Inked Abroad: Getting A Tattoo In A Foreign Country

Ahhh, tattooing. It’s an ancient art with roots dating back to Neolithic times. Word on the street is that even Ötzi the Iceman had ink… that is… before it was cool. What a hipster! The world is starting to catch up to Ötzi, with ink becoming more socially acceptable in many places on planet earth. These days lots of people like to collect a tattoo or two while they travel. Getting a tattoo in a foreign country can be a perfectly safe, clean and culturally enlightening experience, as long as you do your research first. Do I have experience with this? Yes. Have I made mistakes? Duuh, naturally. Would you like to learn from them so you’ll have a super-swell time getting inked? Then come along and join me on this magic carpet ride of body-modification! I’ve gotten inked on both sides of the Atlantic and I’ve got some helpful advice for getting tattooed at home and some handy tips for getting tattooed abroad…

Why Do I Do This To Myself?

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I willingly pay somebody to torture me for hours on end… and I enjoy it!
I love the process of getting new ink. For me it begins with an idea that initially floats around as a loose collection of images and thoughts in my mind for months– maybe even years. Then there’s the collaboration with the artist, the design, the initial piercing of my skin by the needle and waves of ujai breath coursing through my system as I cope with the pain.

I am in awe of the way my body’s immune system first rises to expel this inky invader with blood, lymphatic fluid and inflammation elegantly raised in the exact pattern of the tattoo’s design, eventually blankets the wound in a waxy scab which flakes like a forgotten sunburn, then heals and assimilates with my flesh. For me, it is a constant reminder of my body’s miraculous ability to protect me, heal, and renew itself.

Of course, I wasn’t always so ritualistic about it. My first tattoo was quite literally, an impulse buy. I was in my early twenties, hanging out with a friend after work. Tattooing had just become legal in my great home state of Massachusetts, and I was eager for an excuse. “Let’s go look!” I squealed, as we bellied up to the front desk of the first tattoo studio to open in our town. I picked a piece of flash off of the wall, paid the proprietor 50 bucks and it was all over in less than ten minutes. At the time I rationalized it by saying that I liked the look of tattoos on other people and wanted to try something small and meaningless on myself to see if I liked having ink and could handle the pain. Rationally, it was a pretty good plan. Emotionally though, I’m still kicking myself for it. Why? Well…

I Learned A Lot From That First Tattoo…

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Feel free to judge a shop by the art on their walls. Is it a style you admire? Is it unique and well executed? Or is it generic crap that looks printed off a computer? What do you really want on your body forever?

1) In my opinion, reports of tattoos being unbearably painful are greatly exaggerated. Getting tattooed hurts the same, or possibly even less than some of the other barbaric rituals women subject themselves to in the name of beauty. I’ve never once cried whilst getting a tattoo, even in sensitive areas like my shoulder-blade. I cannot say the same for having my eyebrows waxed! If pain is what’s holding you back from getting your first tatt, chuck that fear out the window and go for it. It’s nothing some deep breathing can’t take care of. Had I known that, I may not have been so eager to throw away my first on a generic lick n’ stick tattoo.

2) I should have been more thoughtful about my design. In the end, I was right. I will never really hate the small red star I had tattooed on my lower back because it means absolutely nothing to me. I guess that’s better than getting the logo of my favorite 90’s band (Smashing Pumpkins 4-Eva!) tattooed on my left butt cheek? I literally chose my first tattoo because I love stars and red is my favorite color. But the design itself is cheapo flash that anybody with the ability to use Google image search could come up with. For crap’s sake, I’m the Offbeat Adventuress, not the Generic Adventure Chick. I love everything in my life to be unique and aesthetically pleasing. So it’s kind of a buzz kill to have something permanently on my body that looks like the prize at the bottom of a Cracker-Jack box. Would it have killed me to put a little more thought into it? Now I consider having cover-work done on it not because it embarrasses me, but because it is fucking boring!

3) You and your artist are irrevocably linked. When you think about it, your relationship with your tattoo artists is for the rest of your life because every time you look at your tattoo or somebody asks about it, you will think about that person. So make sure it is a person who you can respect, and not somebody who slaps junk-food tattoos on dumbass kids for a living.

Wherein Our Heroin Puts More Thought Into Her Next Piece…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I waited about eight years between my first and second tattoos. During that time I had tons of opportunities to meet people with incredible ink, ask them about their artists, and store up ideas for my own next piece. Finally, after a transformative summer studying yoga in the hills of the Berkshires, I settled upon the image of a lotus flower. The lotus flower was perfect for me; beautiful, meaningful and personal. I began to plan my strategy. I would not be walking into the Mac Donald’s of Tattoo parlors for this one. So I asked a trusted friend with some kick ass ink what the best tattoo studio in Boston was. She told me… I went there… and everything went wrong.

What I Learned From My Second Tattoo…

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Your artist should be just that, an artist, and your piece is a collaboration. It took a few tweaks to get my third tattoo, La Sirena, just right, but I worked with a visionary who was happy to allow the design to evolve with both our ideas.
1) Just because it’s a well-respected tattoo studio doesn’t mean it’s the right one for you. The guy at the “Best” tattoo studio couldn’t have been ruder to me. I rocked up there in my flip-flops and a sundress and the guy took one look at me and decided I wasn’t cool enough for his shop. He mocked my ideas and told me that Pinterest was “ruining” tattooing. He even asked me if I knew that being tattooed was painful! I will never understand people who don’t think you’re cool enough to get a tattoo because you aren’t already covered in them. Nobody’s born that way and even the toughest looking tattoo collector started their life butt naked without and ounce of ink, so get over yourself! Clearly he could see that I wasn’t his target demographic and instead of being polite about it, he decided to try and scare me away. Well, it worked. I decided not to give that asshole a penny of my money. Now technically, there is nothing wrong with this hipster-central tattoo shop. It’s been voted Best of Boston many times, and I know plenty of people who are thrilled with their work. It just wasn’t the right place for me and because this time around I understood that being tattooed by someone connects you to them for life, I wasn’t willing to grit my teeth and go through with it.

2) Momma Was Right, You’d Better Shop Around. I ended up visiting three different studios before settling on the right one. The Aforementioned Assholes, another place where the guy was nice but didn’t get my aesthetics… then by word of mouth I happened upon a brand new tattoo shop… run completely by female artists! My reception at Brilliance Tattoo couldn’t have been more different than at the first shop. My artist was a RISD educated painting major turned tattoo artist who loved my ideas and poured over my Pinterest with me. She listened to everything I was looking for and created a design that encapsulated everything I envisioned… even things I hadn’t articulated in words. The result is a tattoo I’m in love with. If I had just listened to the guy at the “best” tattoo shop, I never would have gotten to have this completely unique work of art in my life forever. My lotus tattoo is the antithesis of my boring, lick n’ stick star tattoo and I am so proud of it!

3) Follow Those Aftercare Instructions To The Letter. A tattoo is an open flesh wound, protected only by your skin’s natural defence system, that’s right, scabs. Scabs keep bacteria out and help your skin heal. The most critical time for aftercare is the first 24-48 hours when these scabs are forming and thus, fragile. I learned the hard way when I didn’t take care of my skin properly and ended up accidentally ripping a scab off. As a result, some of the color on my tattoo will always look a tad bit faded and blown out. I am the only person who notices it, and it bugs the hell out of me!

The Final Frontier, Getting Inked Abroad…

After three years living in Switzerland I knew I was going to want some ink to commemorate my time here. So what did I get? The outline of a Toblerone bar on my bicep? A tasteful ring of Edelweiss around my ankle? The answer is something surprisingly more connected to my home than I thought it would be. And it all came about because you guessed it… I had a fruitful collaboration with the artist.

What I Learned Getting My Third Tattoo…

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You can tell a lot about a person by their book collection. I knew I was going in the right direction when I saw the bookshelf at Gallery Verlan in Zürich…

1) Don’t be afraid to be yourself. Look, I was really intimidated walking into my first Swiss tattoo shop. Zürich hipsters are a brand of cool I can’t compete with and I stuck out like a sore thumb rocking up there on my way home from work wearing my 1950’s style dinosaur print dress and vintage overcoat with my polka-dotted Cath Kidston lunch box tucked under my arm. I was pretty sure these Swisters (that’s my word for Swiss hipsters) with their wardrobes consisting of skinny jeans, blackest black T-shirts and Parisienne Cigarettes dangling from their mouths would shun me without thinking twice. Boy, was I wrong. When I finally sat down with my artist he couldn’t have been more open and effusive as I described what I was looking for. When I told him I wanted a Scrimshaw style tattoo of a mermaid to recall my upbringing by the New England seaside, he opened his shirt to show me his own mermaid tattoo on his chest. At that moment, I knew we were meant to work together. I was so glad I hadn’t judged the shop as a bunch of snotty hipsters and instead opened up and shared my ideas.

2) Hit The Books. I lucked out finding an artist who is fluent in English, but even if you do share a language, an image is worth a million words. When I sat down with Raffi from Gallery Verlan, he didn’t just show me his portfolio. He cracked open his favorite art books to show me what’s influenced his style. When he walked me through a book of Robert Mapplethorpe photos juxtaposed with classical statues, I knew he was the right person to do my Scrimshaw style tattoo.

3) Understand How Tattooing Works In The Country You’re In. In America generally the first consultation is free. You have chat with the designer, he or she mocks up a design for you, you take a look at it. If you like it you put down a deposit and book the appointment, if you don’t you’re free to go. In Switzerland, time is money, and if you are booking an artist’s time, even if it’s just to chat, that’s a 100 CHF deposit. Figure out what the deal is with tipping your artist is too. In America it is expected, in Switzerland, less so.

4) Be A Stickler About Placement. I knew I wanted my next piece to be a big one, and deliberately chose a part of my body that’s easy to cover so that I wouldn’t have to worry about hiding my tattoo at my job. I had many chats with the artist about the placement of my tattoo. He drew on me, took measurements and took photographs of my body to work of off as designed the tattoo. I approved it all. The shape of the tattoo works beautifully with the shape of my leg. So how come my only regret is the placement? Because now that La Sirena has been a part of me for a few months I can see that she’s a couple of inches too low for some of my favorite dresses, and harder to hide than I thought.

Look, I’m not embarrassed of my ink, but I am protective of it. So many people feel inclined to make unsolicited comments about tattoos when they’re showing and most of the time I don’t want to hear it. (Usually it’s about how they know somebody with a really tacky tattoo. Why would I care???) I like that the star and the lotus are easy to cover when I just don’t want to hear it in public, and I’m a little self-conscious about the uninvited comments my beautiful mermaid may inspire once shorts season begins again. Plus, I kind of like that the placement of my other tatts allow me to control when I am seen by the world as someone with ink and when I am not. I like that my tattoos are something somebody only sees once they get to know me better. Now this option has been taken away from me. If I could do it over, I would have the piece start higher on my hip bone. It might have affected the poetry of the piece with my leg, but it would have allowed me a little more privacy.

5) I want more ink! No sooner was La Sirena healed than I was thinking about what my next piece would be. Even though my tattoos are not perfect, I love them and I want more of them in my life!

So that’s my experience getting inked as an expat. But what if you’re a little more transient?

Some Advice For Getting Tattooed As A Traveller…

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Use your head and you’ll never have to say sorry to your mom… or yourself!
Okay, so if you’re a backpacker and you’re dying for some ink to commemorate your trip, I’m about to tell you a few things you might not want to hear… but need to!

1) Good Tattoos Aren’t Cheap And Cheap Tattoos Aren’t Good. For some reason, a lot of people particularly like the idea of getting a cheap tattoo in a foreign country. I don’t get it. Would you go to a cheap dentist or get two for-one plastic surgery? Listen, you get what you pay for. If you just want the generic star, anybody can do that and you can probably get it fairly affordably. But if you want the lotus, you need to do your homework and prepare to cough up. Remember, a tattoo artist is just that, an artist, and if you want something beyond a piece of flash, they’ll have to put some work into designing it for you, which takes time and costs money. If you can’t afford to get that intricate piece you’ve been dreaming of for ages, save it for later and stick with something simple for now. If you try to get something spectacular on a lick n’ stick budget you’ll regret it.

2) You Can’t Just Walk In To The Best Tattoo Studios. Many of the best tattoo shops don’t even allow walk-ins. Their time is valuable and they want to spend it making sure their clients have unique work they are 100% satisfied with. The better a place is, the more likely it is that you’ll have to wait weeks or months to get in there. Don’t despair though. If you know you want ink to be a part of your adventure, do some research ahead of time and reach out via email to ask what their policy is on booking appointments. You may be able to get the ball rolling ahead of time. Keep in mind that the bigger a tattoo is, the more likely it is to take more than one sitting. Sittings usually require a month of healing between. Are you able to come back to town for that? If not, choose a simpler design. Your artist will be able to advise you.

3) Factor After Care Into Your Activities. Like I said before, a tattoo is an open wound. You won’t be able to swim in a pool or in the sea or go in a hot tub for a month afterwards, and are expected to avoid sun, sweat and vigorous exercise for a few weeks too. So getting a fresh tatt at the beginning of a kite surfing vacation in Australia is probably a bad idea. Because binding clothing and chafing are a problem too, I’d avoid getting a tatt right before a long plane or train ride too. I would plan to be staying put and doing low impact activities for at least 3-4 days after getting tattooed. Remember, in the initial period after a tattoo, your body is working overtime to heal. Make sure you rest, hydrate, eat well and avoid massive quantities of booze.

4) Make Sure You Can Communicate. It should go without saying, but the moment you get a new tattoo is not the time to be test driving whether or not you’ve still got it with the high school Spanish. Look, whether it’s the girl who thought she was getting the Chinese character for strength tattooed on her back but found out later that it actually said, “whore”, or the wicked Irish American dude who couldn’t explain that he wanted a shamrock and not a four-leaf clover on his calf, we all know somebody who didn’t get what they wanted because of the language barrier. Either choose somebody you share a fluent common language with, bring a friend to interpret, or come armed with images.

5) Don’t Mess About With Cleanliness. A tattoo studio should be about as clean as a dentist’s office. Everything that pokes through your skin should be sterilized and come straight out of an autoclave. Everything that touches your skin should be wrapped in plastic. When I got my last tatt even the pillows I leaned on during the process were enclosed in plastic bags. You’re basically getting minor surgery here, so don’t be daft. If something about the studio you’re at looks dodgy, speak up, and if they don’t address it to your liking, get up and go. Sure, you might lose your deposit, but that’s better than winding up in the hospital in a foreign country because you got an infection.

6) No matter what, you’ll always have a story to tell. The secret is, no matter how great your artists is, your tattoo never turns out 100% the way you imagined it. None of my three pieces are perfect, but I love all three of them because the represent different aspects of who I am. If you want to get a tatt, especially in a new place, you need to be open to the idea that it may not turn out as you planned… and embrace it!

Have you ever been inked at home or abroad? I want to hear all of your crazy tattoo stories in the comments!

4 thoughts on “Inked Abroad: Getting A Tattoo In A Foreign Country

  1. I had a tattoo done while I was studying abroad in Germany and while I speak ok German, I was so glad that the artist spoke amazing English!
    I completely agree with your point about perfection – it’s all about embracing the artists style as well for me. I give them quite a lot of free reign when I propose my ideas and I personally always end up thinking (since I’m not very artistically minded) that it’s better than my original ideas!

    1. Totally. I think of a tattoo as a collaboration. I’m not a visual artist, so I’m going to have faith that once I pick the right artist and I understand what they want, that they will deliver a tattoo that looks good. I would never allow myself to be talked into something I don’t want but I default to the idea that they know more about the aesthetics of what will transfer well onto skin than I do!

      1. 100%! And if you’ve done enough research you should be all good!
        So well said.
        Not surprised that they charge for the talks in Switzerland. Do you find it’s much more expensive there? In general rather.

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