Should you cover your tattoos when travelling?

Tattoo FAQ, Tattoo Tourism

/By

Kieran

I’m a frequent traveler and I often get asked by tattoo newbies if they’ll need to cover their tattoos while traveling. In the main, it’s okay to travel with tattoos.

And there really is no hard and fast rule about where and when you must cover your tattoos. But there are general principles that should be applied.

In this article let’s look at where and when you might want to cover up your tattoos while traveling abroad. And let’s discuss some of the common tattoo travel rules that I’ve learnt while being a heavily tattooed guy traveling in places like Iran.

But first, here’s an easy matrix to help you decide if you should cover up your tattoos when traveling.

 Religious CountryNon-Religious CountryGangs, Militias, TerroristsNo Gangs, Militias or Terrorists
AirportYesAdvisableYesAdvisable
CityAdvisableNoYesNo
Outskirts / RuralAdvisableNoYesNo
Religious SitesYesAdvisableYesAdvisable

Tattoo Travel | Style & Placement

First, the type of tattoo you have will determine the level of impact it may have on your travels. As the type or style of tattoo you have and its placement on your body will have the greatest impact on your travel plans.

As an example, if you have a facial tattoo you’ll need a new passport with a photo that incorporates the tattoo. If your passport doesn’t show you with the facial tattoo you might be rejected at the border.

Or, worse still, as your passport is your primary identification document while overseas, you might have your passport confiscated by the police if they can’t identify you using the photo in your passport.

In some less salubrious regions of the world a passport photo not showing your face exactly as it is with your facial tattoo could be an opening for you to be extorted by the authorities. In parts of South America, Central America and the Caribbean this could be a serious issue.

Facial tattoos can also be a barrier to entry for some sites. Authorities in charge of some holy sites might not allow you to enter if you have facial tattoos. Particularly sacred Islamic sites.

I’m heavily tattooed but I don’t have tattoos on my face, neck or hands. I can cover all my tattoos with a business shirt and jeans. As such, I’ve visited sites like the Shah Mosque (Isfahan Iran) and Shah Cheragh (Shiraz Iran) which are entirely inaccessible to people who can’t cover their tattoos.

Most religious or cultural sites in the Middle East will require you to cover your tattoos to visit. But sites like Shah Mosque and Shah Cheragh could land you in some serious trouble with the authorities if you tried to visit them with visible tattoos.

It’s not just religious and cultural sites the world over that become a problem for you as a traveler, when you have tattoos that you can’t cover up. Some cities and countries have problems with gangs and armed militias (or terrorists). Being easily identifiable because you have tattoos that you can’t cover up could put you at greater risk of harm.

With highly visible tattoos you become an easily identifiable foreigner because you don’t blend in with all the other foreigners (if any). And it’s easy for the scammers, gangsters and bad guys to track your movements.

Let’s take Cuban scammers as an example. In Cuba the scammers will walk you into places that inflate your prices and give the scammer a kickback. But if you’ve got easily identifiable tattoos that can’t be covered up, the scammer doesn’t even have to scam you and walk you into the establishments.

The Cuban scammers can simply tell all of the businesses that they get kickbacks from that the person with the facial tattoos is theirs. And then you’ll just get ripped off without ever being suckered into the scam.

I spent a few months during 2021 in Cuba watching from an airbnb balcony as these guys worked the tourists. And needless to say, I carried a long sleeve shirt with me when I went out and covered my tattoos when in local shops and restaurants.

I don’t generally worry about covering my leg tattoos as nobody really looks down. Unless you have a particular style of tattoo conveying a message that is taboo (or illegal) you needn’t worry so much about covering leg tattoos. With that said, common sense does apply to tattoos on the legs and elsewhere.

For example, if you’re in a country where homosexuality is illegal and you have a gay flat tattooed on your leg or another part of your body, you should cover it. Or if you’re in a country where drugs can land you a steep prison sentence and you have a huge marijuana leaf tattoo, you should cover it.

It’s much easier for people to accuse you of doing something illegal if you have a visible tattoo pertaining to that illegal activity. And in countries with high levels of corruption a tattoo pertaining to an illegal activity could see you extorted by the police.

Remember, not every country has the same rules, laws and norms. Always cover any tattoo that conveys a message that’s considered illegal or taboo in the country you’re visiting.

Tattoo Travel | Airports

If you’ve got sleeves or heavy ink it’s always a good idea to cover it when going through an airport. They say profiling doesn’t occur but it does. And if you’ve got visible ink you’re far more likely to get a ‘random’ search.

I remember sitting in an airport in Australia. From where I was seated I got to watch the Border Officers work. From what I saw, heavily tattooed people and pretty ladies were the biggest security threat.

Anyone with tattoos and all the pretty ladies, got pat-downs and had their bags checked. I’m not a pretty lady so I covered my tattoos and sailed through the airport security without any pat-downs or bag checks.

At the time I was a smoker. So I went outside for a cigarette and rolled up my sleeves because it was hot. On the way back in they saw my tattoos and I got a full bag inspection and a pat down. For the airport security guards, I suddenly had visible tattoos and became ‘dangerous’.

It might seem like I’m picking on the Aussies but I’m not. I’ve been through airports in Australia, the Middle East including Iran, Europe, Caribbean, Central and South America. And whenever I have the tattoos visible I’m far more likely to be stopped for a ‘random’ inspection by airport security.

So I cover all of my tattoos until I’m through airport security and at the gate. Once inside it really doesn’t matter. Airport security won’t bother harassing you once you’re already inside the terminal. 

Tattoo Travel | Destinations

There’s a lot said on the internet about various travel destinations and their friendliness towards tattooed people. And most of the articles I’ve seen are complete garbage aimed at trying to rank on Google and the other search engines.

These so called expert articles will list places like Denmark and Iran, along with others, as unfriendly to tattooed people. And while I can’t speak for all the destinations they list, I have visited most of them. And when I think of Denmark or Iran, I can’t say that either was inherently unfriendly to tattooed people.

People in Denmark couldn’t care less if you have tattoos. They won’t even bat en eyelid at a tattooed foreigner. Travel to Denmark with as may tattoos as you want. Nobody cares about your tattoos in Denmark.

Iran on the other hand has a few quirks. At sites of religious or cultural significance you must cover your tattoos. Everywhere else you can have visible tattoos. That is, if you want to be stopped every 10 seconds by somebody telling you that they love your tattoos and wanting a picture with you, the tattooed foreigner.

Persians love tattoos. Tattooing is a relatively recent phenomenon in Iran. Iran spent a few decades without any tattooists. And it’s definitely in vogue now.

Though for most of the youngsters with strict parents in Iran, getting a tattoo is still not an option. But they can dream and they will want to see your tattoos and talk about tattoos with you. So be prepared to be popular if you have visible tattoos in a place like Iran

For more travel related tattoo content

If you’re interested in travel and not just tattoos, you can follow us at inlovelyblue.com where I write about the places I’ve been. It’s only really on this site that I write about my love of tattoos.

Over at inlovelyblue.com I write travel articles, with the exception of one article on Tattoo Tourism. And its only the readers coming across from this blog that would know I’m heavily tattooed.

So follow us on here for tattoo content and over at inlovelyblue.com if you’re interested in seeing just how far a tattooed yahoo can travel.

I also frequently get tattooed while travelling abroad. And when I do that I’ll post about here.

Don’t forget, whether you’re traveling with tattoos, or to get some more tattoos, always use a VPN when travelling or hanging out in tattoo parlours

man with blackout sleeve in Köln Germany