As tattooing increasingly enters mainstream cultures all over the world, I am constantly asked where did I get my tattoos done, and I am constantly given the same look of horror at my response. Many of them are in fact from countries across South East Asia and Indonesia, which many people struggle to conceive as being a sensible or safe thing to do.
In many ways, women are the ones driving the current tattoo trend, which in my opinion is both on-point and fucking fantastic. Damning statistics continue to emerge, such as a survey back in 2012 that confirmed women were more tattooed than men in the US – a statement that only a few years ago would be considered laughable. Serving as both emblems of empowerment and badges of self-righteousness, women are now shutting down misconceptions that body ink is a man’s domain, and proving that no one is in control of their minds nor bodies. As an incessant traveller, I am always exposed to both females and males from different cultures who have succumbed to the global tattoo culture for various reasons, with it always being fascinating listening to their stories.
The truth of the matter is, as long as you know what to look out for, have a little big of common sense and most importantly trust in your instinct, you’ll be just dandy.
I personally like to get a piece of art from every country that we travel to, or that particularly means something to me – resulting in tattoos from Asia, Indonesia, Europe and the South Pacific. That doesn’t mean I’m any more careless – in effect it means I’m even more conscious about where and who I’m letting tattoo me.
The one country that I gave a miss was China, and for very good reason. Tattooing in China is still very taboo – even though admittedly they are coming round to the idea of permanently inking your skin, and more and more parlours are now popping up across the major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. However, despite the recent surge of interest in tattooing, the government remains slow to regulate the industry. This means that certain safety measures are not taken as seriously as in the western world, such as ensuring usage of new needles and wearing protective gloves. In the western world, disregard of such regulations would carry severe implications for the establishment and/or the artist in question – including loosing their license, heavy fines and even imprisonment.
To the Chinese, tattoos don’t carry much meaning at all, especially not that of rebellion or individuality like the most parts of the world. You’ll see many Chinese with ‘flash art’ tattoos, with really the main concern for them being that it’s in the right place, the right size, and its seen. I didn’t want to rule out China altogether, so I did my research and visited a few parlous – and no, I wasn’t convinced. I should also point out that being a white female with quite prominent tattoos in China was sometimes an issue. I mean, it wasn’t an issue to the point where I was asked to leave the room, but I was stared at profoundly, and made to feel quite uncomfortable when my ink was on show. I’ve heard quite a few times now that the Chinese assume white females with tattoos have a criminal background and can be dangerous – which is almost laughable, but a serious misconception they have about the culture of tattoos on women.
In places like Thailand, tattoos are rife and many tourists holiday there simply to update or add new artwork to themselves. Around every corner there is a tattoo parlour and an abundance of staff covered head to toe in Yak Sants (blessed tattoos carried out by a monk) and replica Buddha’s. The main draw to getting inked in Thailand is surely the cost. For a large piece of intricate handwork back in Europe or Australia it would set you back hundreds if not thousands. Expect to pay 30-40% of that when booking in at a Thai parlour. That does not mean, of course, that it’s any less of a serious decision. When both working and travelling in Thailand, I saw some of the best and some of the worst tattoos and tattoo parlours I’d ever seen – even completely and utterly misspelt quotes and mothers names (Nope, not kidding.)
My first point of call when I arrive in any given country is to usually turn to the internet and browse through multiple forums and discussions about which studios have a good reputation in the area and which certainly do not. However, I’ve found that this can often result in wasting a lot of time visiting studios which, in my opinion, are most definitely not up to scratch. I could give you a whole list of studios that were recommended online by people from all over, but as soon as I’d visit to check out the portfolios and speak with the artists I’d be straight back out the door in no time.
As you can imagine what I’m about to say – nothing works better than speaking to the locals and expats living in the area. Find out exact names of artists that they recommended, not just studios. Go there, and even name drop – it will show that you’ve put in the leg work to find him/her, and that you’ve come on a personal recommendation.
Make sure that the artist has a good enough level of English to understand what you after – it sounds silly and obvious, but this is a serious feat many people struggle with too little too late.
It’s also worth noting that there is more than one way to get inked in Thailand – the modern, more widely known electric needle/gun, and then the traditional bamboo needle. You’ll often see parlours in Thailand advertising ‘pain free tattoos’ and all sorts, but take it from someone who’s had both – it’s complete bollocks. Bamboo tattoos are made up of tiny, ridiculously precise jabs from an extremely sharp piece of bamboo, and they fucking hurt – not to mention take a considerable amount longer to finish. I’m sure some people would disagree, but my experience with bamboo tattooing had me literally running for the gun.
Indonesian culture, with regard to tattooing, is not far off of Thailand, with many locals covered in tattoos. From my experience, Indonesians tend to be less religious in their tattooing when compared to Thais, and go for artwork that better describes their individual self or personal style. They too have a traditional style of tattooing, called tapping, but I don’t know much about it apart from it uses pieces of wood and a needle (and I’d imagine a similar sensation to the bamboo procedure.)
Another very serious point I must make when tattooing abroad, is aftercare. When your in holiday-mode and excited to show off your new tattoo, you might find yourself forfeiting essential aftercare precautions and measures. It is absolutely imperative that you treat your new tattoo like a laceration or deep wound – because lets face it, it is. This means avoiding swimming pools, the ocean and lakes, and equally as important – the sun. Take quick showers and cover your newly acquired ink when exposed to the sun – I’m talking even a quick walk to the shops. You can do irreversible damage when you’re not careful, and I’ve seen far too many examples to even mention. If you can, try to get hold of Bepanthem or a local brand with similar ingredients, and apply religiously for a good 2 weeks of the healing process. It works a charm and significantly reduces itching when your tattoo starts to scab.
Tattooing abroad is nothing but exhilarating and potentially life changing (hopefully for the best!)
You’ll wear a souvenir for the rest of your life, so please don’t fuck it up. Take your time, ask lots of questions, and give yourself the time to heal.