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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: March 25, 2013

Phuc and Sue Tran – co-owners of Tsunami Tattoo

It’s a busy Saturday at Tsunami Tattoo, and Sue is answering phones while Phuc* tattoos. Married for twelve years, they lead busy lives: with two jobs each, a daughter, and another baby on the way. Phuc begins the afternoon with two clients: Hans is beginning a new tattoo of a woman atop a wild boar and Brian is touching up his tattoo of a Japanese dragon. When I ask each about their tattoos, both shrug and tell a vague story that amounts to, essentially, they just liked the way it looks.

We choose a lot of things in our life because they are beautiful to us. There are people, places and things whose beauty we resonate with in a powerful and personal way. They become our friends, our homes, and our art. Sometimes, we choose to make them permanent. Watching the familiar and loving way Phuc and Sue talk to one another, I think about the things that are created to be permanent, like tattoos and marriage.  They remain permanent when we agree to reaffirm their inherent beauty, to recognize the extraordinary combination of two magnificent designs: ink and skin, person and person.

*rhymes with “Luke,” in case you were curious


 Phuc- Being true to myself; living and working with integrity. Not wasting any moment of my day doing things that I don’t want to or have to do.

 Sue- I find honesty and integrity to be important to me. And a good work ethic. It’s not that I hold others to that standard, but for myself – it’s what’s important to me. And family.

 Phuc- Let me backtrack! It’s such a vague question. It’s like “what do you do?” That sort of question. I’d also say my wife is very important to me, daughter, my friends, things that are beautiful. I think, I hope, I try to go out of my way to experience or see things that are beautiful or pleasing everyday. I think that’s why we are here on earth, we were given five senses and I hope those five cylinders are firing all the time. Eat some good food. Hear some awesome music. See something beautiful. Hear a funny joke. Think about something important. Say something nice.


 Sue- I would say for me, it’s learning a new level of patience and openness. We have a two-and-a-half year old and it sounds very stereotypical to say “Oh that takes a lot of patience.” It’s not that she tries my patience, it’s just sort of allowing myself to stop and just allow her to explore. You know, we lead a pretty fast-paced life, we have a lot of balls in the air all the time, and I’ve really been trying to teach myself – even if we are running from one thing to another – if there is something that is a cool moment for her, to stop and let it happen for her. And just be patient about it.

Phuc- There were a couple things that happened to me: like family illness or things where I felt afraid to do them. I have a great therapist, and I saw him and said, “I don’t want to do this. It’s terrible and it’s scary.” And the response was “Tough shit. You gotta do it. That’s it.” He literally said that. You have to do things that kick you in the ass, to do things you don’t want to do. I think I’m constantly doing things that are going to make me feel uncomfortable or that are hard. I think it’s really easy to not do those things. Our natural disposition is to avoid doing the hard things.

 Sue- I think that goes back to what you were saying in the beginning about experiencing beauty, and experiencing pleasurable things. But, I know you Tran. And you push yourself to experience things that are also pushing your envelope, or scary or intimidating. And you do it, and you never complain about anything! You find the silver lining or the learning moment in those things. And it’s really inspiring.


 Sue- It’s very interesting. The more Phuc and I know each other, and we know each other’s backgrounds, we realize that Phuc being raised by a refugee family from another culture was very similar to me being raised by older parents, at least in ways our households were run. My parents were much older when they had me, and both of them were raised during or after the depression. It was a very similar set of rules and values and expectations. I credit my parents for giving me focus and a really good work ethic. And integrity.

 Phuc- I think to amplify something that you said, Sue, is that I think you can look at the way that you were raised and hold two very different feelings about that. It can create a lot of cognitive dissidence when you think, “My parents instilled me with a lot of great qualities and morals, but at the same time were super abusive and terrible.” And that’s a really hard thing for people to come to terms with and acknowledge and hold in some sort of psychic space. That’s not my answer, though! I would say that I learned really early on, because I was obsessed with comic books and the idea of self-actualization and the idea of creating your own identity. I think in some in-articulated way, I figured out that I can wear a leather jacket and combat boots, and now I’m a punk rocker. I just totally ditched this one thing, put on the trappings of another sub-culture and I’ve got this free ride into the punk scene. It was amazing! And if I put on some nerdy glasses and a cardigan, I get to hang out with the library geeks? Okay! I think that’s really empowering for me. And it’s part of the tattooing thing. Oh, I was born with this body and I want to decorate it a certain way or have it look a certain way. I think it’s empowering to be able to do that. But I do that with everything, I thinker with it.

 Sue- Oh, endlessly!

Phuc- I think psychically, emotionally. I’m constantly customizing and fine-tuning.

Left, Phuc, “loupes the needle”– inspecting it for any flaws, which could cause infection.


 Phuc- I also teach Latin and Greek at an independent school here in Portland. I love interacting with people. I love teaching and teaching young people. And I love Latin. I’m lucky to have two awesome jobs doing what I love to do.

 Sue- When I’m not here, I work for public broadcasting doing fundraising. It’s a mix of development and marketing. And, it’s funny, because I went through this phase maybe ten years ago where I thought, “Wow, maybe I should go into the corporate world because I could be making three times what I make at a nonprofit.” Ultimately, I realized that it’s really important to me to feel really good about where I’m working and what I’m doing. That has meaning for me. I work really hard, but I want to know I’m working for something I believe in. And I believe in public broadcasting.

 Phuc- Sue’s not the type to toot her own horn, but she was the president of Buy Local, and I think she – along with the rest of the board – really put Portland Buy Local on the map. You made it important and powerful.


 Phuc- Tattoos don’t mean anything to me. I love them because they look awesome. And they have meaning, but I think for me: do they mean something? Sure. Do they mean something to me? No.  If you have a print of Monet or Renoir, is isn’t about what it means, it’s just beautiful to look at.

 Sue- I agree. It’s definitely more of an aesthetic thing that I’m drawn to. We do see people who come in and they want to fit thirty years of life into a two-by-three inch portion of their body. That’s really a lot or pressure on the person getting the tattoo and the tattoo-er.

 Phuc- Yeah, and nobody would do that to a shirt or a pair of pants. You’d never say, “I want to get a skirt that represents life and what I’ve been through.” It’s the permanence, but everything is permanent and impermanent. I’m impermanent. When I’m dead, my tattoos will be wearing me. My tattoos will be around and I’ll be joining the Force.

I first met Sue and Phuc when Phuc was speaking at TEDxDirigo. See his talk by clicking here.

Find out more about Tsunami Tattoo by clicking here.





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