Tattoos and international travel have been connected since the unholy start of times.
I’m sure ya’ll are familiar with sailor tattoos. For seafarers, tattoos were badges of honour that allowed them to showcase their travels like human log books. No tramp stamp was without meaning! Hula girls meant you’d been to Hawaii, HOLD FAST knuckle tats brought good luck on stormy seas, and 5,000 nautical miles sailed earned you one swallow.
Nowadays these traditions have been picked up by modern nomads and gap-year kids prancing around the planet. For many travellers, tattoos show their journey – just like with our old-timey sailor friends.
Almost all of my tattoos are souvenirs: only my first one is a keepsake from my native Finland. The rest of the collage I’ve picked up from here and there.
So with the great authority of someone who has been travelling and gathering tattoos from all over – and some contributions of the generally very-tattooed Broke Backpacker family – here are the ins and outs of getting inked on the go. Is it safe? Will you get banned from Japan? Will your family disown you if you come back covered in art?
Let’s find out.
Why You Should Get a Travel Tattoo
The neat thing about travel tattoos is that they’re not just pretty pictures – they’re souvenirs. (The easiest ones to carry, too, if you don’t like overloading your packing list!)
Travel-inspired tattoos are a great memory from a place you once loved.
On the other hand, they also preserve some part of an older version of you. Your 2.0 might not choose the same tattoos now as you did before your figurative software update, but they’re still nice reminders of where you’ve been and how far you’ve come. From home – or mentally.
They can serve as mile markers on your discovery into your beautiful self and the lessons you’ve learned on the road.
Shocking plot twist! Travel tattoos can also have a totally opposite meaning to travel – they can be reminders of home. Sailors used to get compass roses and nautical stars tattooed as symbols that they could always find their way home. For me, it’s the Big Dipper on my arm that makes me think of Finland. (I do also have a compass rose but fuck me if I know how to read it. The thing might be broken.)
As lifestyle hobos, it’s sometimes good to remind ourselves of where our roots lie.
But hey – tattoos don’t actually need to mean anything at all. People love to ask me ‘but WHAT DO YOUR TATTOOS MEAN??’ And I don’t regret that I don’t have a deeper answer than: ‘flower :)’.
Tattoos are dope, and they look dope, and how cool is it that whenever you want to see art, you can just gaze down at your own skin? You’re carrying around a whole art gallery and if that’s the only meaning behind your tattoos, that’s already pretty damn epic.
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The Experience of Travelling With Tattoos
As told by Ziggy, the Vice-Head of Hand Tattoos and Resident Ink Master at The Broke Backpacker
The more prominent your tattoos are, the more you stand out. Dems the breaks!
Even in Western countries, particularly unusual tattoos (hand tats, neck tats, etc.) garner you extra attention. This is increased tenfold in countries where foreigners already stick out like… well… a neck tat.
I’ve had strangers unprompted begin stroking my tattoos. I’ve been asked to flash gang signs in selfie-photoshoots with locals to feature my hand tats. And I get asked ‘what my tattoos mean’ way too often (there is no question in the world that shits me up the wall as much as this one).
BUT there is an upside! Tattoos can form a rather darling point of connection.
In countries where tattoos are uncommon, locals with their own tats will go out of their way to initiate a conversation with you. Most dealers will also pretty openly offer drugs to anyone with some wicked psychedelic tats. (Just be savvy when taking drugs while travelling!)
And sometimes, it’s really goddamn helpful to look like a foreigner. My hitchhiking experiences in Palestine can attest to that: none of the Arabs think you’re Jewish while none of the Jews think you’re Arab.
Overall, I wouldn’t say that being a rather painted human interferes with your travel experience excessively so. Perhaps it just modifies it a touch. There can be some negatives, but usually the experience is positive, or at the very least, quirky.
How to Get a Travel Tattoo
So now that you’re convinced that you cannot go a day more without decorating your skin, it’s time to hop onto the next step of the process. Lads and ladies, let me present to you: choosing your tat, finding an artist, and taking care of it so well that you won’t get a skin infection and die.
How to Choose Your Travel Tattoo
How do you communicate with just your skin that you’re SO COOL because you’ve TRAVELLED?
Will you go for the compass?
The coordinates to your favourite city?
Will you go big because travelling is so fun you’re definitely not going home and get the map of the whole world tattooed on you?
Well, you don’t actually HAVE to get a travel-themed travel tattoo.
I mean, you can, if you want. No judgement here. (Judgement will only be dealt out for racist and live, laugh, love tattoos.)
I only have one travel-themed tattoo: a compass rose I picked up in Lisbon, and a couple of others inspired by the places I’ve been to. The rest of it just came from random synapses of thoughts in my head forming an idea and my brain going, ‘OOH, PRETTY’.
There are myriads of iconic symbols for travel tattoos if you wanna take the road way well travelled. A good place to sus out some spicy inspiration is Pinterest. Or, if you’re feeling brave, you can always just march into a tattoo shop and pick something that tickles your pickle from their flash sheets.
Tattoos don’t necessarily have to be meaningful. They don’t even have to be unique! But they do have to be something you enjoy looking at.
Choosing a travel-inspired tattoo can be a tough choice. You don’t actually need to get a tattoo if you’re not sure what to get. Ideas tend to flow and if a good one comes to you, it will. But if you get a tattoo just for the sake of getting a tattoo, you might end up with something that you won’t vibe with in the future.
How to Find a Kickass Tattooist While on the Road
My preferred method of hunting is through Instagram. There’s much to be said about how terrible Instagram is, but it is unbeatable for finding and contacting tattoo artists. It lets you see their style and spy if they consistently do good work. Often artists also post pictures of healed tattoos. It’s the simplest way to make sure you’re getting a quality tat.
The most important thing is to pick an artist that does the style you want and is experienced in it. When I went to get my mountain tattoo in Macedonia, I knew that the artist had done a few neo-traditional pieces, but mostly she worked in watercolours. It still looks awesome – but the discrepancy in style in my soon-to-be traditional sleeve arm is something people keep pointing out.
(I was also hungover as hell that day and the tattoo bled A LOT. First rule of tattooing, kiddos: do not drink before. Drinking is a big travel problem so it’s better for you to lay off the booze for one night.)
Of course you don’t need all that fancy schmancy research if the experience of getting a tattoo is more important to you than the tattoo itself. I’ve run into many a wanderer with their skin full of little doodles by some half-scrupulous hostelside stick-and-poke tattooer. (I’ve heard of a guy doing it for a plate of tacos in a place here – immediately added that to my list of things to do in Canggu.)
Many tattoo shops also accept walk-ins if one day you wake up in the mood to upset your mama.
However, if you value guaranteed quality and an easy healing process, finding a reputable artist might be a worthwhile idea.
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How Much Do Tattoos Cost?
You’ll hate me when I say: it depends.
Obviously it depends on the style and the size of the tattoo but often on the artist, too: someone with a booking list the length of an ancient scroll is gonna want a bit more cash money than the guy in the corner.
One of the biggest reasons I love getting tattooed while on the road is actually the price. I’m from Finland where all the fun things cost a pretty penny. In countries where the general cost of living is lower, you can also expect services to have a smaller price – including tattoos. My favourite country to get tattooed in has been Brazil: many people are tattooed so excellent studios are all over the place, plus it’s very cheap.
You miiiiight end up paying a “tourist tax”, though. Foreign passport = multi billionaire, apparently, according to some people in some countries. Not naming names but, uh, I’m pretty sure Iranians don’t pay 100 USD for a tiny tattoo. That’s what I was quoted, and why I turned it down.
Granted that tattooing is illegal in Iran, but still…
There’s always a chance that as a foreigner, you’ll pay more than locals do. Fair enough – I’m well aware that as a Western traveller, I have some loose cash to toss around. It kinda stops being fair when the mark-up enters ridonkulous territory.
Here’s the catch, though: you should never argue with a tattoo artist about the price of the piece. There are better ways to save while budget backpacking. Often there are hidden costs you don’t even think about: the hours spent designing the piece, studio rental, taxes… There’s a reason why the artist values themselves at the price they want from you.
Not to mention that arguing will probably just piss the artist off. Most tattoo artists I’ve met have been lovely. Some do have the kind of egos you would expect from people who are legally allowed to stab others in the name of art.
If it’s too expensive for you, fair enough. Save up some more money, get a different tattoo or go somewhere else.
How to Take Care of a Fresh Tattoo While Travelling
You gotta remember that a tattoo is an open wound. A pretty wound fo sho but an open one anyway, and you gotta treat it like that. Apparently experts recommend that you let your new tattoo heal for at least two weeks before travelling. Hah! Those are normal people experts. The backpack nation doesn’t get to take two weeks off from adventuring.
I’ve never had any trouble healing my tattoos even while travelling but it’s good to sprinkle in a little extra care!
Is It Safe to Get Tattooed While Travelling?
If you’re worried about keeping it clean, then sure, that’s a valid concern. Tattoo aftercare is very important but not terribly tough – kinda like remembering to brush your teeth twice a day.
But if you find yourself asking, ‘Is it safe to get tattooed abroad?’, then my sweet summer child, you’re getting misguided.
“Abroad” isn’t some one-size-fits-all hellhole outside the bounds of your homeland. Actually suggesting that just because something is foreign it would be dirty and unhygienic is kinda xenophobic.
Sure, some countries have, uh, more lenient legislation when it comes to hygiene. Still, in most countries you’ll still be able to easily find a studio that follows all the same hygiene practices as the studios in your home country.
Make sure the artist is using new needles and that the studio looks clean. Make sure you know how to tell if a tattoo artist is bad. Or don’t – a lot of the normal precaution explodes into space if you’re getting one of those famous bamboo tattoos in Thailand or a stick-and-poke from some hipster in the hostel.
Don’t drink before. Do NOT surrender to the hostel bar’s happy hour the night before your tat. Alcohol thins your blood which means that you bleed a lot more while getting tattooed, and it can affect the quality of it. And being drunk or hungover doesn’t make the pain any easier – it can make it worse.
If you’ve avoided crappy craftmanship, then voilá! The hardest part is over and the healing process is generally easy-peasy, as long as you don’t pick on the picture. While travelling, you have to take a little extra care of the fresh ink since you’re likely to be more active than when healing a tattoo at home. Avoid extreme exercises and super-stunts until the tat is healed.
I remember hearing a story about a guy who decided to tackle Bolivia’s Death Road with a day-old tattoo. He fell and managed to basically scrape off the entire tattoo. OUCHIE.
How to Keep Your Tattoo Clean While Travelling
- Every artist will give slightly different care instructions re: keeping the plastic on, putting on cream, which cream to put on… Et cetera into infinity. If it’s your first tattoo, it’s best to do what the artist recommends, even if you’ve read something contrary on the interwebz.
- Protect extra well from sunlight and sea water.
- Can you fly after getting a tattoo? Absolutely yes. Pack some tattoo-friendly cream and wipes into hand luggage and wear loose-fitting clothes.
- Protect a fresh tattoo from dust/sunlight/prying hands of curious little children. For a few hours after getting it, cling wrap is your pal. Afterwards you can shield it from the elements with a (clean and washed) bandana if your clothes don’t cover it.
- Don’t pick at it. I repeat: DO NOT PICK AT IT. You risk messing up the lines if you paw at it. (Open wound, remember?)
- If a tattoo gets infected, it’s more likely due to shoddy tattooing than your half-hearted aftercare. When your cool new tat tries to kill you, it’s important that you have a good travel insurance policy in place. At The Broke Backpacker, we recommend World Nomads insurance. With good insurance, it won’t cost you a penny for a doctor to judge you for getting a back-alley tattoo.
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Tribal Tattoos in Traditional Villages: Tatted by a Living Legend
As experienced by Will, the OG Broke Backpacker and a Seeker of Curiosities
For the bravest backpackers, sanitised tattoo salons fall short of the real experience. I travelled into the jungles of the Philippines to get a stick-and-poke from the famed Whang Od.
Pushing the latter half of her 90s when I met her in 2015, she was the last Kalinga tattoo master. Occasionally she would tattoo Westerners – if she took a liking to you.
She agreed to tattoo me. Thank my fucking lucky stars – the trip to her village was not easy. I picked a fern; a symbol of rebirth and, I later found out, fertility.
Forget super-sanitary studio environments: Whang Od operates with a thorn, a stick and a bamboo hammer.
For long, Whang Od was the last living tattoo master of the Butbut tribe. Lately, she has been teaching the craft of tattoos to other girls in the village to carry on her legacy. I’ll always feel honoured to have been tattooed by this incredible woman – it was easily one of the highlights of my time in the Philippines.
Tattoo Taboos – Can You Get in Trouble Traveling with a Tattoo?
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: perchance don’t get a nazi tattoo. In Germany, it will get you arrested and anywhere else, probably the shit kicked out of you.
Moot point, anyway – I trust that TBB readers are better than that.
Having a tattoo still carries a bit of a stigma anywhere in the world. Even in the grand West where almost half of millenials are tatted up, there’s always a disgruntled suburban mum who thinks that tattoos automatically make you a hooligan. In countries where tattoos are fairly uncommon, they’re almost non-existent on women which surely shines an even bigger spotlight on a gal on her own. Just another fun aspect of the solo female travel experience!
In general, people everywhere are pretty chill about tattoos.
Take Middle East for example. Islam prohibits tattoos so you won’t run into too many tatted up locals around those parts. But people are not dumb: they understand that your culture is not their culture. Seeing tattoos on a foreigner doesn’t carry nearly the same weight as it would on a local, and tourists generally get a free pass.
Actually, having tattoos is usually a great ice breaker since people who are not used to seeing them are pretty curious about them. And the ones that have tattoos themselves love connecting with you over your shared love of ink. Travelling with tattoos wasn’t a problem for me even in Iran where the whole craft is illegal.
And as a woman (and I guess as a man, too) in the Middle East, most of the time you’re so covered up anyway that your tattoos can hardly cause a scandal.
Most religions seem to be pretty chill about using their symbols as decorations. (Never saw any Christian mums come for teenage girls during the Great Cross Fashion period of 2011.) However, with Buddha tattoos you have to be very, very careful.
In the Grand Place in Bangkok, Thailand, souvenir sellers are shaded by giant umbrellas with the words scripted on them: Buddha is for respecting; Not decoration; not tattoo.
Sri Lanka takes it one step further. Tourists have been arrested and deported from Sri Lanka for sporting visible Buddha tattoos. There isn’t a specific law banning tattoos of his jolly curvy figure but authorities take any perceived disrespect very seriously.
I don’t want to comment on the ethics of getting a religious tattoo or what I think of it: your body, your temple, literally, I guess? Just know that religious symbols are extremely holy to many people and some people might find religious tattoos offensive.
Travelling to Japan with Tattoos
Japan might be the most notorious of all tattoo-taboo countries. Traditionally, tattoos in Japan were only reserved for the members of Yakuza – the Japanese mafia – and so a tattooed person was automatically assumed to be a criminal. Onsens and tattoos don’t mix: Many of them have signs telling tattooed people to kindly fuck off.
Again, though, rules are different for foreigners. Your imagination has to stretch pretty far out to believe a blue-eyed, pink-haired, 5’4 Finnish girl with zero Japanese skills to be a part of the local mobsters. (You’d be more likely to mistake me for an anime character.)
Besides, the tattoo taboo has been loosening in the recent years as young people and celebrities have started getting tatted up. Getting a tattoo in Japan is not illegal (but it might be expensive).
From what I’ve heard, most tattooed tourists don’t face any trouble in Japan. Some onsens do restrict access to us tatted up folks but there are many others that don’t have a problem with a little ink on the skin. In an emergency (you know, the kind of when you just NEED to go to hot springs, I guess), smaller tattoos can be covered up.
Unique Travel Tattoos Connecting People
My second tattoo was a unicorn on my bicep. It’s a badass thing, charging down my arm mid-attack all furious glory and epicness. I got it done in London in 2016.
Months later, I was in Brazil for an exchange semester and decided to take a photography course. One of the Brazilian girls in my class came to chat with me and praised the unicorn on my arm. ‘It’s so cool!’ she told me. ‘I saw something similar a while ago and saved it on my phone, hold up.’
She pulled out her phone and showed me a screenshot – of the Instagram post my tattoo artist had made of my tattoo. Tens of thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, and this random Brazilian girl had had a picture of my arm on her phone long before we met.
It’s a small world and it seems like we’re all connected in the strangest of ways.
Life is Short – Get a Travel Tattoo
With absolutely zero scientific evidence, I feel very confident to say that travellers tend to be more tattooed than an average person. When you’re around people like that long enough, you might start thinking that you should get a tattoo as well. It’s the famous peer pressure your teachers always warned you about! Although instead of crack cocaine, it’s cool ass tattoos.
You don’t NEED to get a tattoo just because everyone else has one. Sure, it’s really cool, but if it’s not your style, there’s no reason to rush into it.
On the other hand – getting a tattoo is really not such a big deal. People make it out to be so. Countless tattoos later, my mum still won’t stop reminding me that they’re permanent (so are children, Mother dearest, and still you keep hounding me to have those?).
People worry what happens if they get sick of their tattoos. What do you do if you get sick of the shape of your nose? Tattoos become a part of your everyday looks so much that I barely even notice mine.
The day I realised I could decorate my body the way I wanted was the day my life changed. As a serial expat, my body really is my only permanent home, and I love that I’m able to put on tattoos like someone else might hang up a painting. And with every new picture it feels like I’m becoming more myself. My tattoos are not only memories and keepsakes, they also tell the world something about who I am as a person.
In the grander scheme of things, nothing is permanent. Life is short: get a travel tattoo. For the memories – or for shits and giggles.
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