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.
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.
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.
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.
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.