Tips for Getting a Tattoo in a Foreign Country
More can go into it than you think.
When I was 19 years old, I got it in my brain (I don’t know – 19 year olds get lots of crazy ideas, but I’m especially prone to them) to get a giant Japanese dragon tattooed across my foot. I saw a local artist in Seattle, it took several sessions and was pretty much the worst pain I had experienced in my life up until that point (little did I know).
Well the years pass and years are not exactly kind to color tattoos. 18 years later my Japanese dragon tattoo that I thought was going to be SO BADASS was looking as weathered and aged as my face after three kids was starting to look. So I decided it was time to redo the entire thing.
Being a bit of a tattoo purist, I head to the internet to see what the original artist is up to these days. Lo and behold, he lives in the Netherlands, where he still tattoos in Rotterdam. So we get to emailing, sending photos, and booking an appointment. Now, this is quite different than deciding to walk in and get a permanent souvenir of your travels — I recommend doing some pre-planning — but if you too get a whim and feel oh-so-inspired to get local art on your travel, be sure to read this to avoid pitfalls:
1. PLAN MORE TIME THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED.
Interruptions can happen, work can take longer, and design work is a key part of getting a tattoo. Unless you’ve emailed your artist specifics ahead of time, your artist may need some time to do some design work, which is an important part of the process. Oftentimes, they’ll ask you to come back once the design work is ready. My tattoo update needed five and a half hours because it ended up being a total rework. Because I couldn’t just “come back” for a touch up session, we were determined to get it all done in one day.
2. PLAN FOR THE UNEXPECTED.
My artist has spent the last few years in between when I was first tattooed as a tattoo freshman to now studying in Japan and learning how to be excellent at his craft. After taking the train to Rotterdam that day, I arrive, we consult and he informs me: ”I don’t do color work any other way than tebori.”
Tebori is the traditional Japanese method of putting a bunch of needles at the end of a stick, dipping it into the ink, then JAMMING THE COLOR UNDER YOUR SKIN. He swears this is less painful. LIES. ALL LIES. (He's a wonderful person despite). That hurt like a mother. I’d rather give unmedicated childbirth to all three of my kids at once. Nope. Nope. NEVER. Again. And somewhere deep down inside, I KNEW. I knew what was coming for me. While he prepared his work station, I went back to the waiting room and downed another Ativan. (At least I got to lie down):
3. CONSIDER PLACEMENT
This tattoo was on my foot, which posed some significant issues for the remainder of my travels. If your tattoo is going to be on your arm or other section of your body, you may be fine. Consider a shoulder tattoo may prohibit you from lugging around your backpack the rest of your trip, and foot tattoos – as I learned – prevent you from walking. After five and a half hours of needles going into my foot and feeling like they were getting jammed into my ankle bones, the foot goes through a lot of trauma. When your body parts go through trauma, they swell.
So there I was, with a foot swollen three times its original size, a flight to Sweden in the morning, and five days left of my trip. I couldn’t wear my shoes properly, hobbled around for the entirety of my time I Sweden, and needed painkillers and ice packs to deal with the swelling and pain. I couldn’t walk properly for ELEVEN days.
We got really lucky in that we went to a spa the day before the tattoo, and I picked up some cheap Velcro sandals, and I was able to put thick socks over the bandages, slip it into the sandal and fashion a makeshift “medical boot” for my poor foot:
4. KEEP IT OUT OF THE WATER
This goes without saying. Don’t get a tattoo then go swimming in the hotel pool, the Blue Lagoon, or any other body of water where you will be in standing water. They do make foot coverings you can wrap your body parts in, but they are awkward and a lot more to pack. You are opening yourself up to a host of issues from infection to serious complications. And no one wants to end up in the hospital as part of their memories.
5. PLAN FOR THE PROPER PAYMENT
Tattoo shops generally deal in cash, even abroad, so plan accordingly and bring the right currency for the shop, as well as tip money (even though you don’t tip a waiter in France, you tip a tattoo artist), as well as extra in case the appointment goes longer than you expected (as it did in my case).
6. CONSIDER AIR TRAVEL
Know what your body does miles up in the air? Swells. Combined with a fresh tattoo, this can be enormously painful, especially if it’s already swollen. Air travel can swell up your new tattoo further, and the skin can stretch, get painful and itchy and dry. Bring a travel size version of lotion and ointment for the air. Ultimately, you really want to get on a plane at least three days after your tattoo to give it a chance to get some healing done and some of the inflammation down.
Final thoughts: Getting a tattoo in a foreign country is a really fun experience and a great story. You will come home with the ultimate permanent souvenir, but if you’re not careful, your health can take some serious hits and risks, and you can even damage your awesome new tattoo. No one wants to spend their dream vacation in a hospital with a skin infection. Make sure that you consider your trip, take precautions, and reduce inflammation as much as possible – and learn from some of my pitfalls! In the end, despite really hindering the final leg of my trip, I’m ultimately glad I did it — although at the time boy was I feeling some regret. And look how greatly it improved!