed in the United Kingdom.

The studio itself is immaculate. With freshly painted walls and clean floors, Exile Ink is like any studio in the west. No ashtrays full of cigarettes or open bottles of whisky next to the ink here, a common sight at tattoo parlors in the city.

“What we offer is European certified artists operating to Euro health codes and standards,” Ayres wrote by email from an offshore oil rig where he works. “We aim to provide the standard of service you get in a studio in Europe, the States or elsewhere.”

The professionalism is clear. Everything from the custom-made tattoo guns to the ink and needles are clean and sterilised. They get the ink directly from a UK supplier, ensuring its quality and, more importantly, its authenticity.

But that was only after a few bumps in the road. Before they opened, Holman says they found a tattoo supply dealer in District 9 that claimed to have real equipment, and they decided to try it. They bought well-known ink brands that appeared to have identical labels to the real inks they were used to. Knowing there was a chance the ink could be fake, Holman’s girlfriend and Ayres volunteered to be guinea pigs. The next day their new tattoos ballooned. They had the ink tested and it turned out to have high levels of mercury.

“Now we do not buy tattoo products off anyone in Vietnam,” Holman says.

They also have hospital-grade sterilisation equipment. Safety, cleanliness and quality are Holman’s mantras: “I’ve taken all of the policies [from tattoo studios] in England and brought them here.”

That means he won’t tattoo anyone who is under 18, noticeably on drugs or drunk.

It wasn’t just finding proper supplies that was a challenge, but even finding a place to set up shop.

“Every time we would meet a landlord, they were horrified,” Holman says of local reaction to his and Ayre’s formidable frames and ink-covered skin.  “Most thought we were going to sell drugs or run girls because of the way we look.”

But eventually they landed a place and got permits to open. Now business is starting to pick up. Most of the customers are European expats, but to Holman’s surprise, he’s getting a lot of affluent Vietnamese, too — this in a country where many locals still associate inked skin with the mafia and crime.

Holman currently has one Vietnamese apprentice and also plans to bring in guest artists. Adrian Willard, a former apprentice of Holman’s who went on to become well known in the UK tattoo community, should be arriving at the beginning of this month. Willard specialises in old-school flash art tattoos, and Holman says between the two of them they have a lot to offer.

“We’ve got the old-school knowledge and the artistic ability,” he says.

Exile Ink is at 57 Xuan Thuy in District 2 and is open from Monday to Saturday, 10am to 8pm. Call 08 66 75 69 56 to set up an appointment.