Should you get tattooed on vacation?

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You’re in a faraway land, it’s late and you’re a bit tipsy – prime time to get a permanent reminder of your trip, right? Before you dash into the nearest boardwalk or back alley tattoo parlor to get inked with an infinity symbol or sketchy script in a foreign language you don’t speak, read on.

That said, getting a tattoo during a trip affords a memorable experience, a unique souvenir and is often a highlight of travel tales for years to come. It can also get addictive.

“I have always wanted to get a bamboo tattoo and after three visits to Southeast Asia, finally did it,” said Lina Stock, co-owner of Divergent Travelers, who had a compass put on her upper back between her shoulder blades during a trip to Koh Phangan, Thailand. “The spot I got the tattoo was painful but the overall experience was great. I had a patient tattoo artist with great skill for detail.”

Many travelers who take the time to prep, research and plan their travel tattoos have a memorable – and positive – experience along with a permanent souvenir of their trip.

“I had been wanting to get a tattoo of birds in flight for a while to symbolize my free-spirited nature and love of travel,” said Elisabeth Wilson, who made the last-minute decision to get her tattoo done at a tattoo studio in Reykjavik, Iceland where her brother was getting his tattoo done. “It was surreal. The tattoo artist was American, and I really connected with him and his past work.”

“Getting a tattoo while traveling is much more memorable than getting it done in your hometown, as it adds to the overall vacation experience and creates a lasting impression,” said Jennifer Leckstrom, who along with her husband, has been tattooed during trips to Copenhagen, Florida, London, New Orleans and Thailand. “Getting tattooed while on vacation also provides you with an opportunity to learn about the area you’re visiting from a local, who will provide much more authentic information than any guide or hotel concierge.”

But for every positive permanent inking story, there are dozens of humorous and regrettable tattoo tales, from poor quality artwork to tattoos lost in translation. Before you join the ranks of tattooed travelers who got inked on vacay, read our tattoo tips. Then, get inspired with our list of where to go to get inked.

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Tattoo tips

Ready, set, tattoo! (Image: Jennifer Leckstrom)
Ready, set, tattoo! (Image: Jennifer Leckstrom)
  • Go to a pro: Tattoos are permanent. Even though it’s possible to lighten, cover and, in some cases, remove a tattoo, the process is costly and painful. Treat your tattoo as something you plan to keep for life. Tattoos done by amateurs not only can yield flawed tattoos, but can also lead to serious infection.
  • Safety first: Don’t get tattooed in sketchy places like outdoor venues, one-day events or unsanitary places. Make sure new needles are unwrapped and used for each person and that all tools are sanitized.
  • Think about it: If you’re not sure what design you want, tend to change your mind often, and/or don’t have enough money, now is not the time to get a tattoo. Same for getting your lover’s name tattooed on your body. It’s best not to make a long-term tattoo commitment based on potentially short-term feelings.
  • Do a trial run: Pre-trip, try out potential designs using temporary tattoos and save your money for a design and a talented tattoo artist for when you finally do decide on a design and destination. If you can, make an appointment with the tattoo studio in advance and go for an initial consultation. This will help you establish a rapport with the stranger who will be inking you for life. Plus, you can discuss your request, see the artist’s work and discuss any issues that might come up.
  • Don’t get lost in translation: It may seem like a great idea to come home with a lasting souvenir from your exotic travels abroad, but resist the urge to get permanently inked with unfamiliar symbols or intricate scripts like Chinese characters because one missed stroke or errant mark is all it takes to dramatically turn your meaningful word or phrase into meaningless scribble, profanity or unintentionally humorous gibberish. If you insist on getting a foreign language or symbol tattoo, make sure you know what it means in different cultures (find out by asking locals) and be sure your tattoo artist is comfortable writing in that script. Skip this research and you could end up on one of many blogs like Hanzi Smatter that poke fun at folks whose tattoos got lost in translation.
  • Research: Learn all you can about your potential tattoo artist. Ask around and check reviews. Talk to the artist, check out their portfolio of work and observe if they are busy/rushed, working in a sanitary environment, etc. A tattoo is likely to be with you forever, so don’t just run into the first tattoo parlor you see. Any artist who won’t make time to talk to you is likely not worth your time. Ultimately, you are looking for an artist with an excellent reputation and who specializes in the type of tattoo you want.“Prior to my trip in 2010, I asked a friend living in Bali where to get a tattoo. Her response: ‘Michael Franti [the musician] gets all his tattoos from a guy in Seminyak, I’ll see if I can find out where,’” said Linden Schaffer of wellness travel company Pravassa, who had two tattoos already before journeying to Bali, Indonesia to get two lines of Sanskrit etched on his body. “Unfortunately she wasn’t able to. I went to Bali thinking I wouldn’t be able to get one.”“One morning I found myself in a yoga class, in Seminyak, and the instructor had the most beautiful large back tattoo. After class, I asked for her artist,” said Schaffer. “Walking into the shop it was very clean and the artist spoke great English. He stenciled the tattoo by hand on my arm and asked me to sit facing him. I don’t like needles, so as he began I turned my head away from him and toward the wall. It was full of photos of him and Michael Franti – I had found the right place!”
  • Be Prepared: After much thought and consideration, be sure you are prepared for a tattoo. Folks with health problems like diabetes or who have circulation issues or are on blood thinning medications should refrain from getting tattoos as these issues can cause complications with pigment implantation and healing.
  • Prep: Don’t get a tattoo when you’re drunk as thinning blood as a result of a night out drinking directly affects the skin’s ability to absorb the ink (not to mention drinking often leads to impulsive, and sometimes, regrettable decisions). Be sure to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Don’t go tanning outside or in tanning beds or get sunburnt after getting inked.
  • Pack smart: Be sure to pack post-tattoo supplies like anti-bacterial soap and moisturizing lotion that are used post-tattoo.
  • Take care: After you get the tattoo, be sure to take care of it to ward off infection and fading and aid in healing. Reputable tattoo studios will provide you with tips for aftercare. Tattoos are comprised of hundreds or thousands of tiny punctures, essentially a giant open wound, so wash them with antibacterial soap multiple times each day, keep the tattoo moisturized and keep it out of the sun, saltwater, chlorine pool, hot tub and protect it from dusty destinations. Tattoos can take several weeks to heal so you might opt to get yours done toward the end of the vacation after you have enjoyed the beach, the pool and fun in the sun (don’t book your session on the last day in case the tattoo artist needs additional time).

Where to get tattooed

Traditional tribal tattoos are popular souvenirs of world travels. (Image: Lina Stock)
Traditional tribal tattoos are popular souvenirs of world travels. (Image: Lina Stock)

There are many tattoo styles out there, from traditional tribal tattoos to trendy new school styles. As tattoo art has grown in popularity, so has the desire to get inked with something truly unique, which is one of the reasons why tattoo tourism is an increasingly appealing option. There are many cool places where people can have unique tattoo experiences. We have rounded up the most iconic and sought after types.

Tahiti, French Polynesia

The tropical paradise that is the birthplace of tattoos is home to some of the world’s most magnificent tats traditionally tapped into a person’s skin with a boar’s tusk comb. During the process, an assistant helps the tattoo artist hold the skin taut while puncturing the skin with black ink to create traditional tribal designs. One of the most popular places to get a traditional Polynesian, Maori or Marquesan tatau is Mana’o Tattoo Studio in Papeete, Tahiti.

Thailand

Tap, tap, tap.... (Image: Jennifer Leckstrom)
Tap, tap, tap…. (Image: Jennifer Leckstrom)

Sak yant (sak means tattoo in Thai and yant is the Thai pronunciation for the Sanskrit word yantra, a mystical diagram) tattooing originated in ancient Southeast Asia. These tattoos are believed to offer protection because monks bless them and are believed to breathe life into the tattoos. Buddhist monks use a long metal rod with a sharp point at the end to create sacred geometric patterns, deities, animals and lines of Pali script, the language of Theravada Buddhism. One of the most popular places to get a sak yant tattoo is at Wat Bang Phra temple in Nakhon Pathon province, 200 kilometers south of Bangkok where tattoo master Luang Pi Nunn etches sak yant and Khmer yantra tattoos in the traditional way with more than 1,000 stitches. Nunn typically selects the tattoo based on a person’s aura. The entire process takes 15 to 45 minutes.

Philippines

For centuries, manbatek (tattoo artists) left locals with indelible and elaborate batek (tattoo). The artist taps a stick on an instrument that pierces the skin to form designs like intricate snakes, lizards and script. Husband-and-wife tattoo artists Jonathan Cena and Jean Sioson have revived these hand-tap tattoos at their shop Katribu Tatu in Buting, Pasig City in Manila, Philippines.

Japan

Irezumi (literally “insert ink”) is tattooing done woth metal needles attached to wooden sticks by silk thread. Irezumi has been a part of Japanese culture for centuries, but tattoos have been used for different purposes over time, from spiritual and decorative purposes to punishment and fashion. At the beginning of the Meiji Period in the 19th century, tattoos were outlawed, but the practice flourished underground, contributing its association to the yakuza (Japanese mafia) and criminality, beliefs that many still hold on to today. Traditional irezumi artists, who are often found via personal introduction, still use ancient techniques to create a massive body suit of tattoos that cover the arms, back, upper legs and chest. Artists like Bunshinshi Horimyo in the Saitama area of Tokyo, Japan use the tebori technique (literally “carve by hand”). The painful procedure is time consuming and can take years of weekly visits to complete, so travelers may want to opt for smaller, modern Japanese-style tattoos that can be done in one or two sittings.

American Samoa

For 2,000 years, the tradition of making tatau (tattoo) by hand has remained constant. Designs are tapped onto the skin with an au, a tattoo comb made from sharpened boar’s head teeth fastened to a wooden handle that is struck with a mallet. Traditionally put on young men when they reached puberty, the traditional, intricate pe’a tattoos covered the body from torso to knees. Typically the design includes a boat at the top, which symbolizes the ocean voyage that brought the original people to Samoa and carried their ancestors away. Many folks who yearn for a Samoan tattoo attend the annual Tisa’s Tattoo Festival at Tisa’s Barefoot Bar and Beach in Pago Pago, American Samoa to get one.

New Zealand

Ta Moko, or traditional Māori tattoos, are complex tattoos typically chiseled onto the face of the Māori, an indigenous people of New Zealand who came from Polynesia. Each moko tells a unique story of the wearer’s genealogy and social standing. Many Māori people wear it today to show cultural pride. Getting a traditional moko is painful. The skin is scarred and marked by tapping needles into the skin using a hand tool called an ihu. While the practice is reserved for members of the indigenous group, travelers can get traditional Maori tattoo designs and Samoan tattoos as well as kirituhi (more general tattoos and skin art) at Zealand Tattoo, a duo of tattoo studios in Christchurch and Queenstown, New Zealand.

California, United States

American tattoo designs have come a long way from the old school, single-color tattoos donned by sailors. Today’s complex, kaleidoscope-colored masterpieces are true pieces of art. Head to the oldest continually operated tattoo shop in the U.S., Outer Limits Tattoo in Long Beach, Calif. for some of the best traditional and custom designs. The classic American tattoo shop’s artists use a tattoo gun with a needle to puncture the skin and insert the ink, allowing for clearer, more precise lines and more intricate designs. Owner Kari Barba has been tattooing since 1979, and she specializes in realism, portraits and trash polka (red and black tattoos that resemble fine art collages).

Did you get a tattoo while traveling? Share with us in the comments.

Main Image: iStockPhoto/1001nights

Should you get tattooed on vacation? was last modified: April 10th, 2019 by Lauren Mack
Author: Lauren Mack (163 posts)

Lauren Mack has traveled to 40 countries on five continents, including Cuba, New Zealand, Peru and Tanzania. For many years, she called China, and then Taiwan, home. Countries at the beginning of the alphabet, particularly Antarctica, Argentina and Australia are on her travel bucket list. Lauren is a multimedia travel and food journalist and explorer based in New York City.