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What to Know About Getting Tattooed on a Trip

By Nicole Antonio and Mekalyn Rose

Mar 3, 2020

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Ichi Tattoo Tokyo showcases traditional Japanese art styles in tattoos.

Courtesy of Ichi Tattoo Tokyo

Ichi Tattoo Tokyo showcases traditional Japanese art styles in tattoos.

We learned from experience so you don’t have to—heed our advice to set yourself up for permanent ink success.

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Getting a tattoo under any circumstances is a huge commitment, and with the added factor of traveling to have the work done, there are special considerations to keep in mind. The style and placement of the tattoo, as well as the nature of your trip, all play important roles in how you should approach planning.

Given the massive talent of tattooists around the world, you should absolutely travel to get inked! Here’s the smart way to get a tattoo on a trip and the cities with some of the best artists.

What to look for in a tattoo shop

The establishment should be as clean as a doctor’s office. Your new tattoo will basically be an open wound, so it should be treated with medical-grade sanitation standards. In the United States, tattoo parlors must follow strict rules set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). While legal requirements for tattoo shops vary by country, there are some details always worth checking.

If an artist tries to use a needle that isn’t unpackaged in front of you, ask explicitly if it’s been used before. (The answer should be no.) Similarly, if the tattoo ink is coming from anywhere but a bottle labeled by the manufacturer, or if the artist isn’t wearing gloves when touching your skin to apply the stencil, turn around. Neither reused needles nor reused ink are acceptable from a sanitation standpoint. It’s better to lose your deposit than to risk infection.

If you’re in a place where you can’t safely drink the tap water, ask about the soap solution at the artist’s workstation. You might need to request a separate solution made with bottled water.

When to schedule your tattoo appointment

You may want to schedule your tattoo appointment for late in your trip if your travels include a sunny destination or water sports because prolonged sun exposure and soaking will impair your tattoo’s ability to heal properly. Be extra liberal with sunscreen application, though—most tattoo artists will refuse to ink sunburned skin.

You should also avoid getting inked within 12 hours of consuming alcohol. Sure, matching tats are a fun idea at bachelor(ette) parties, but alcohol is a blood thinner that causes visibility issues for the artist during the tattooing process. The tattooing will take much longer if the artist has to constantly wipe away excess blood to clearly view the stencil and their progress.

Vagabond Tattoo in London has a reputation for extraordinary custom designs. Here, an artist sketches an original piece for a client, checking reference photos along the way.

Another important factor to think about before scheduling an appointment is where on your body you’ll be tattooed. Imagine a brutal sunburn where your new ink will be, and then imagine a 5- to 10-hour flight with constant pressure on that spot. That’s the worst case scenario for placement on the back, hips, rear thigh area, bum, and back of head. In those situations, it’s better to get tattooed earlier in your trip so the inked area isn’t as tender and raw on the flight home. (And keep in mind that tattoos with heavy shading take longer to heal than ones with simple line work.) If the tattoo is somewhere like your forearm or chest, the amount of time between the tattooing and the return flight is much less of a concern.

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Finally, listen to the artist about the estimated work time. Large pieces may require multiple sessions, and if you don’t want to spend a hefty chunk of your trip in the chair at a tattoo shop, you’re probably better off having the work done closer to home. The simplest option for both healing and timing purposes would be a black linework design, such as script or a flower outline. Returning to a far-flung shop for a touch-up will be a pain as well, so make sure your communication with the artist is crystal clear.

What to pack when you’re planning to get a tattoo

Your trip type will also affect what goes in your luggage. Bring Aquaphor or unscented lotion if you’re visiting a particularly dry part of the world; fresh ink requires lightweight moisturizer, and a lot of it. When getting tattooed in a cold destination, make sure to pack easily removable layers (such as zip-ups instead of pullovers) so you can moisturize with appropriate frequency. Those going to humid destinations should have antibacterial soap on hand because there’s greater likelihood of sweat, which increases the potential for infection in a new tattoo.

Regardless of where you’re going, be sure to pack loose, dark clothing. The pressure of skinny jeans and similarly constricting clothing is bad for a new tattoo—give it some breathing room! Also be aware that, for the first 24 hours, plasma and/or ink may bleed through bandages and clothing. This is normal, but to avoid stains, black clothes are your best bet for the first day or two.

The best places to travel for tattoos

Getting a tattoo on your travels is a great way to carry your stories back on your skin, a visual souvenir to highlight the culture and memories of a new destination. Scheduling a tattoo on vacation is also an opportunity to learn about a place through the lens of a local. Here are just a few of the best tattooing destinations and shops.

A surprising amount of realism is possible with black and gray inks. This tattoo by Kelsey van Leeuwen at New Amsterdam Tattoo Studio creates an exeptional level of detail with delicate dotwork and geometric accents.

San Antonio, Texas

As one of Texas’s largest and oldest cities with a diverse fusion of cultures, San Antonio’s dynamic art and tattoo scene has made it one of the top destinations to get a tattoo in the United States. Award-winning artists at the family owned Inception Tattoo have a knack for portraiture and craft custom designs for travelers with a penchant for biomechanical illustrations—photorealistic designs that look as if skin has been pulled back to reveal intricate machinery instead of muscle and bone. To the west, Firme Copias offers portraits, black-and-gray work, and neo-traditional pieces that typically depict animals, flowers, or people with bold lines and nonprimary colors. The upscale Ink Couture specializes in realism, watercolor, traditional, and 3-D styles. 

Artist Julia Rehme translates fine art into tattoos at Studio Noïa in Berlin.

Berlin, Germany

Peppered with eclectic galleries, iconic landmarks, and avant-garde graffiti, this city is overflowing with a spirit of individuality and resilience, and there’s no shortage of tattooing talent to capture the German capital’s historic and artistic culture. Progressive and queer friendly AKA Berlin is the place to go for not just tattoos and piercings but also for all things art; the shop doubles as a fine art studio, where several exhibitions are held each year. In the heart of Berlin’s Neukölln borough, Unikat Tattoo embraces thoughtful expressionist and abstract art with two locations to choose from, just a couple blocks apart: Unikat Black—focused on machine-made tattoos—and Unikat Poke—available for walk-in “stick and poke” pieces, which are done with just a needle and ink (no electric tattoo machine).

Near Berlin’s Museum of Medical History is Berlin Ink, with the option to get blackwork, traditional, tribal, or realistic imagery. For contemporary styles, Studio Noïa is an interdisciplinary private studio and collective with designs influenced by  illustration, painting, and graphic design.

An artist at Vagabond Tattoo in London traces a sketch to produce a temporary stencil that will help him and the client determine where to place the tattoo. Stencils don’t depict shading and color the same way a sketch does, so don’t hesitate to ask your artist for clarification when deciding if you want to resize or reposition the stencil before the actual tattooing begins.

London, United Kingdom

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Where street style, literary inspiration, and art history collide, London is home to some of the industry’s best and most innovative artists. Quality and versatility are emphasized at Modern Classic Tattoo in southwest London, where tattoo seekers can request small and elegant mementos or Japanese-style full-body suits. Some of the city’s top tattooists, including Nikole Lowe from the TV show London Ink, operate out of the zen-like Good Times Tattoo studio in Shoreditch, featuring creative designs in realism, traditional, and black-and-gray portraits. Located off the iconic Brick Lane in East London, Seven Doors is a world-renowned shop buzzing with vibrant animal illustrations and elaborate black-and-gray murals put to skin. Also to the east and voted London’s number one tattoo studio by Time Out, Vagabond Tattoo is dedicated to precision and originality with regular international guest artists.

At Temperance Tattoo in San Francisco, artist Cho specializes in merging pop culture icons such as the Creature from the Black Lagoon with a color-saturated style.

San Francisco, California

In 1974, Ed Hardy opened America’s first custom-only shop in San Francisco, establishing a legacy that continues at Tattoo City in North Beach. Swedish-owned Dream Masters Custom Tattoo, a boutique tattoo shop near Jackson Square, offers in-depth consultations and designs created with digital programs. In the vibrant Mission district, travelers can get fine-line and traditional American designs in the carefree atmosphere of Mission Ink Tattoo, or visit Black Serum Tattoo, where artists specialize specifically in blackwork. From sacred geometry and blackwork to vivid graphic and vintage, Temperance Tattoo near the Civic Center features a constantly rotating roster of guest artists who work alongside the resident artists, whose styles include Victorian-inspired still life, technicolor pop culture designs, and black-and- gray ornamentals.

Three Tides Tattoo guest artist Electric Martina uses bold lines and bright colors to make her traditional tattoo style pop.

Tokyo, Japan

In Tokyo, artists work under the wary eye of the Japanese government due to the tattoo scene’s roots in Yakuza, an organized crime syndicate, but this hasn’t stopped tattooists from reclaiming and destigmatizing some of the most stunning and revered styles of ink. Ichi Tattoo, a private studio featuring guest artists and specializing in traditional Japanese design, is versed in hannya masks, calligraphy, koi fish, and colorful animal illustrations. In Meguro ward, Rain Fall Tattoo blends old school British, American, and Japanese styles, while Spin Tattoo’s portfolio includes photorealistic black and gray, portrait, and anime. The artists of Studio Muscat in Shibuya ward offer Japanese tattoos with a modern twist—imagine a geisha with crashing waves as hair, or a realistic betta fish with a watercolor rainbow tail. Near Harajuku, Three Tides Tattoo is a tiny, comfortable oasis crafting traditional Japanese illustrations above the hustle and bustle of the famed shopping district.

Artist James Nidecker’s blackwork showcases New Amsterdam Tattoo Studio’s ornamental strengths.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

There’s a long-enduring tradition of artistic expression in the Dutch capital, and with a government that actively subsidizes the arts, it’s no wonder Amsterdam would be an ideal place to get a permanent souvenir. Located near the Van Gogh Museum, Salon Serpent Tattoo is the premiere shop for botanical, dotwork, ornamental, and realism with walk-in appointments available on weekdays. For abstract, graphic, neo-traditional, and one-of-a-kind freestyle watercolor tattoos, Flesh and Freedom is a fusion tattoo studio and art gallery in the heart of the city. Travelers interested in black-and-gray tattoos can head over to New Amsterdam Tattoo Studio, where artists specialize in dotwork, geometry, fine lines, and Polynesian designs. A one-minute walk from Dam Square, MotorInk Tattooing offers a variety of styles with influences of graffiti, realism, and old school iconography.

This piece done by an artist at Tattoo Hut depicts Barong, a force for good in Balinese mythology.

Bali, Indonesia

A tattoo in the tropics is a popular venture, especially in the spiritually minded hub of Bali. In Seminyak, Artful Ink Tattoo is known for using Alla Prima vegan ink from California with expertise in sacred geometry and styles influenced by Japan, as well as translating English into Balinese, Sanskrit, Italian, and Russian. Travelers can even drink fresh juice in the downstairs café while admiring their new ink. In downtown Kuta, the award-winning, Aussie-run Tattoo Hut is skilled in Asian and Balinese themed tattoos, while Bali Tattoo Studio, otherwise known as Gods of Ink, offers custom large-scale designs and free consultations. At the light-filled Koloni Tattoo in Canggu, the resident artists’ specialties vary from minimalist linework to intricate realism. In the same area, the family-run Charlie Rose Tattoo hosts traveling artists producing pieces inspired by geometry, North African art, and Polynesian patterns.

>>Next: The World’s Best Cities for Street Art

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