Tattooing in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
by Mike McCabe 2001
The streets of Phnom Penh Cambodia are blistered with potholes. Traveling down a street is a zigzag ballet avoiding craters that could easily swallow your motorbike taxi. Taxi drivers make graceful “S” turns around the craters and take the whole thing in stride.
When you walk the streets you are walking what was a genocidal battlefield during the 1970s when Pol Pot’s insane regime of the Khmer Rouge terrorized the country. Phnom Penh’s population of more than a million was drained and murdered to under 1000 people. People say when you pick up the soil here, you can squeeze the blood out of it.
Things have calmed down since 1996, when the Vietnamese and the international community stepped in to force out the Khmer Rouge. Government stability is an ongoing process, but people can now vote and slowly things will continue to change for the better. Until very recently, military personnel openly robbed tourists. A few were murdered and the tourist dollar disappeared. The government found out who among them was doing it, killed them and that was that. Cambodia desperately needs hard western currency for development. Tourism is very important. There is next to no infrastructure today but life here is getting better and people are optimistic. When the first of a half dozen traffic lights were installed, people stood at them commenting about the nice red, yellow and green colors. They thought they were decorations. There are no ATM machines and no movie theatres. A good road is being built now between Bangkok, Thailand and Phnom Penh that will revolutionize people’s lives.
Vibeke came to Phnom Penh with her husband Craig 6 years ago from Thailand where they had a tattoo shop. They now have Vibes Tattoo tel. 012-965-635, located on Street #240, house #40F. Vibeke is the only western style tattoo artists in the entire country of Cambodia. She and her husband are adventurers who like to live an independent lifestyle. “Three years ago,” she comments. “The town was really nice. Not many tourists, people walked the streets openly with guns. Westerners in Phnom Penh are a different breed. They don’t like rules and standard lifestyles.” The clientele at Vibes is all tourists. Originally it was all men because they were the only people who traveled here.
Vibeke enjoys doing her own designs for the customers. She likes dragons because each one is different. She enjoys the way they flow with the body. The issue of being a woman tattooer is not that important to her. She is an artist who works on the body. “You have to be quite brave to draw on somebody’s skin,” she says. “At first everyone gets butterflies doing it. Then you get more comfortable.” “The scene here can get scary if you go out late at night,” she reflects. “I don’t bring too much money with me. If somebody wants to rob me, I just give them the money.” She pauses and talks about her perspective on life, “I learn more and more that you don’t need all these rules in life. Little by little all the aspects of life work themselves out.”
She is tattooing a large dragon design on the right shoulder of a 29-year-old named Andrew. It is his first tattoo and it is a bold statement. The dragon curls around a central Yin-Yang motif. “I thought about this for years,” he describes. “When I saw the drawing Vibeke did for me, I knew this was the right tattoo.” The studio has a modern feel to it. There are photos on the wall of large tattoos that act as inspiration for customers. The neighborhood where the shop is located has tree-lined streets. There is a café across the street that could be in any cosmopolitan European city. At one point the Khmer Rouge cut all the trees down in the city but overlooked this area for some unknown reason. As Phnom Penh becomes more together, Vibeke and Craig may pull up stakes in search of a new town. They may feel more comfortable staying one step ahead of the rapid development in this part of the world.