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!

Blame it on the rain (she wrote, trying not to provoke a Milli Vanilli cyber sing-along) but today I’m cheered by looking back at photos of fun signs and t-shirts from Rarotonga.  They remind me of the Rartongan people we met- friendly, funny people who are quick to laugh, love to tease, and use the word “cheeky” to describe each other.

Rarotonga’s a small island, and while riding around the island via the main road (less than an hour), shopping in the market, and going out to eat, we saw plenty that cracked us up.

First, it’s impossible to miss the road signs, where the messages are important and spot-on, and the way they’re expressed makes them funny:

And then there are the self-deprecating jokes on t-shirts.  Rarotongans don’t take themselves too seriously to have a laugh at others’ perceptions…or misperceptions:

that's what we said!

And finally the signs in restaurants…we’re all fair game:

oh my!

what a sucker

Have photos of funny signs from places you’ve been? We’d love to see them! Feel free to share them on our Facebook page!

It’s true that you don’t need to go to Rarotonga to enjoy a great sunset.  In fact, in most parts of the world you could even just stay home and watch the sun set every day.  But how often do you do that?

Sunset from Rarotonga Backpackers Beachside

I honestly, unfortunately,  can’t remember the last time we took the time to do that at home- just pull up a front row seat to watch a glorious end of a day.  Sure, there are times when, while taking a walk or driving in the car, we’ll happen to catch sight of a beautifully lit sky and take note of how the twilight colors objects so well.

Maybe it’ll be remarkable enough to share aloud or prompt us to fumble to find a camera quickly as it passes from view, buried behind skyscrapers, trees, and such.  But more often than not, it’s barely a passing thought- like today.  The sun is setting as I write this.

Yet somehow, while traveling, we make the time.  Especially while traveling to beach locales.  Our pace is slowed and whatever we’ve chosen to do with our day is put aside to sit and watch the final hour of daylight come to pass.

Rarotonga is the kind of place that naturally promotes in it’s visitors taking time to enjoy sunsets and stillness.  It runs on island time.  And while I’d be hard-pressed to say whether they have the best sunsets you could ever see, they certainly are beautiful even on a cloudy day.  And their beauty is magnified by what they symbolize- us taking the time, nearly every day, to enjoy them.

Arriving to RAR by plane felt like arriving to a party at which we were part of a group of honored guests. We landed at sunrise, stepped onto the tarmac and into the small airport ready to deal with the normally tedious task of going through customs.  But, there with his voice and a ukulele, was 70 year-old native Jake Numanga to serenade we new arrivals to Rarotonga from atop the baggage carousel.  And there he stayed and played until the last people (we) left the airport.

We’ve traveled quite a bit, arrived and passed through so many airports, and this was a first.  I was intrigued, and asked others about him during our stay.  Some refer to him as “Uncle” and say that no matter what time of the day or night, he can be found at the airport welcoming and bidding farewell to visitors, and that he’s done it for as long as they can remember.

Jake Numanga welcomes visitors

Jake was kind enough to talk with me before we boarded our flight back to the U.S.  Continue reading »

We’re leaving tomorrow morning for a place that I confess I knew nothing about two weeks ago.

Francisco and I had spent nights, and I mean nights, on dueling computers trying to find a flight we were willing to pay for…to anywhere warm.  We usually travel for much longer than two weeks at a time, when paying for higher priced flights (if you can’t find a deal) pays itself off in time spent abroad.  But this time it’s two weeks.  None of our old tricks were working, we were grouchy, and our vacation planning was taking the fun right out of the idea.  What the hell? How could it be that we were so incredibly flexible and yet we couldn’t find any deals except to the Caribbean in the height of the hurricane season?

The Caribbean is really inexpensive right now, and we’re pretty adventurous.  But we’ve had a not-so-great summer here in the Bay Area, and with only two weeks we’re not in a gambling state of mind.  We want some sunshine with our ocean and sand.

We were ready to give up on the bargain hunting and plunk down the big bucks when the Air New Zealand sale came up with Rarotonga as one of the destinations.  “Where the hell is Rarotonga?!” was followed by a quick info & image search that told us everything we needed to know.  We could go to this beautiful place in the Cook Islands with great weather, turquoise water, white sand, jungle, and some backpacker-friendly lodging, for half the price of anything else we’d found.

So now we’re about to experience an island that wouldn’t have made our list of places to visit because we had no idea it existed two weeks ago.  I love happy accidents, so here’s hoping that something that wasn’t even on the radar becomes a new favorite.

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