Recently while we were in Rarotonga, Francisco got a beautiful Polynesian-style tattoo from Ti, one of their top tattoo artists.  I stood by as he went through the process of making sure Ti and his shop would be the right fit just as he’d done a hand full of times with other tattooists & shops over the years.  Francisco’s work in disease intervention, his past experience as a tattoo shop assistant for his best friend’s shop, our friendships with other tattoo artists, and his own personal experience make him a pretty discerning customer.  But when you’re talking about something that will live on your body forever, that can be imbued with such great personal meaning, command the attention and interest of others, and is done by inserting needles into the skin, being discerning seems like a pretty good idea!

Here are some tips based on our own checklist, to help you get great, safe tattoos while traveling or at home too:

Before you get one-

1. Consider doing a little research- googling “best (or top) tattoo artist in _” is one way to find out who’s earned an international reputation for good work in a given area. Checking out respected tattoo mags is another.  In both cases, If the artist or shop has a website, you may be able to browse the artists’ work to see if you like their style. And as always- ask the locals!

2. Check out the shop- drop in and take a look around while being respectful of artists working and any customers getting work done. Does the shop look clean? Would you eat there? How far from walk-in or street traffic are the tables where the work is done? Would you be comfortable there? If so…

3. Look through the artists’ books- when evaluating the art you find, try to focus on the quality of the work rather than whether or not you like the actual piece.  This can be hard if you really hate what the customer chose, but consider this: How’s the line work? The shading? The color? The dimension? The placement? You can also start to recognize the signature style of the artist this way. Does (s)he do a lot of fine line? Black & white? Portraits? How does this mesh with what you’re thinking of getting? If you find someone you like, before you even book a consult…

4. Be a slave to the autoclave- this is a machine used to sterilize the tools of the trade. Ask to see it, make sure it’s looks clean and that they’re not substituting a pressure cooker designed for food- they don’t get hot enough to sterilize. It should look like a 1950s toaster oven of sorts.  Ask if they have recent (within the last 2 months) spore tests.  Ask what practices they use to prevent the transmission of disease. Yep, we’re talking hepatitis, HIV, etc.  We want your tattoo to be the only lasting souvenir you leave with.

5. Ask about the artist’s schedule- if you find someone you like, make sure they’re not booked up beyond the time you’re in the area for the actual tattoo appointment or multiple appointments for larger pieces.  If their time works, schedule a consult with the artist and expect to come back with ideas, sketches, pictures, etc.  If they are there and free during your initial walk-in, it’s possible that this step could happen on the spot.

6. Vet the tattoo artist- how do you like the person behind the art? Does (s)he speak your language? Do you trust this person to poke you repeatedly with a needle? Does (s)he inspire confidence? Answer your questions patiently? Seem to really get what you’re looking for? Seem to want the job? Have a good attitude? You should have answered mostly yeses to the above. What does (s)he charge? Will (s)he be charging you by the hour (if so ask for a time estimate for your piece) or a flat rate for the piece?

7. Don’t just look for the ultimate bargain- there’s a saying in the tattoo community; “good tattoos aren’t cheap, and cheap tattoos aren’t good.”  Unlike most things you’ll ever purchase, this one will stay with you for life.  Spend more to get good quality if you have to- it’ll last longer too.  Getting inked by a great artist in a country where your currency is stronger is a good way to get good bang for your buck.

8. Check your desired control level- will your tattooist be using a stencil (s)he draws of your piece and puts on your body for you to both discuss and tweak before the first needle hits your skin? Or will (s)he be tattooing freehand? Francisco’s tattoo from Rarotonga- his 10th tattoo- is a large upper back piece that he was not able to see until it was finished- no sketch, no stencil, completely freehand and designed moment to moment.  He and I both agreed that it would be hard to handle that for a first tattoo.  I wore a stencil on my leg for an entire day after my initial consult to see how I felt about the piece I have planned. Think about what you’d prefer and ask what the tattooist’s method is.

For the big day-

9. Don’t drink and ink- Aside from the obvious- the potential for ending up with a piece you’ll cringe over the next day, and the rest of your days- alcohol also thins your blood.  This can cause you to bleed more, and in turn bleed out the ink.  This increases the need for touch-ups just when you think you’re healed, or once you’re off to your next location. This goes for hangovers too.

10. Be a stickler for safety- look around and make sure that any preventative measures the shop claimed to take are in place now.  Whatever you’ll be sitting or lying on should be clean.  Your tattooist should put on fresh latex gloves pulled from a box before setting up your station, and fresh ink should be poured into new small disposable cups (this goes for any other liquids or ointment too). Your new needle and tube should be unwrapped in front of you.  If your tattooist touches anything unsterilized, (s)he should change into another fresh pair of gloves before tattooing you.

11. Speak up- don’t be afraid to let your tattoo artist know if you need a break from any pain during the process- within reason.  If you take too many breaks, you’ll run the risk of swelling causing more discomfort. You can do it!

the skull was an existing tattoo Ti worked around

In the aftermath-

12. Commit to your aftercare- ask about and follow to the letter the advise of your pro in the days that follow, and stick around town long enough to handle any issues that may come up. Committing to your aftercare also involves good planning for when/where to get your tattoo.  If you’re traveling, it’s best if your lodging and your plans are conducive to a regimen that involves wearing the plastic wrapping for a few hours on the first day, regularly rinsing your tattoo with clean water in the first few days, staying out of the ocean, sand, dirt and other potential contaminants, and minimizing your physical activity so as not to rub, crack or otherwise compromise your healing tattoo.

13. Don’t be a picker- resist, no matter how hard, the urge to scratch, peel, or pick at your unhealed tattoo- unless you like the idea of tossing money into the wind, in which case, we’d prefer you toss it our way!

14. Avoid the sun- during the healing process avoid letting your tatt get direct sunlight. After it’s healed, apply sunblock like a fanatic.  Francisco’s tattoos look beautiful and sharp- even those he’s had for over ten years- because he never skips this step. Don’t let your gorgeous tattoo turn into a green fuzzy blob. Ever see those? They didn’t start out that way!

15. Final tip- don’t settle if you’re not sure- it’s much better to wait for the right combo of cleanliness, safety, art, talent, attitude and timing so you’ll have the best memories to go along with your tattoo.  I’m glad I did- or I’d probably have a green blob by now.

Got ink? If so, did you get it while on a trip? How was the experience? Haven’t got one yet but ready to take the leap? Tell us about it!

72 Responses to “How to get a Good, Safe Tattoo Abroad”

Comments (71) Pingbacks (1)
  1. Quite a comprehensive checklist – great for anyone considering a tattoo – anywhere. Love Francisco’s choice. Never had a tattoo, but have occasionally flirted with the idea. Maybe I’ll do it yet and I’ll be sure to go over this list before I do!

    • thanks cathy! yeah, i don’t think i’d really added up all the considerations until i wrote this down! strange how when it’s void of art we’re programmed already to be on high-alert when it comes to needles & blood. consider this my version of the safe sex campaign- ha ha. not going to give up on tattoos, but need to be safe :) i’ll let francisco know you like his work- he’ll love it! and if you decide to do it, let us know if you’d like referrals!

  2. Great post! I love tattoos and have five myself. I only got one on the road though, and it was while I was living in New Zealand. It’s my fingerprint, blown up to be about the size of my shoulder blade where it sits. Funny enough though, I totally threw all caution to the wind. I had a friend do it, and he did it while sitting on the edge of his bed while I was freaking out thinking I was making the biggest mistake ever.

    It turned out perfectly, though. And now I can’t go anywhere in a short sleeve or sleeveless shirt without someone commenting on it. It’s one of my faves!

    I’m currently working on a sleeve now with my artist while I’m saving up money back here in Tucson. I met a lot of travelers on the road who got tattoos while in South America and they looked good, but I would be a bit too nervous I think! I have to do a fair bit of research before I find an artist I like, and once I find them, I tend to stick to them!

    • thanks kelly! definitely appreciate the appreciation from a tatted gal who knows her stuff! that’s a GREAT idea for a tattoo! you should post it on our FB page! you know, many have lived (and well) to tell tales like yours (friend, bed, etc.) so in no way does not adhering to the suggestions=negative consequences, but i think for newbies or people who don’t know there are potential issues (like me pre-francisco!) it’s good to be able to make an educated decision- even to break the rules :)
      and as for sticking with faves, if it ain’t broke why fix it right?

  3. Great tips. I still don’t have a tattoo despite talking about getting one for over 15 years. Just haven’t had the cajones to pull the trigger. I thought about it lots while we were on the road, but again, just couldn’t pull the trigger. I know I’ll get at least one eventually, and it very well may be while I’m on the road, so these will definitely come in handy. Thanks for putting this together!

    • thanks adam, and ME TOO! have a deposit in, a sketch drawn, and now i wait til it becomes my financial priority to pay for it over taking another trip ;) finally got the right combo i mentioned in the post for myself and i’m sure you will at some point as well! and if not, as my dear friend’s mom says, our mothers made us just perfect as we are :)

  4. I never knew there was so much involved in getting a tattoo, but great advice! I almost got one when I was drunk and can honestly say my biggest concern was what it be of, so in retrospect I’m glad I never got one.

    • thanks laurel! i didn’t either! and then i met francisco ;) and breathed a big sigh of relief over not having done it earlier. but you know, not everyone makes it so involved and i’m hoping this doesn’t read as scare tactics. getting a tattoo should be FUN too after all! :)

  5. I only have one tattoo and it was from my first major travel experience ten years ago. I don’t want to get any others but I still look at this one and remember the time fondly.

    • thanks ayngelina! love that! think that’s the BEST way to feel about a tattoo- having it trigger fond memories about a rite of passage or great experience. good for you!

  6. I’ve got about 50 hours of ink, and the only ones I regret are the ones I got after being suckered in by the smooth-talking owner of a shop in South Korea. Luckily I was living there at the time, so when I got a wrap-around ankle tattoo that cut off the circulation and caused my foot to look like a grapefruit for three days, I wasn’t having to travel at the same time.

    I’ve also traveled with a fresh tattoo on my leg, and not only is it difficult to keep clean, but it certainly makes it more difficult to clamor over jungle temples or ride on wild animals when you’re constantly worried about your tattoo. If you are traveling and planning on getting a tattoo, I’d suggest either waiting until near the end of your trip, so most of the aftercare can be done in a known, sterile environment (i.e. not a hostel), or make sure that whatever you plan on doing after the tattoo doesn’t involve a lot of serious movement in the place with ink, excessive sun exposure, or swimming, all of which can make for an uncomfortable healing period, and probable degradation of the tattoo.

    • oh no! glad you healed from the s.korea debacle! and with 50 hours clocked, that is a pretty great record :)

      absolutely agree on the importance of timing (for optimum aftercare) if getting the tatt while traveling and may revise the post to emphasize that more. francisco and i parked ourselves in a spot we knew he could comfortably, responsibly care for his Raro tatt, and with enough time before flying home so that it wouldn’t be compromised, but you’re right- others may not know to do that and either have to forfeit some of their good time or the quality of their tattoo. thanks a bunch!

  7. I am not sure I would get a tattoo in the US, much less abroad. :) However, for those considering it, this is a really good, comprehensive checklist. I know there are issues about keeping it clean and worrying about diseases in other countries so it’s good to go in prepared if you are thinking about a tattoo when traveling.

    • thanks jeremy! yeah, wish it were different, but unfortunately that’s a concern everywhere! good thing is, a little info and inquiry can go a long way toward getting back to the fun of it :)

  8. good article, I am thinking of a tat in Tibet on day………..

  9. I have a funny story about a group of 18 year olds on GAP year in Europe. Their Mum’s were stalking them on Facebook, so they put out a rumour that they’d all had tattoos in Amsterdam. The Mums took the bait and really played up, “you’re going to have that cut out when you get back home”!!! etc. LOL!

    • oh that’s awesome john! the poor mums. guess that’s the risk they ran for snooping- ha ha. hey wait a minute…were you one of the 18 year olds?!?!

  10. Excellent article! I have seriously thought about getting tattoos while traveling to commemorate my experiences in other parts of the world. I have always chickened out though, thinking that it would be “safer” to do it at home… Your checklist is a great guide for the future.

    • awesome michael! glad you found it empowering rather than a trigger for greater caution. just what i meant it to be! we’ve seen amazing shops abroad and horrific shops at home and vice versa. think the positive side of tattoos becoming more mainstream again and the rise of cross-cultural media exchanges, etc. is that standards are spreading, so while you won’t find good practices in every shop everywhere, you can find more shops around the world with good practices. :)

  11. Careful with those shoulders; you might scare the kids around the pool!

    While we are not foreign to tattoos, we have never gotten one on the road. Now that we tend to spend quite a bit of time in each place we visit, that might change. Having said that, we have some of the world’s (IMHO) best artists here on the left coast, so I don’t really see the purpose in getting one when away from home base.

    • thanks guys and SO true! it’s an embarrassment of riches in your (even our) neck of the woods! one reason to get one elsewhere, would be if you were into collecting different styles (as many enthusiasts like francisco do) and wanted that style to be authenticated by a native of that place, or to just create an indelible physical mark as a memento of an experience (like a rite of passage, great adventure, etc).
      p.s. francisco has a beautiful eye tattoo on the back of each arm that i think could be far scarier to those kids! ha ha ;)

  12. great article!
    the first ‘travel’ tat i got i ignored every piece of advice in this article. i was drunk so it all seemed not to be too big a deal. halfway through i asked the artist where he learned. apparently in prison for trafficking drugs. oh dear. in his defence, his operation was clean and he had seemingly turned his life around. i did zero aftercare since i had to jump on a 20hr busride within a few minutes of it being completed.
    second time we had a trusted friend do it. i was only a little hungover.
    wish i had of read this a couple of years ago!
    cheers, jamie from cloudpeopleadventures.com

    • thanks jamie! omg wow! on your first artist ha ha. but you’re just fine and i’m sure your tatts are great! ooh and this is giving me an idea for some guest tattoo-related roam antics posts! :)

  13. This is awesome and terrifying… only because needles scare the crap out of me!! That first photos is really cool!

  14. Wow! This is quite an in-depth list! A lot of great tips here. I’m not a huge tattoo fan, but I know a lot of people like to get them while traveling. This is a must read for them!

  15. Very good check list for tattoo enthusiasts. I’m a whimp, I wouldn’t dream of getting one.

    • thanks inka! but whimp is definitely not a word i’d use to describe an adventurous lady like yourself :) tattoos aren’t for everyone!

  16. Great tips and advice guys. I have one but I did it back in the States and i have to admit that they thought of getting one in Thailand or anywhere in the developing world scares me…and I live in conflict countries :) Now that I’m married to a Japanese no more tattoos for me I guess…although I might sneak a new one in at some point.

  17. Getting a tattoo abroad has been on my mind for quite some time. But I’m still not sure of what I would like and where. I guess that’s something that I will feel at the moment and that will mean something, enough to make me want to tattoo it. These is a pretty comprehensive list of tips that are well worth reading before making that commitment.

    • thanks norbert! yeah, i think there are so many ways to approach getting tattoos. for some, the beauty of a piece- to adorn themselves- is enough. their bodies are their canvas and this is their artistic expression upon it. others want each piece to carry huge symbolic meaning. then of course there are folks who fall in between. for those of us on that latter side of the spectrum, it makes sense, like you’ve said, to give it a lot of thought and wait for the right fit. great tattoo artists will encourage that as well. :)

  18. Wow – great article! I have 15+ tattoos (and always crave more) but boy, do I wish I had started my collection with the knowledge I now have and that you have so succinctly put together here. Great work!

    Aside from the importance of hygienics, I can not stress enough how important it is to LOVE your design, artist and placement. Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions or request to see your design placed in different ways or in different sizes. The extra 20 minutes you spend getting it right will be well worth it -Trust me! And a true artist will appreciate your involvement and respect you all the more for being involved in YOUR work.

    I’m getting a new piece soon from a new (to me) artist and I’m super excited as it will honor my love for my son. YAY!

    • thanks so much lcw! absolutely agree on all points. have met with so many artists who were actually grateful not to be dealing with an “i dunno” client. best wishes on the new piece- what a beautiful reason for a tattoo! :)

  19. I worked in a shop for 3 years doing counterhelp, legal paperwork, and ordering and oh, man, I really feel lucky that I have that experience. Not only do I know what to look for in a reputable shop but I have the opportunity to help out friends and family when it comes to that choice.

    We’re looking to get some ink while abroad and I’m not going to deny that I have some reservations regarding the matter. Not to mention I plan on spending time on the beach and it puts a dent on that time. :P

    I am totally with you in regards to researching the shop you are interested. Also, remember that not every artist can accomplish the style that you are wanting. Seeing as it is a permanent fixture on your body, make sure that you do not settle!

    • thanks erica! wow- sure you and francisco could swap some fun shop tales! knowing all that you do, i’m sure you’ll continue to get beautiful tattoos here & abroad, like those you and shaun got for your 5 year wedding anniversary :)
      cheers to not settling for less!

  20. Wow – these are some excellent tips! I don’t have any tattoos but I have contemplated it a few times and of course the romantic notion of getting one abroad is appealing! Thanks for writing about all the important things you need to think of ahead of time.

    • thanks bethany! i like the idea of getting one while traveling too- as wearable reminder of a special place & time done in a style specific to that area. have some ideas, just need to get on the road :)

  21. Cool tatoo, great tips.

  22. Great list. Cool tattoo also. I’m a victim of drinking and inking. I’ve been thinking about fixing it up for years and almost did it when we were in the Philippines last year. One of these days I’ll need to get on it!

    • thanks cam! and francisco will love hearing that :) uh oh drink & ink! ha ha. as you said it can always be fixed up by someone great and i’m sure the story is a great one! care to share?

  23. wow, quite unique tattoo!

    • thanks sarah! the amazing thing about polynesian tattoos is that each tiny shape within the larger shape has a meaning, and those meanings come together to form a larger story, so yes, definitely unique! :)

  24. I love how the tattoo forms a larger story. Do you know what the story is?
    Great list of tips for those wanting to get a tattoo. I have lost the desire to get one but enjoy looking at them.

    • thanks caz! the over-arching meaning is protection. the 3 shapes on francisco’s neck are birds, which represent protection for travelers. their different sizes indicate protection in the past, present, and future. we’re going to have ti, the artist, provide us with a breakdown that we can include in a future post. :)

  25. This is great. I have been wanting a tattoo for the longest time and have NO idea where to start. I definitely want to get it on my indefinite around the world trip and have some kind of significance to it. I don’t want anything that is super obvious, kinda hidden and secretive… like the bottom of my foot (holy hell that would hurt).

    • thanks jenny! so glad you found this helpful! yes yes yes a tattoo on your foot would likely hurt…lots! but the tougher part would be the wear. hands and feet- the parts we use so much- are the toughest places to maintain great-looking tattoos. my guess is that with you being a skateboarding pro, it would wear even faster! but oh!!! that’s also probably part of the reason for wanting one there! your traveling foot? :)

  26. Great tips!!! My 1st tat was abroad. I was 14 and in the Bahamas haha!!!

  27. nice article — I did 4 on my trip. Panama, Uruguay, Berlin and Budapest. Nice reminders of some of the things I did while traveling.

    • thanks michael! wow, that’s fantastic! would love to see photos! well, assuming they are in places you can show ;)

  28. That is one bad ass tattoo! Only a truly talented artist can create a piece that is so well balanced yet not a mirror image from left to right. Bad. Ass.

    • thanks erin! i’ll relay that to francisco- he’ll love it :) it’s so great that you remark on the asymetry! ti told francisco that polynesian tattoos aren’t supposed to be symmetrical. the idea behind it, is that only god is perfect. so while they can be designed to look balanced as you mention, there are subtle (or not so subtle) differences on each side. so glad you like it!

  29. Thanks for the smart tips on getting a safe tattoo abroad!

  30. That tattoo looks great! I recently wrote a post on tattoos in Goa. Not the most hygienic shop I’ve been in… http://thatbackpacker.wordpress.com/2011/03/25/tattooed-in-goa/

  31. Wish I’d read this before getting my tattoo! Definitely didn’t take into account how big a part a language barrier can play. In the end got the tattoo I wanted but it definitely didn’t look the way I’d imagined it would. Anyway great post, especially for going through the before, during and after…

    • thanks philip! really appreciate it and the follow :) ooh! sorry about the language barrier impacting your tattoo. it’s so tough communicating about such fine details. hope you’re still happy with it! what did you get?

  32. thanks for this thorough tutorial. i’ve been thinking about getting a tattoo so this helped a lot. thanks for th info, and good luck with your tattoo.

  33. I got my first tattoo in the US when I was working there during the summer (it’s been 8 years now). I was really pleased with the shop and the artist. The whole place was spacious and clean, the artist really cool and helpful (especially since I almost passed out twice – what a wimp :) ) ). Even after 8 years my art looks amazing, really proud of taking that step. But as you know, once you start, you can’t stop. Last November I got another work done, once again on my back (the first one is on my lower back), this time it was done in my home town. The artist was once again really cool and in no time it was done. Again, I experienced pain, but more like a burning sensation. And yes, I want another one – this time above and around my ankle – I see that Francisco has one like that…I really like them, so I’m just waiting for a really big occasion to celebrate it with a tattoo – my parents are a little bit freaked out about this, they didn’t expect me to like the tattoos, but that’s life :)

    • thanks joseph! i’m soooooo glad that you’ve had such great experiences and that after 8 years, your first tatt still looks good- both are a testament to your wise choices! first, for vetting the shop and artist well, and likely knowing what you wanted. second, for taking care of it so well that it still looks great! your parents may not be psyched about you being into tattoos, but they should definitely be proud of you for making great choices around them in my humble opinion. good for you! :)

    • and p.s. some tattoo artists have to drink beer and whine like crazy when they get tattooed! you’re not a wimp! ;)

  34. Good read. There may be a lot of things to consider before having a tatto0 such as patience. Thanks for the tips.

  35. Hai, im off to Penryhn at the end of the year, will be a great trip to get away from it all…

    Doing research on getting a tattoo in Rarotonga…If T is free will try to go to him but also looking to go to Clive.
    I have a small budget but also know that when it comes to tattoos its the wrong place to safe money!

    Do you recall how long it took T to make that tatto and what did it end up costing?

    thanks for your reply

    Regards
    Matthias

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