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The Travel Tattoo – A Lasting Memento (Guest Post)

kelly lewis travel tattoo

Kelly Lewis shows her awesome pachyderm ink. (Courtesy of Kelly Lewis)

Hey, everybody! Ready for something different? Then check out this guest post from Nichole L. Reber about getting a tattoo while traveling. Seems like something to permanently keep the memories alive, eh?

The thought of getting a tattoo abroad often brings hygiene-obsessed Americans images of Brynn tossing a bag of frozen peas over her shoulder a la Bridesmaids. And whilst living abroad for the past four years I never did see tattoo artists quite so randomly placed as in a van, I did once see a tattoo party in a bar. And no, I didn’t get any of my five done there.

Tattoos are gaining in global popularity, I noticed whilst living in China, Hong Kong, India, and Peru. Though the trend hasn’t reached American heights. You’re not likely to find a Chinese guy with a sleeve or an Indian woman with a large Shiva tramp stamp.

Kelly Lewis, the globetrotting founder of the Go! Girls Guide travel series, has a bit more derring do than I, though. She’s been inked a couple of times abroad in less conventional places than the tattoo studios I visited.

travel tattoo

Nichole goes under the needle for the first time in awhile.

“I got my fingerprint tattoo in my shoulder from a guy I was friends with in New Zealand. He tattooed me in his bedroom and it was like $40,” she said. “My elephant was done in Chang Mai Thailand. It was done in a shop, with (an ink) gun, and was truly done by an artist. The Thai guy I was seeing at the time helped me translate.”

China
My experiences with tattoos abroad were a bit more sedate than making myself vulnerable in a strange guy’s bedroom. In fact, tattooing is one time in my life where I wait for someone else to test the waters before I dive in.

nichole travel tatto

It’s tat time again.

In Shenzhen, China, a local expat magazine hired me to review a new tattoo studio. I knew the owners, had even watched them throw a tattoo party at a pub and so I brought along a friend, an ink virgin ready for his first time. I was there for moral support.

The artist/owner discussed with him the dimensions and shading and location of the tattoo sketch he’d brought along. She then got set up with various colors of ink and individually, hygienically wrapped needles. She thoroughly cleansed his arm. Then it began— that sound we the tattooed grow to love: bizzz, zzzz, kg-kgzzzzz. With that first prick she deflowered my man.

Peru
My henna tattoo was scheduled for two weeks later but deportation killed my chance. Two years later, in the Northern Peruvian desert city of Piura, I had another chance at ink.

I’d already rung the tatuador, Jorge Arista, through the ringer of 20 questions. Arista, one of four tatuadores in Piura, had 10 years of experience and was the long-time friend of a colleague who I accompanied during her most recent tattoo. The pain was worse than I remembered it, having had my last ink a decade before. As soon as the needle touched my skin, a loud, piercing squeal escaped my mouth, even causing the security guard to come check out the scene.

Over the next few weeks, I remembered all the itching and the constant application of an ointment Jorge recommended from a nearby pharmacy, from my previous tattoos. I hadn’t planned for the new ink to preempt me from swimming in the Pacific on the next day’s planned beach weekend. Thanks to Jorge’s reminder, however, of the ruinous effects of salt water and sun on new ink, my colorful Ganesh and his rat companion turned out beautifully.

My good luck has led to this list of tips to find a good artist for your travel tattoo:

  • Take your time. No tattoo is worth rushing a lifetime of complications or regrets.
  • Seek studio recommendations from people you trust, not some random inked tourist you passed walking down the beach on your three-day visit to some third-world hamlet.
  • Hang out in the studio and watch
  • Look through the portfolio and observe the quality of art
  • Look for individually wrapped (disposable) needles and needle covers
  • Check that the inks are made specifically for tattoos
  • Get after-care instructions

Note from Wandering Justin: Nichole didn’t give me the usual “about me” sort of paragraph. So I’ll take the liberty … Nichole has lived in China, Peru and India. She now roams the streets of the truly confusing Phoenix metropolis. She has an eye for architecture, so visit her Architecture Travel Writer site to see what the world looks like to someone who knows something beyond “oooh, pretty building!” (Like me.)

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