Traveling with Tattoos

by Kelly on February 1, 2011

ink and guns

I’ve always been a fan of tattoos, and the older I get, the more and more I seem to be acquiring.

At the moment, I’m working on a half-sleeve that’s an underwater aquatic scene that I saw when I was snorkeling in Fiji. And I love it–but, it’s the first really, really visible tattoo I have (the rest are on my shoulders, my sides and my back).

Now, I currently live in Tucson, Arizona, which is a very tattoo-friendly city, and I make my living as a freelance writer and blogger (and now as CEO of Go! Girl Guides), so finding a job has never really concerned me much.

That, and I think these days that tattoos have become much more popular within the working industry, that they no longer pose a threat to getting a job–unless, of course, I was trying to work some hum-drum office job, which I wouldn’t want to be doing anyway.

But the more I work on my tattoo, and the closer I get to traveling again, I can’t help but think: How do tattoos translate around the world?

Creative Commons License photo credit: rajkumar1220

Certainly, there are countries in which getting tattooed is a cultural tradition, perhaps a marking of manhood, a ritual that dates back thousands of years.

However, there are certainly other countries, in which it would be completely rude of me to flaunt my ink, but would that be because it would be rude to show skin in general?

Or, would tattoos pose their own insult in and of themselves?

For example, if I were going to a Muslim country, I would cover up regardless. But should my tattoo happen to peek out from beneath my sleeves, would I be in jeopardy of offending someone?

As I head to Thailand, should I be worried about offenses as I head deep into the country to cover it inside and out for a women’s guidebook?

What about you? Have you ever had negative experiences while traveling because you have tattoos? Or, are your tattoos widely accepted? Let me know, in the comments below!

{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Erica February 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm

I too have been concerned about my tattoos. I have a very noticeable chest piece, a half sleeve, and a wrist tattoo. When I went to Japan, I actually got positive comments on it, but knowing I was a foreigner and not yakuza, they look at it as fashion.

Shaun’s are easily cover-able but he does get a little more slack being a guy. 😛

Nick Laborde February 2, 2011 at 1:32 am

I don’t have any tattoos. I’m thinking about changing that even though I’ve they are addicting.

I don’t know if they cover this type of things in guide books. With the acceptance, in the US any way, that would a great way to differentiate your guides. Just the entrepreneur in me 😉

adventureswithben February 2, 2011 at 1:41 am

I’m too afraid of the pain to get a tattoo. Sorry.

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 1:48 am

We will be, for sure, thanks Nick! I have tattoos, and so do most of the blogging team at Go! Girl. Funny how like-minded women find ways to come together!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 1:48 am

haha. Nothing to be sorry about! They fricken hurt! I just love them when the hurt is over!

Jade February 2, 2011 at 2:00 am

I’d be interested to see what people say about tattoos and thailand… it seems like they would be accepting… but better not to assume. You gals are going in Spring/summer right? You’ll definitely want to know because I’m sure it’s going to be hot and you won’t want to be covered the entire time.
Good luck! I’m kind of no help since just getting a shot terrifies me!!

robin February 2, 2011 at 8:25 am

I have three and no plans to add to them. I’d miss them if they weren’t there…

monette February 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

my tattoos are really visible as they are on my wrists, my nape, and my back (and i almost always wear spaghetti-strapped shirts and racerbacks as i travel SEA). i never experienced being harassed or looked differently by other people… in fact, a lot of the people i get to hang out with will start a conversation with me because of my inks!

The Dropout February 2, 2011 at 9:46 am

I did an ESL course in Ho Chi Minh City and the trainer had tatts. He said that in Vietnam, which is a very conservative society, tattoos were frowned upon. He always wore long-sleeved shirts to hide his tattoo that came down his forearm. He didn’t think the students or their parents would respect him if they saw his tattoos.
While I was living in Vietnam, I worked for a local media company. They hired a girl who had a tattoo on the back of her neck. She was in her mid-20s and most of my colleagues, also of a similar age, regarded her as a “bad girl”. Men with tattoos are considered gangsters.
I don’t know how foreigners with tattoos would be regarded. But backpackers have a pretty bad reputation in Vietnam anyway.
I’d recommend you cover your tattoos if you are trying to meet locals in Vietnam. The first impression a tattoo conveys is not a good one there.

jamie - cloud people adventures February 2, 2011 at 9:51 am

i have wondered about this before. i have 3, but all are pretty easily conceiled should i need to. its never been a problem before, but im sure it could be in some situations. i know working with kids in some countries a requirement is that all tattoos be hidden, because of the gang culture to get a tat or a 100o. but then the kids go home and watch nba basketball anyway. im not sure there is one player without a full sleeve anymore. ill be interested to see if anyone has had any problems!

Theodora February 2, 2011 at 10:04 am

I think you should be worried only if you have symbols that are sacred to another culture tattooed in an inappropriate place.

So an om symbol on your feet? Very bad idea, hugely disrespectful, and requires covering up. Verses from the Koran? Let’s not go there.

But an aquatic scene? Shouldn’t cause offence. Though it will be a topic of conversation.

Alex February 2, 2011 at 10:25 am

It’s a really good question indeed. I’ve never had any problems with mine but they are nothing big. I think it really depends on the country and the local culture.
For instance, France is not a really tattoo-friendly place and it’s still a common belief that having (apparent) tattoos will prevent you from getting a job. Most of people consider tattoos being for junkies and gangsters. Whereas in the nearby England, you will see cops, family dads or city employees having tattoos without anyone caring.
I also heard that in Japan, you are not allowed to go to the public bath if you are tattooed. That law was to avoid the presence of Yakuzas in such places but it’s still very strict apparently even if you are a foreigner.

Nicolas February 2, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Tattoos represent freedom, freedom of speech to be more exact, and there are regimes where that is not accepted (I’m thinking Middle-East). It’s not that they are against tattoos in particular.
These countries are easy recognizable by the lack of other presentations of freedom: western music, non-religious art, choice of clothing,…
I have never been to Thailand, so I cannot tell you how they will react, but I expect that people will be open to tattoos in the cities and tourist areas, but if you go really off the beaten track you might meet people that have never seen tattoos before. They’ll probably be not against it, just curious.

Todd | Todd'sWanderings February 2, 2011 at 12:48 pm

I have one and it has caused me some problems in Japan. but even with that I would like another one…we shall see

inka February 2, 2011 at 1:15 pm

I have it easy, Kelly, because the only tatoos I have are my lips and eyebrows. I’m considering eyeliner next. I know, I know it’s not the kind of tatoo you are takling about, but I don’t contemplate getting any. They have a long and very interesting history, particularly in China and, as you rightly say, a deep ceremonial meaning in several cultures and that is, in my opinon, where they should stay. I know they are becoming very popular and there is nothing wrong with it, but, getting back to your question: I would cover them up, just in case or else, do some serious research so as not to offend anyone. It’s a similar question as to the use of body language: what is considered friendly in one country is offensive in another. BTW, thanks very much for your comment,I’mglad I made you AND your mom laugh.

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Hey Jade! Yes, we’re off in March. It’s going to be really hot! I think from what The Dropout said I’ll start off with sleeves and then gauge the reactions. Thanks for stopping in!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Cool monette! Yes, that’s how it was in South America too, most of the time. But sometimes, it gave me even more unwanted male attention. I was always wondering if me being tattooed conveyed that I was “bad” and therefore, easy. Most of the time it wasn’t an issue, but, it’s definitely in the back of my head.

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Thanks for this comment. Really insightful. I think it’s somewhat promising that the girl with the tattoo on her neck, even though she was ‘bad’ was still hired! Right? Still yet, I will take this to heart. I certainly would never want to offend!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Right! I think when it comes to teaching English, I would cover up. But that’s universally true, I think I would cover up even here in the States, out of respect. Kind of like how I never let my grandmother see my tattoos!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Thanks for the comment Theodora! Let’s hope so! I mean, it’s Thailand right? They’re all about the ocean and diving! I’ll keep you all posted!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 5:01 pm

That’s really really interesting Alex! I had never really thought about Japan, but that makes total sense. And I suppose I could see France with that perception, but I had never even thought of them when I was writing this! For some reason I just assumed that all Western states would be open to it. Very interesting! Thanks!

Kelly February 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm

That’s kind of what I was thinking too Nicolas!

Laurel February 2, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Very interesting question and like Jade I’m interested to hear what other people say. I don’t have any either as I’m too afraid of needles, but my guess is that in some countries a woman with tattoos might be treated differently than a man who had tattoos.

The NVR Guys February 2, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I have a couple of tattoos and have never gotten the sense that someone found them offensive. Granted the main one is on my lower back – it’s a dolphin jumping over a rainbow…

I’m just kidding! My tattoos say “mom” and “dad” so I guess I should make sure those aren;t nasty words in any of the countries we visit. I just never really thought of it.

Kyle Morgan February 8, 2011 at 1:12 am

I only have one tattoo, a tribal shark that takes up most of my foot, but I’ve never had any issues while traveling, just a lot of curious kids wanting to check it out. I get more flack from my family than anything else!

Rebecca February 9, 2011 at 8:53 am

Oooh, I want to see pics of the tattoos! My only issue with my tattoos was when I visited Japan – one of the things I really wanted to do was visit an onsen but I wasn’t able to 🙁
My boyfriend was called a criminal (kind of jokingly) in Vietnam and he gets stared at wherever we go, particularly in Asia.

Monica March 5, 2011 at 11:25 am

I know I’m a bit late to this thread but has anyone noticed a difference between tattoos on men and women? My boyfriend and I both have tattoos and men are always complimenting him on his, particularly in Thailand. They always ask him to lift up his sleeves and, strangely, always ask how much it cost. But no one ever mentions mine! Anyone else found that men’s tattoos seem to be more acceptable?

Josh May 9, 2011 at 3:11 am

Hi, how did you end up getting on? I would love to travel to Asia but i have many tattoo that are hard to cover unless i wore trousers and a long sleeved shirt and gloves. I have extenive tattoos on my forearms, wrists and hands, including knuckles. None are gang related and im not a criminal either so i was wondering how much hassle it would be at airports and such. Thanks, Josh

Kelly June 10, 2011 at 9:39 pm

Hey Josh! I didn’t really have any problems with my tattoos but I definitely did feel the need to keep them mostly covered up, mainly because if I didn’t, I was constantly being grabbed on the street by men saying “oooh big tattoo!” It got really annoying. I don’t feel I offended anyone when they were exposed, but as I have two sleeves on my arms I covered everything up out of respect (and to avoid being groped).

Ramon August 3, 2011 at 5:06 pm

I’m about to travel to Switzerland and I’m considering on getting a tattoo. Is it advisable for me to sport a tattoo while doing an internship at WHO? Your comments will be appreciated.

Kelly August 4, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Hey Ramon. With something like an internship, I’d always air on the side of caution and hold off with visible tattoos–or cover them, at least until you know what your work will be like and what your bosses and coworkers are like. I had some unwanted attention from my tattoos while in Thailand, but it wasn’t bad. Hope that helps!

Vlad December 24, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I have one full sleeve and on the other my forearm is done on the inside with the rest being done in the next few weeks. I love skulls and Halloween so my ink is all themed in that way but nothing evil or over them top. I travel alot for work and fun and I can say that for the most part people respond positively to my arms and are always curious about the stories behind them. I can say that I often do get extra attention from airport security if I wear a short sleeve shirt. If I forget to put my long sleeve on I usually get asked more questions but have never had any searches beyond just looking in my luggage. I agree with most of the posters here. Tattoos are now part of our mainstream culture and unless they are obscene they are generally accepted. If you want to be safe never tattoo your face, neck or hands. Basically anything that can’t be covered by long sleeves.

Michele July 7, 2012 at 11:47 pm

I’m a woman with half sleeves and I lived in western Mexico for a year. It’s a pretty conservative place, so I tended to cover up when I went sightseeing, and definitely when I went to work. My tattoos often drew unwanted attention from men, who used them as an excuse to get in very close for a look. Generally, though, women in Mexico with as many tattoos as I have are not messed with in any menacing way.
Funniest thing, though, were the two old women who called me the devil 🙂

Rm09 February 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm

Hi I’m currently in Japan and I know that certain places in Japan certain restaurants, gyms or hot springs frown upon tattoos and will ask you to live if you do exposé them. I haven’t an issue anywhere I’ve gone to eat at bu t my boyfriend did say if we wanted to go to a hot spring it would have to be private or we would have to wear wetsuits due to the fact that we both have multiple tattoos that would be visible. Hope this helps!

pup August 4, 2013 at 12:09 am

I have 50+tattoos. Many of them are religious. Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, all together. Planning on getting Buddhist prayer beads. My husband says covered or not, it would be much too dangerous for me to travel in the Middle East, although he thinks I could slide by in Morocco. Is this true?

Allison August 25, 2013 at 1:28 pm

This post is awesome!
I’m a vietnamese female in my early 20s. I have a half sleeve(very bold, dark and most definitely not girl at all) chest piece and two other small ones that I hid from my old school traditional vietnamese Mother for 2 years. How? I’m not sure either but I did! From what I know, most people in Vietnam consider those who have tattoos either have lots of money, a gang member or a criminal. But that’s for men, I’ve never heard anything about women and tattoos. I’ve always wonder what others do think in Asia . But for me, since my family is from vietnam and will be going there in the next 3 days, out of respect I would cover it up.

claudia July 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Tattooed women in thailand are not well seen. I had mine uncovered the first day i was in bangkok and i felt very badly judged. Same thing in some indonesian islands…

GonzoBobH July 15, 2014 at 4:26 am

I am currently in Okazaki, Japan. I have lots of tattoos (sleeve, back, leg…). Anyway, the lnaguage school here told me not to worry about them,as Japan is not too concerned with tattoos any more, it’s 2014 now, etc. I already knew it would be taboo at the hot springs. Anyway, so yesterday I walked with my wife a real 30 minutes to go to a sports clubs to do yoga. When we got there my wife (an American who speaks Japanese and was born in Tokyo) tried to purchase two day passes. The guy at the desk said they don’t offer them. We were like, huh?!? My wife told him that she just called and was told that they do. So he started talking really complicated and mentioned “stakeholder.” My wife asked him to speak more simply and then I too heard the word: Tattoo. My sleeve was showing since I had dress comfortably for the long walk. Bottom line is they were (with cultural justification) willing to lie to us to keep me out of the club. Turns out stakeholder means you have an affiliation with — probably — a criminal gang… which is stupid, haha — like the Yakuza would allow an American in. Bottom line – lots of prejudice against tattoos here, even in 2014. Moving to Hanoi next week, so we will see what the situation is like over there. Oh, and we/I have spent many, many vacations in Bangkok and just left there before coming to Japan — lots of tattoo shops there and never had an issue. So far it is just Japan that is prejudicial, but we’ll see. In the mean time, I get it: Achi kaere!

Cheers and GL

V. October 29, 2014 at 7:38 am

I have many tattoos — old school, military, pin up girl, guns…I am going to Thailand soon…should I cover these up?

Kay June 25, 2015 at 4:57 am

I agree 100% with Theodora. I had a symbol of Om tattooed on my foot when I was 18. Years later when I was backpacking around India I was confront by the local people with confusion and sadness. They did not get angry at me but they couldn’t understand why I would put their most sacred symbol on what they consider to by the dirtiest part of the body. I spent the next 3 months in India with a big bandaid over it in order not to offend. To be honest, I’m even thinking about covering it with another tattoo now as it doesn’t feel right anymore. So yes, in answer to your question- tattoos can offend in some countries.

Mat c January 22, 2016 at 10:18 pm

I am 36 and have most of my upper body tattooed, I love all of my work as they all have personal meaning to me but if I go on holiday I keep them covered in the non tourist areas as its not a big deal and you have to remember you are in their neighbourhood only for a short time so it’s not worth offending anyone. It just comes down to respect

Kristy wicklund October 21, 2016 at 11:33 am

Anyone having problem in Hong Kong? I have a full sleeve on my left arm. Please help! I’ll cover up regardless but just curious…

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