Tips for getting a tattoo while traveling

Ian Carroll

Whether you’re covered in art from head to toe or still considering your first, getting a tattoo while traveling can be a great idea. At least, it can be if you take the proper precautions and find the right artist. However, getting a tattoo while traveling can also be a terrible mistake if it goes wrong. I’ve seen both sides of the story more than once. So today we’re going to go over a couple of tips to help you avoid a lifelong mistake. Because after all, a tattoo from your travels can be one of the best reminders of an incredible journey.

Why get a tattoo while traveling?

If you know you have a perfectly talented and trustworthy tattoo artist back home, you might ask why get a tattoo while traveling? It may sound risky, rushed, or unreasonable to you, but there are a lot of things about a good tattoo that you can’t get at home.

travel tattoo
Each adventure has a story, why not tell it with a tattoo?

Tattoos, after all, usually have some sort of sentimental value and a story behind them. If you’re on your first international expedition, or you make a lifelong friend on the road, a tattoo can help hold that memory for the rest of your life. Although a tattoo from an artist back home can hold a lot of significance, it won’t hold an entire tale of travel within it.

I got my first tattoo while traveling, actually. It was my fourth time traveling in Guatemala, and I had fallen in love with the country since the first. The country is famous for its volcanoes and I always wanted mountains on my body. Now, every time I look at my tattoo, I am reminded of the travels that formed me, the people I met, and the lessons I learned abroad during my first travel experiences. Naturally, a tattoo about Guatemala holds way more significance because I had it done in Guatemala by a Guatemalan artist. Even if I didn’t like how the art turned out, I wouldn’t have it any other way because the story is a part of the tattoo, and the tattoo is part of the story.

 The risks

Getting a tattoo while you’re traveling certainly sounds nice, but it comes with real risks that you have to take seriously. Otherwise, you could end up with a severe infection, a bad tattoo, or even a bloodborne pathogen. You’re not just risking a bad tattoo or a nasty healing process and scars, you’re actually risking a serious illness that could affect you for the rest of your life.

travel tattoo
A tattoo is made up of thousands of tiny holes in your skin, improper sanitation could be disastrous.

If you’re not familiar with the tattooing process, you may wonder how a tattoo could go so wrong. Well, there’s actually a lot of ways, unfortunately. First and foremost, if your artist doesn’t follow proper sanitation practices, you could be infected from the equipment, the area, or your tattoo artist’s body itself. That’s because a tattoo is really a giant open wound. It’s made out of hundreds of thousands of tiny holes straight through your skin to your blood. If germs get in there, you’re in for a nasty time.

Problems can be as minimal as an infection in your skin that causes bad scabbing and scarring, or it can be as major as a bloodborne pathogen. If you don’t know what I mean by that, it’s pretty much the worst-case scenario, so we’ll leave it at that. However, I don’t want to scare you off of the idea. If you take a couple of simple precautionary steps, you’ll have a safe and unforgettable experience. Here’s how.

Important precautionary steps:

#1 Research

travel tattoo
If you see someone with a piece you like, ask where they got it.

The most important first step to take is doing some research. This should be done online and in person. There’s nothing as valuable as people’s first-hand accounts of their experiences with a given tattoo shop or artist.

If someone produces high-quality work at the proper standard of cleanliness, they are sure to have their clients talking about it, both online and in person. It’s usually pretty easy to find reviews online. Often, the tattoo shops themselves will boast them on their websites, Facebook, or Instagram feeds. However, you do have to be a little wary of them selecting only the best.

So, also do a little first-hand research. If you’re not sure how to go about getting the local opinion, the best place to start is by asking around at the local bars and businesses. Although most of the travelers you meet will have tattoos from far off places, the people that live and work there are much more likely to have the inside scoop.

travel tattoo
Bars and clubs are the perfect place to find local ink.

Popular bars are always a sure bet to find people with artwork from the area. Go before they get busy, maybe just before happy hour. When the bartenders are just setting up, and no one’s around. Grab a seat, order a drink, tip well, and just start asking if they can point you towards any shops or people with local knowledge. You’re sure to make some great connections this way. Plus, if you see someone with quality ink around town that looks like they know the place well, don’t be afraid to complement their tattoo and ask where they got it. You might get lucky and find a local with a solid opinion.

#2 Proper sanitation

The good news is that unless you’re being tattooed in someone’s basement or in a back alley, you’re likely to be in a reputable shop where the artists take pride in a job well done. But just in case you’re skeptical, let’s go over the steps you should see your tattoo artist take to ensure proper sanitation.

travel tattoo
Each tattoo artist’s work space will look different, but they should all hold to the same standard of cleanliness.

First off, you should see them open a lot of packages. Needles should all be coming out of fresh plastic; the area should be clean and covered in paper towels of some sort. Ink containers should be brand new, never used twice. Often, all the equipment and the gun will be wrapped up in fresh saran wrap. They should use a fresh pair of gloves anytime they touch their equipment.

Most tattoo artists don’t change their gloves for everything they do the way a cook might, that’s OK. As long as they’re not leaving the work space or touching dirty things with their gloves, you’ll be alright. Most tattoo artists will sanitize your arm initially and then switch to a milder green soap mixture to use during the tattoo so that they don’t dry out your skin too much. They should definitely have their system dialed in, whatever it is. If they seem to be figuring things out as they go, that’s a big red flag that you’ve chosen the wrong artist.

#3 Don’t rush it

One of the biggest mistakes travelers make when getting a tattoo is trying to squeeze an appointment in where they don’t have time, haven’t done the proper research, or haven’t found the right artist. I mean, it’s pretty tempting to try to get that piece done before you fly out tomorrow. But if that means that you’re walking into the first shop you find without any foreknowledge of what you’re getting into, you may be in for a bad deal.

travel tattoo
Most tattoo shops are full from dusk till dawn with appointments. If you want work done by a talented artist, you’re likely to need to schedule far in advance.

Most of the best tattoo artists schedule months in advance, especially if you’re looking to get a bigger piece of work done. If you’re just getting a small memento, you can often schedule a day or two out. The most important thing is that you take the time to get an artist who’s up for the job you want done. Don’t settle for second best when it comes to a permanent decision. I’ve seen more than my fair share of ugly ink that came out of a rushed decision on the road. Sure, you’ll have a great story, but it might not be good enough to keep you from regretting that decision for the rest of your life.

So, if you’ve been considering getting a tattoo while you’re traveling, plan it in advance, do some research, and find the right artist for the job. If you follow these guidelines, you’ll be safe and set up with a one of a kind piece of artwork. There’s really no better way to immortalize your travels than to put it on your body.

I’ve done it, and I’ll tell you first hand, it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. So, take care, travel well, and always remember the incredible things you’ve done.

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ian-carroll is one of the authors writing for Outdoor Revival