From surgeon to scar-coverer: How backpacking Vietnam changed one woman’s life

Morning traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam (photo by Neil Moralee [] )

He’s got her hair clenched in his fist, ignoring her small cries. He drags the woman at his feet by her hair along the hot pavement. She is barely on her knees. He continues pulling, with a fearsome strength, as if her dark locks were more inclined to stay wrapped in his fingers than planted in her scalp.
Cars, buses, bikes, even the people clogging the busy Ho Chi Minh road rush past, but no one stops. A few even casually watch the scene unfold.
He’s tearing at her, raking her across the cement and into the street, when a motorcycle pulls to the side up ahead of them. The older man driving it barely has time to stop the bike as his granddaughter launches herself off the back, the only person running up to stop the attack.

• • •

Rose tattoo flash sheet (drawing by Justine Nguyen)

Three years ago, Justine Nguyen was on her way to becoming a military surgeon. With an interest in sciences and a great work ethic, she’d graduated high school in the International Baccalaureate program. That gave her enough university level credits to skip her first year of post-secondary, which she decided to use as a gap year to travel. At 18 years of age, Nguyen backpacked alone, first heading to Cambodia, then Thailand, ending in Vietnam, on a three-month long trip that would vastly alter the course of the next three years, and in turn, the rest of her life.

Nguyen’s parents immigrated to Canada from Vietnam before she was born, and along with giving her the gift of speaking a second language, would take her back to visit every few years throughout her childhood. Being able to speak Vietnamese helped her greatly throughout her trip, she says, but there were some things they could not have prepared her for.

What Nguyen couldn’t see in Vietnam as a child, was brutally obvious to her now — the prevalent culture of domestic abuse.

Sitting in what is now her tattoo studio, she recalls scenes of both incredible beauty and shocking violence. She’s hiked to historic and ornate temples, and swam in turquoise lagoons, but she has also been witness to women thrown off moving motorcycles, their husbands whipping their helmets after them. After seeing a few of these beatings, and the evidence of victims, walking the streets with acid-burned faces and scarred bodies, she could take no more. But stepping in to help a woman being dragged across the street was not enough, especially when everyone else around watched as if it was entertainment, or ignored the scene.

In Vietnam, Nguyen was a unique blend of tourist and local, able to appreciate the country from both sides. While she describes Cambodia and Thailand with a visitor’s star-eyed wonder, her tone changes when she details her time spent in Vietnam. There, the veil was lifted, and the nations’ struggles and shortcomings were visible to her. But before she could passionately care about these issues, Nguyen learned that this country was just a place like any other in a more underwhelming manner: boredom.

Rose tattoo flash sheet (drawing by Justine Nguyen)

During her trip into Vietnam, she stayed with family, living in a small town just outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Growing restless, Nguyen found herself wandering the streets, consistently winding up outside a tattoo parlour. Despite her plans to school as a surgeon, she had graduated her IB program majoring in the arts. She says now that she fell in love with travelling during her trip, so in love that she never wanted to do anything else, or anything that interfered with it.

With spare time on her hands, Nguyen decided to partake in a popular tourist activity — getting tattoos in Vietnam — but from the side of the locals, as the tattoo artist herself. She asked the parlour to take her in as an apprentice, to learn the craft as a hobby, but despite their agreement, they never taught her much. Tired of being misused as an understudy, and now using her background in medicine and the human body, Nguyen would walk into the market every morning to buy pig skins to practice on after watching the artists at work all day.

Because of that, today Nguyen can call herself a self-taught, fine-line tattoo artist, one of the first in North America. Most fine-line artists work out of Asia, although the style has rapid gained popularity worldwide in recent years. At the time when she began her practice, Nguyen says most people interested in these tattoos would be travelling to Los Angeles to the likes of Dr. Woo, and other famous artists. With such distance between her and any other fine-line tattoo artists, along with her visible talent, built Nguyen’s clientele quickly.

When she returned to Vancouver three years ago after that life-changing trip, Nguyen did not continue schooling to become a surgeon. What started as a personal pastime was soon picked up on by her friends, who in turn showed the work she had done on them to their friends until, by Nguyen’s estimate, she has tattooed about 80 per cent of her graduating class.

From there her business grew, and she now has not only her own studio and a degree in permanent makeup from a Florida tattoo school, but also world-wide recognition. Nguyen has had clients come from the United States, various South American and European countries, and even from as far away as Australia to have her art permanently marked on them.

Rose tattoo flash sheet (drawing by Justine Nguyen)

But Nguyen’s vision has always been bigger than that. Her initial plan to become a military surgeon was born out of a desire to help others, the same compassion that had her jumping off her grandfather’s motorcycle in the middle of a busy street to come to the aid of an abused woman. Ever since the abuse she witnessed in Vietnam and starting in her career as a tattoo artist, Nguyen has been planning the Little Rose Project.

In Vietnam, domestic abuse is perpetuated because of deeply ingrained cultural values. Traditional gender roles dictate that men are the breadwinners of the family, and that women be quiet, enduring wives. It’s a taboo and shameful subject, with the stigma being that the woman have done something wrong and deserve the abuse. Combined with the cultural emphasis on reconciliation rather than justice, it’s a vicious cycle that gives victims little to no way out.

As a 2015 study states 58 per cent of women in Vietnam have been victims of domestic abuse, and 87 per cent of those women do not turn to authorities for help. The first laws against domestic abuse in Vietnam were only instituted in 2007. Unless a dialogue is created, there will be no improvement for these women, who are left broken both inside and out, more often than not disfigured by acid, an accessible material in South Asia.

The Little Rose Project was created specifically for these victims, to not only raise awareness but to raise up the women themselves. For the past year, Nguyen has been holding flash tattoo days every few months, allowing customers to pay by donation for tiny roses she has designed. She chose the rose she says, for it’s gentle image and lack of superstitious connotation, for superstition also runs deep in Vietnamese culture.

In two days alone, during the last round of fundraising on July 22 and 23, she raised over $5,000. None of the proceeds are going to her, or her studio, Extinkt, though: she has been raising money to buy equipment such as needles, ink, sanitary and aftercare supplies, which she will use to tattoo permanent makeup and scar camouflaging over the scars of these victims, free of charge.

Rose tattoo flash sheet (drawing by Justine Nguyen)

Her final flash tattoo days took place on Oct. 7 and 8, with her trip to Vietnam beginning in December. It’ll be a month-long trip, with appointments filling up fast. Her aunt, who lives in Ho Chi Minh City, has been helping to find women in need. The mother of Nguyen’s boyfriend, who lives in Afghanistan, is also working on expanding the project there in the near future. One day, Nguyen hopes the Little Rose Project can extent to abuse and acid attack victims across all of South Asia.

This isn’t the only pro bono work that Nguyen does. On more than one occasion, she has opened up her studio to those with self-harm scars, covering them with tattoos.

For someone with so much success, and at such a young age, Nguyen is humble about it all.

“It’s nice,” she says with a laugh. “I still get to help people, but without 10 years of school!”

Edited by Lisa Hedmark

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