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Written by Kieran

Tattoo Tourism | Traveling For Ink

Kieran - author - tattoovagabond and inlovelyblue

Visiting museums and art galleries are a common part of travel and tourism. But for some people, those galleries include tattoo parlors. And tattoo tourism is actually a real term associated with a form of modern travel and tourism.

The art form of tattooing is itself over 5000 years old. But should you get a tattoo while traveling and why would you get one overseas, as opposed to at home? Well, to answer those questions, lets take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of tattoo tourism

Tattoo Tourism | What is tattoo tourism?

In its simplest terms, ‘tattoo tourism’ can be defined as acquiring tattoos while traveling, or traveling for the purposes of getting tattooed. Pretty simple, right?

Well, academics using flowery language will define tattoo tourism in terms of things like ‘temporal and social extension(s) in the process of remembering.’ 

Pulp Fiction meme in Tattoo tourism article
Hey, academia….

But those academics are full of s**t. Because those who can’t do, teach. I can disagree with the academics; because I have 8 university degrees and over 120 hours of tattoos acquired overseas.

I fall within the ‘tattoo tourism’ definition. I’m also educated in the psychoanalytics of body modification, sociology, philosophy and a bunch of non-relevant stuff like national security policy, diplomacy, defense strategy and the moral psychology of war. 

Yes, you can be both heavily tattooed and an educated overachiever

pulp fiction surprise mother fucker meme
Yup.

When I say that the type of travel everyone is calling ‘tattoo tourism’, is nothing more than just getting a tattoo while traveling; Irrespective of whether you’ve traveled specifically for the purpose of getting tattooed or not. Well, you can just believe me. 

Want my credentials? Not the bits of paper I have from academia, but pictures of some my tattoos? Here’s some of my qualifications acquired over a 15 year period….

Tattoo Tourism Full Sleeves rear view
All of my own tattoos have been acquired while traveling

Why get a tattoo abroad?

People get tattooed overseas for a multitude of reasons. But you can broadly break them down into three categories.

  1. Spur of the moment decisions;
  2. Those who want cheaper ink;
  3. Following a specific artist or style;

The most common reason for getting a tattoo overseas, is spur of the moment decisions. And these decisions often involve peer pressure, alcohol or both. Of course, those people are going to tell inquiring academics that it was part of a ‘process of remembering’.

A ‘process of remembering’ sounds a lot better than admitting to a researcher, that they got drunk and decided to get a tattoo on their face or neck. And I have seen that happen. Heck, at one time I found it fun to mess with people. I’d apply the peer pressure while passing them drinks.

The second most common reason for getting a tattoo abroad, is cheaper ink. These are the people that believe cheap ink is good ink. Spoiler alert – if cheap tattoos were good tattoos, then nobody would ever pay the exorbitant prices some artists charge.

Here’s a rather good tattoo price chart…

Lion Tattoo Meme
That free tattoo looks like regret. 

If cheap ink was good ink, the guy who works on the side of a dirt road in Potosi Bolivia using a converted hotdog cart full of old car batteries, would be the Picasso of the tattoo world.

He will give you a neck tattoo for the record low price of ‘un boliviano’ ($0.14). And he will be using the same needle he’s tattooed 50 other people with. I sh*t you not, that guy exists. I’ve met him.

The people who seek out cheap tattoos inevitably end up paying for an expensive tattoo, to cover up the cheap tattoo when they get home. Tattoo coverups are the bane of all good tattooists.

Spur of the moment decisions and the cheap tattoo crowd almost always end up going to the good artists when they get home, to have their crappy tattoos covered up. Getting a tattoo because it’s cheap, or because you’re drunk, is never going to end well

Travel for quality tattoos – Never for cheap tattoos!

A good idea is traveling for better quality tattoos or to follow specific artists and styles. The third group will travel specifically to good artists they’re familiar with. Or they will travel to get specific styles, that are better done in the destinations to which they travel. I fall into this category.

I travel to my artist. I’ve used the same primary artist for over a decade and do travel for the purposes of visiting him and having him do my tattoos. I get offered not just cheap, but free tattoos from time to time by other artists. And I politely decline.

I know what I want and I have a relationship of trust built up with my artist. I can tell my artist the basics of what I want. And I trust him to create the design and give me a quality tattoo. And I know each and every time that he will give me a better quality tattoo than is available in the location where I’m from.

I first met my artist when he was Peruvian, but now he’s German. I’ve traveled many times to Peru to visit him and lately, to Germany. He’s generally booked out several months in advance, but he fits me in.

And what’s more, he gives me a quality work I don’t need to pay somebody else to cover up. Unlike the other two groups of people who get tattooed overseas, I’m happy with my tattoos.

If only my tattooist didn’t like elbows and armpits so much…

Blackout tattoo in Germany
Elbows and armpits hurt the most.

What to avoid when getting a tattoo overseas?

So, how do I pick quality artists and what do I look for and avoid when choosing to get a tattoo overseas?

Well, I first look at the artists preferred style and pictures of their finished works. And I ensure the work I want is within the range of styles that tattooist specializes in.

You don’t get a specialist in black work to do an intricate colored piece. Or an artist that specializes in colored pieces to do black work.

If you ignore the styles an artist specializes in and try to get them to do a work that’s well outside their area of expertise; its the tattoo equivalent of calling an electrician to unblock your toilet. You just shouldn’t do it.

Mad Rabbit Numbing Cream
Mad Rabbit numbing cream – I used it on my right sleeve

Beware of unclean tattoo shops!

The second aspect you should pay attention to, is the tattoo studios reputation and hygiene standards. If they aren’t using disposable needles and cleaning everything properly between clients, then it should be an absolute deal breaker. No matter how good their designs or completed works look.

Blood borne illnesses are real in the tattoo game. The least of your worries would be an antibiotic resistant staph infection and the worst, hepatitis or aids.

If the shop doesn’t own and use a functional autoclave, that’s usually the first sign that the shop is probably not up to standard. You should pass on getting tattooed there.

The next is how often they disinfect the shop. If you never smell disinfectant and the place is visibly dusty or dirty, definitely decline getting tattooed at that shop and move on.

The final thing I look for when evaluating shops and artists, is the demand. If the artist is chasing clients, that’s not a good sign. But if clients are chasing the artist and the artist is always booking out, that’s a sign of quality work.

When they have a good reputation an artist and their shop are busy. But if the reputation is bad, they will always need to go out and find new clients.

Avoid getting tattooed by those who try to sell you tattoos and instead, get tattoos from artists who are so busy, they try not to sell you a tattoo.

Habana Vieja T-Shirt - Tattoo Vagabond
Checkout our range of graffiti tees

Advantages of tattoo tourism

Through ‘tattoo tourism’ and getting tattooed in a place you’ve traveled, you can gain access to a wider variety of artists and styles. If you’re home town is full of biker run parlors and backyard scratchers, you would probably be wise to get tattooed elsewhere.

Also, some specific styles are beyond appropriation by artists abroad. And they can only be properly carried out in the regions where they originated.

Polynesian, Indian or Peruvian tattoo designs for instance, require at least some understanding of the designs meaning; because you wouldn’t want to find out after getting tattooed that your new body art is actually indicative of somebody else’s family tree, or a menu item from a local restaurant.

Or you may want a particular tattoo to remain true to the original style from which it’s derived and want to be tattooed using the traditional tools and methods.

You wouldn’t visit a biker owned tattoo parlor in Australia and ask an artist to give you a hand poke tattoo in tebori style. But you could undertake tattoo tourism and travel to Japan.

‘Tattoo tourism’ allows you to gain access to artists who are better at completing the type of tattoo you’re seeking.

Disadvantages of tattoo tourism

In the touristic areas of some countries, you’ll encounter a lot of tattoo shops. This is because there’s quite a lot of those travelers who spontaneously get tattooed while traveling. Either because of peer pressure or alcohol. And tattoo shops in touristic areas, like any business the world over, seek to supply where the demand is strongest.

All over Latin America and Asia for example, you’ll find large numbers of tattoo shops clustered where there are the greatest numbers of tourists. And in those same locations, there are often large numbers of low quality artists. These are the artists who chase customers, as opposed to those tattoo artists who are chased by customers.

Tattooists crowded into touristic areas are generally counting on travelers being long gone before realizing their tattoos are bad. Or before they begin to develop an infection or regret the decisions that lead to the tattoo.

With that said, there are some good tattooist mixed in with the bad. As they get so much practice tattooing passing tourists, that they become amazing artists.

You just have to do your due diligence and check out the tattoo artists works and shop. And be aware of what you’re looking for and what you’re trying to avoid.

You certainly don’t want to regret it later..

tattoo tourism regrets
You don’t want any regrets.

Should you get a tattoo abroad?

If you can get the tattoo style you want, in the quality you expect and from an artist you can trust; then you absolutely should get tattooed while traveling. Often, as in my case, the artists visited overseas are better than local options.

Tattoos are for life. Get what you want and get it done by a quality artist. Avoid shops and artists that are below standard and you’ll be happy with your design. Don’t just get a tattoo because it’s cheap, or because everyone else got one.

If you decide to get a large tattoo abroad as a tattoo tourist, be sure to book a hotel and not an Airbnb. Your Airbnb host will not appreciate you inking up their premises.

tattoo ink stained bed sheets
Tattoo ink stained bed sheets

The Author – Where he’s been tattooed abroad

I’ve been tattooed primarily in Australia, Peru and Germany. I’ve had smaller works done in a few other countries, including Argentina. But my blackout sleeve was completed in Bonn, Germany.

In Peru, I’d recommend Wilka Tattoo in Cusco for tourist seeking Peruvian ink. And in Germany, I use and recommend jdavil_artblack for tattoos in Germany. If you’re in Switzerland, Gio de Bortoli tattooing in Zurich is a good option.

And remember, if you’re going to be hanging around tattoo studios in foreign lands, always use a VPN.

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