On a past trip to Buenos Aires, I had finally settled on the last phrase of a famous quote by Hans Christian Andersen that ends with the clichéd words “to travel is to live.” While in Argentina, I went so far as to book an appointment with a reputable tattoo parlor in Palermo, only to end up running—yes, running—out the door leaving my alarmingly young tattoo artist shaking his head in confusion.
While the spontaneity of getting a tattoo during my solo travels in South America seemed alluring, the reality of making a lifelong commitment to ink on my skin was not a decision to be made flippantly. According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated 23 percent of Americans have at least one tattoo.
Whereas tattoos were once considered taboo, today they are relatively commonplace, which can lead to snap judgements and impromptu decisions when getting one. As a rule of thumb, before getting a tattoo abroad there are a few key things to consider.
It goes without saying that the first thing to consider is safety. Tattoo parlors lacking professional infection control can risk transmitting Hepatitis C with dirty needles. In a recent study it was found that people with the virus were four times more likely to have a tattoo, suggesting a link between contracting Hepatitis and getting tattoos. Safety becomes even more paramount if traveling in countries that lack stringent health and safety standards. In short, when choosing a tattoo parlor, do your research.
While traveling in Argentina, the idea of getting “to travel is to live” inked on my body seemed like the best idea at the time. Flash forward to age 29 and I cannot thank my younger self enough for running out of that tattoo parlor. When choosing a quote or design to tattoo, try to think beyond that present moment of elation and imagine how you’ll feel about the tattoo a year—or even 10 years—from that point. Will you still regret tattooing “wanderlust” across your back, or will you look back on it fondly and be happy you did? Whatever the choice, make sure you keep your future self in mind.
Will you be backpacking throughout Europe and staying in major metropolitan areas? Or, will you be zip lining through the jungle in Costa Rica? When getting a tattoo abroad, remember that you’ll be traveling with a fresh tattoo for the remainder of your trip.
It is important to keep new tattoos clean, dry and out of the sunlight to avoid causing infection. In other words, if you’re planning to spend your holiday island hopping in Thailand, it may be best to skip on getting that tattoo.
As well as choosing a reputable tattoo parlor, many people like to select tattoo artists whose work they admire. “A good shop is not hard to find, and when you do, allow yourself to trust your artists,” Matthew Marcus, tattoo artist and owner of Three Kings Tattoo in Brooklyn, tells Men’s Fitness. “Like a doctor, we know what we’re doing and talking about. When we give you advice on size, placement, design, or color schemes, it’s for a reason. Ask questions. Get the tattoo you want to get but also be willing to compromise.”
Second only to the question of what tattoo you’ll get is the important question of where you’ll be getting it. When traveling, this is especially imperative as you will be moving around a lot and need to be wary of getting a tattoo on places that may prove uncomfortable for the remainder of your trip.
Likewise, the location of a tattoo on your body can affect the longevity of your tattoo and how it will age with you. “There are certain risks and ramifications to getting tattoos in certain places,” explains Matthew Marcus in the Men’s Fitness report. “For example, most palms and inside fingers are going to blow out over time if not immediately. Areas where skin is thinner or tighter requires a different touch from areas that are fattier or muscular.”