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A Do and Don’t Guide to Getting a Tattoo Souvenir

Written by 29 December 2011 22 Comments

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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  • Michelle said:

    Loved this post! Whenever I go anywhere, I always want to get a tattoo. Usually, I don’t because my ideas are always last minute inspirations and I don’t want to regret any of my tattoos. However, I got my second tattoo while I was in Thailand and my memory of that day will never leave me. It’s just a small tattoo of the words “and so it goes”, which I got because of plenty past travel experiences where something has gone wrong. I got it to remind me that no matter where I am, or what is happening, everything always works out in the end. That day, five girls went to get tattoos from the same man and we ended up spending the entire evening with him and his friends, swapping stories of our countries and learning how to spin fire balls(without the fire!). It’s one of my favorite memories of that trip.

  • Sophie said:

    good post!

    over in australia, the government are spreading warnings to all who’ve had a recent tattoo in Bali due to someone developing HIV after getting one done over there… none of the details have been released yet so it’s not for definite that they actually contracted HIV from the tattoo parlour but bad press is developing over tattoos while backpacking! It definitely made me nervous about the tattoo i got over there (a swallow, i might point out :), but the main thing to focus on is definitely the cleanliness of the parlour – make sure you SEE them break out brand-spanking-new needles!

    i know of incredible tattoo parlours in Melbourne and Brisbane, and also Bali if anyone needs to know!

  • Kyra said:

    Thanks for the positive feedback ladies!

    @Sophie: I hadn’t heard about the Bali tattoos, any idea where in Bali? Probably Kuta around Kuta? Super scary. Not a good souvenir. Thanks for spreading helping to spread the word.


    Something I also came across while researching was that there has been a recent surge of people getting intense reactions to black henna tattoos, specifically in Bali, India, and Hawaii. No natural henna is black. If it is black it has chemicals in it that cause reactions of varying severity to most people. Here is some info on that if anyone is interested: http://tattoo.about.com/od/hennainfo/a/blackhenna.htm

  • kellie peach said:

    Well done, Kyra!
    I am putting this on my blog.. xoox

  • India said:

    Kyra, your writing is always particularly on point. Loved this post. When my boyfriend and I were in Asia, he got a beautiful Ganesh on his shoulder. I was getting slightly annoyed at how many places he went to before he finally returned to the very first one we went to! Yes, shopping around is important, but trusting your gut is, as well. Now that we’re back in the states (temporarily, I hope), I love waking up to see a little piece of India staring at me from his shoulder every morning.

  • Melissa said:

    @Sophie: My fiance and I would love to get tattoos while on our honeymoon in Bali. You mentioned that you know some great tattoo parlors there. Would you mind sharing?

  • Melissa said:

    @Sophie: Would you mind sharing the tattoo parlors in Bali that you know to be good? Thanks!

  • Wftristan said:

    Great Advice here – The best advice I can give is that if you can walk into a studio and they can ink you straight ask yourself why can they do it right now ? I have to book my sessions 6 months in advance at the moment ( i have about 35-40 hours in the chair under my belt).
    A busy tattoo artist is often a good artist.


  • Cristina said:

    Got one in Bucharest in 2009. It was done to mark a lot of things, tbh. And got it in a studio, done by an artist. Looks awesome!:)

  • Jessica said:

    I went to the Hawaii islands for my birthday a few years back and to commiserate my trip with my Aunti and another amazing year around the sun I talked her into her first tattoo and an addition to one I had started. She had lived out there a few years so knew a great artist. I chose to go with the female artist as I really liked her work and got beautiful Plumaria flowers on my neck, she was way heavier on the needle than my own artist and charged an arm and a leg but thankfully both came out beautifully!

  • Z said:

    I’m visiting Amsterdam mid-june and have had this tattoo idea in my head for a long time. I was hoping to get it done when I visit. Can you suggest a tattoo artist who I could preferably contact via email/social media before hand to discuss the idea and get it done when I am there?


  • Steve C said:

    I got my Parrot tattoo at Two Thumbs Eddy’s in Singapore while on a two year RTW trip just over 25 years ago. I still love it and am glad I had it done. It’s the best souvenir of the whole trip.

  • Leo4573 said:

    If I want to get a tattoo while on a road trip should I have different cares? What about going to festivals? Should you avoid those because of the crowds and pushing?

  • cute girls games said:

    cute girls games…

    Travelettes » A Do and Don’t Guide to Getting a Tattoo Souvenir…

  • farzad momeni said:

    I want to travel to Italy for the tattoos on my body if I need some tips to get the address of the tattoo parlor you thank

  • Stephanie said:

    I have two travel tattoos, both of which I’m completely in love with. I would totally agree with your do’s and don’ts but even more to the point I agree with the awesome work that comes out of Monkey Magic Tattoo! Poh is the coolest, friendliest, most talented tattoo artist I’ve met. I got so lucky to run into a friend at my yoga training in Koh Samui who recommended him before I made my way north, I got a large side piece from him and can’t wait till I can go back for more!

  • Stacey said:

    Great advice! I agree with all of them, but especially about checking what something says if it’s in another language and you can’t read it. Oi. I actually think it’s weird to get something on yourself that you can’t read, but hey, to each their own.

    I’ve never found a tattoo personally that I liked for myself, but while I was on a backpacking trip through Thailand, I saw one that a girl had that I was in love with. I should have gotten a picture or something but I loved it.
    It was across both of her feet and it was a beautiful compass and the chain swirled around on both feet. I believe there was also a travel quote but I can’t remember now what it was.
    I’ve tried looking for compass tattoos online to see if I can find what I remember seeing, or something similar, but I haven’t been able to find anything quite like hers. If I were to get a tattoo, I think something like that would be the perfect fit for me.
    Anyway, great article!

  • Phoenix said:

    Oh i have a horrible and LARGE calf tattoo that was somewhat impulsive while i was in Italy >.<
    It's tribal and doesn't match any of my other tattoos… but it was free and i was excited to be in Italy! *sigh* To be young and impulsive, again…

    All my other travel tattoos i ADORE! but the rest were definitely more thought out, though, most weren't free…

  • Kristy said:

    I studied abroad in Spain, France and Argentina and I got a tattoo in all 3 places. I am now living in a different city in Spain (Madrid) and I am planning on getting a world map with all of the countries I’ve been to (16) colored in. :) I have 3 tattoos and none of them are from the US. :) I love it!

  • November Monthly Roundup | Teaching Wanderlust said:

    […] The only tattoo I have is one that I got while living in China (see Getting a Tattoo in the Hutongs of Beijing), but I am constantly finding tattoo designs that I like and looking for a tattoo parlor to try out.  This means, it is highly probable that I will have more souvenir tattoos in the years to come (I would love to get something done by KaTa while I’m in Europe this summer!).  Here are some tips on doing it right. […]

  • izat ali said:

    Hi everyone from my experience getting a tattoo overseas. In Asian countries are not worth it. There are so many things to consider…..

    1 the language barrier no matter how good English they speak, there are atleast 30%
    Of misunderstanding,,
    2 if something goes wrong it’s going to costs atleast 3 the price to fix if ur lucky plus the hassle of finding someone and the stress it just not worth it
    These are the 2 major one but the list goes on….. The chaces are very slim but why take the risk in the first place

    I had my tattoo in bali the other day everyone told me he is the best but my tattoo is ruined now. I stopped him in the middle when I go back home i will be lucky to get it fixed with out laser removing some of it. The i Cant have a cover tattoo it’s so big. Plus I don’t even want to have another tattoo this is what I always wanted if ur guys know what I mean

    I am so stressed now I have to wait for it to heal before I can do anything
    So please please everyone do not make the same mistake i made. The smart thing to do is learning from others mistake

  • Lisa said:

    Currently during my exchange year in Thailand. Yesterday I went with my thaifriends to get my first tattoo. The year I came to Thailand so ๒๕๕๗.
    The man who made it was very kind and it wasn’t dirty. I thought alot about it before making it and well yeah, I think it is the greatest memory of the best year of my life.

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