What better way is there to commemorate a life-altering travel experience than to literally ink a souvenir of it onto your body? It’s way cooler than a shell necklace. It will last longer than a bottle of rum. And your friends will want to see it more than those 200 digital photos of you drunk and sunburned.

If you haven’t already noticed, let me start off by saying I am very pro-tattoo. I have about 20 hours worth on my own body, and every one has its own story and meaning. However my appreciation of good tattoos has also resulted in a loathing of bad and generic tattoos. If this article stops one person from getting a sombrero in Mexico, a pot-leaf from Amsterdam, or anything else you will love and not cringe at when you are old, cute and wrinkled, then I will sleep a little bit better at night.

Here is my DO and DON’T guide to getting tattooed abroad (or anywhere):

DON’T make hasty decisions: “OMG! I can’t believe I’m getting a fairy riding a dragon blowing exploding heart bubbles on my butt!  Are you sure it’s super cute? Pinky swear? Don’t tell my mom?”

I know you’ve heard this before, but this thing is most likely going to be on your body for the rest of your life, treat yourself with some respect and make sure this is what you really want, especially if it is your first. I can’t find a concrete figure, but a large percentage of first tattoos are either removed (really painful laser surgery) or end up being covered up (with other tattoos).

And please don’t get tattooed while you’re drunk. Seriously. I’m going to make a lot of drinking references in this article so this sticks. Besides the obvious impaired judgment that alcohol lends, it also thins your blood. (Thin blood while getting tattooed equals more scabbing which results in more color falling off which means your tattoo will get ugly.)

pedro glez

DO know what you want before you ink yourself: “I’ve always wanted a flower, or the sun, or a butterfly? Maybe I’ll get ‘butterfly’ in Japanese because I’ve always liked Japan and I’m in Asia now and I flew here! Yeah!”

There are far too many dumb tattoos in the world. Think about it. It’s not like when some other girl at the bar has your dress and you can go home and change it, this baby is yours forever!

Make it unique.  Make it your own.  Ideally for any tattoo I recommend having an idea you’ve been tossing around in your head for a while. After you decide on an image, carry it around with you for at least a week. See how your opinion of it changes. Love can be fleeting, especially on the road.

That being said, part of the beauty of travel is embracing the moment. Do what feels right. Unless your dream tattoo looks like something here.

joe stump

DON’T settle when it comes to picking your artist: “Oooh, my feet hurt, I want to get it done here!  I’m sure he’s fine!  Don’t all tattoo artists have to go tattoo school together anyways?  And anyways, he’s fine if you know what I mean…”

Just like any profession, the possession of a title does not actually mean you are good at that profession. Please check out a few shops. Talk to the artists. Look at their work. Watch them work if possible. Do they look you in the eye? Do they have time for you? Is their studio clean? Do you like them?

When I was eighteen and visiting Amsterdam, my good friend Georgia wanted a shooting star tattoo, and me and another friend wanted piercings. We went into the first shop we found, and the owner/artist was a prick. “My shop is the oldest in Amsterdam! My tattoo will be perfect after you are put into your coffin!” He made fun of Georgia for wanting me in the room to watch him work. The result? A pretty but unsymmetrical star with shaky line work. Maybe we should have given our money to someone less cringe inducing?

DO your research if you’re getting a cultural symbol: “I really like this design, but I don’t like this line here and that line there, it would be prettier without them, no one at home understands Mandarin anyways!”

This has to be the thing that irritates me the most. If you’re going to walk around with this symbol on you forever, for goodness sake, DO YOUR RESEARCH! I am so sick of seeing star tattoos from Vietnam.  Most of the tourists get them because they are in Vietnam and don’t even realize it’s a socialist symbol!  The dual swallow tattoos on chests traditionally represents 10,000 sailed at sea, and are supposed to be a right hard earned, not just a decoration.  (I should watch my mouth, I actually have two great friends with the swallows, neither of whom has the miles.  Sorry to rag on you, you know who you are!)  And all those awesome Kmer-Thai tattoos you see all over the islands gracing the backs and bodies of tourists?  Each symbol has a very distinct purpose and intent, and are only supposed to be placed on very specific parts of the body. The protection spells offered only work, among other things, if certain mantras are chanted by monks while the tattoo is being created.

Be wary of getting something in another language just because it is “pretty.” When I was seventeen I went with my best friend Miriam to Reno, Nevada for a tattoo.  She got “peace” in Chinese.  She liked the symbol but wanted it without “that funny box.”  Luckily her artist was conscious enough to not do the tattoo without her knowing what he was tattooing.  “You have no ideas what that means without the box… I could be tattooing ‘dog turd’ on you for all you know about Chinese symbols.”  Unfortunately she went ahead with the tattoo.  It turned out lovely, but she almost broke my hand squeezing it during the painful process.

I had another friend named Heidi while traveling, who wasn’t so lucky.  She had an awesome Hebrew band on her arm. One day an Israeli walked into her bar and she immediately ran to the back and threw on a shirt to cover her tattoo. I laughed at her and asked about it later. “Oh! It’s so embarrassing!” she said, “I was young and loved the way Hebrew looked, so I just picked a random line from a book and brought it to my artist. I found out a year later it means ‘and Mr. John said’ or something dumb like that.”

If you can’t read it yourself, make damn sure you know what it says!

DON’T slack on safety: “Oh shoot! I forgot to wash my tattoo again! Whatever… I’ll just wash it extra good tonight after we get home from the bar!  Remind me?”

In addition to having a great portfolio, making time to answer your questions, and (in a perfect world) being incredibly good looking, you should also make sure your artist is up to date on safety regulations. Make sure a NEW needle is unwrapped and used for each person. Make sure all the equipment is sanitized in an autoclave, not a pressure cooker or crock-pot or the back sink. Disposable things are good. Disposable gloves for hands and disposable cups for the ink should always always always be used. The smell of alcohol should be detectable inside the studio. And no… not the kind you drink. If the studio feels dirty to you, get out!

All right, you did your research, you found a good and clean artist, you got the thing done, now take care of it! Memorize your tattoo care guide!

Being on vacation gives you an excuse to stop shaving your legs, not to slack on hygiene! Wash it regularly (twice a day to start) with anti-bacterial soap. Keep it moisturized (If you can’t find good scent-free lotion I found out baby diaper rash ointment works awesome, and you can find it basically anywhere). Keep it out of the sun and water. If you have to go swimming, go quickly! Don’t expose it to bacteria ridden places.  The hard part is finding the perfect design and actually getting it done.  You are almost home free now!  Just take care of it and show it off!

Example: While I was in Vang Vieng, Laos right after getting a huge back piece done, I heard multiple rumors about small cuts getting infected after fellow travelers partook in the famous tubing trip. I opted to party on dry land instead and keep my new art safe. I was kinda bummed not to be working my bikini in the tube party, but two years later my tattoo still looks fresh.

robert wallace

DO wear your tattoo proudly! “Look what I got in Bali, bitches! Best trip ever!  And now I’ll always remember it!  Have fun with your ten sarongs!  Bet you won’t have one left in ten years!”

And remember, part of getting a travel tattoo is to live in the present!

My best friend Georgia, who got that shooting star tattoo in Amsterdam? She says she wouldn’t change a thing about the experience. To her that shooting star will always remind her of that summer after we graduated and saw Europe.

To combat all my anti-drunken preaching: my friends Hannah, Lindsey, and Julie all have beautifully executed semi-matching nautical tattoos that were conceived after a late night in Peru and done the next day for about $10 a pop.

I have a small heart chakra done on my chest with a bamboo needle from the beach on Had Rin in Koh Phangan.  I thought about it only for hours before I committed.  It’s been four years and I still cherish it.

All of these rules besides the ones about safely are guidelines only!  Tattoos are awesome! Your body is a canvas for whatever you want it to be!  Go capture a moment in time!

ulf klose

This article would be incomplete without  a big shout-out to Poh from Monkey Magic Tattoo in Thailand.  He did my 16 hour back piece, and many of those hours were freehand. I laughed, sweat, and cried on his table, and I can’t wait to go back for more!  Please support him and his beautiful family if you ever end up in Pai and feel the hankering for a great new tattoo, or just stop in for a quick “Saw-wa-di-kah!” But take off your shoes first or else he’ll boot you right back out. The two unlabeled photos from above were taken in his shop and here is the first glimpse of the finished product:

Anyone have travel tattoo stories?  Give me your good, your bad, and your ugly!

*post written by Kyra Bramble. For more of Kyra’s writing head to her website.

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