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Getting a Tattoo Overseas? Read This First.

First things first. This post is most certainly NOT about telling you to avoid getting a tattoo overseas.

In fact, my largest and most complex tattoo came from a semi-impromptu trip to Guatemala. It cost me a fraction of what it would have cost in the USA or Australia and it’s beautifully done.

Here’s the story:

I began volunteering at Apex Protection Project as an “associate”. I very quickly fell head over paws in love with the organisation, their ethos, soul, and Pack. My heart belonged to Thor after about 2 days of time spent with Apex. Everyone started calling him my “boyfriend” and when you say, “Thor, where’s your girlfriend?” he would walk over to me, sit down and start licking me on the face.

I was in love.

A dear friend of mine had moved to Guatemala and fell in love with a wonderful Guatemalan man. They married and live in one of the most beautiful places on earth – the surrounding edge of the vast, volcanic Lake Atitlán. I hadn’t seen my friend, or her mother, another lifelong friend of mine, for nearly a decade although we speak regularly on social media.

I was sitting on my couch in Los Angeles when a message pinged on Facebook, “Hey, what do you think about coming with me to Guatemala in March?” Amusingly, I had just been pouting about how my year was yet devoid of travel plans and set to be a boring ho-hum of home life.

Lake Atitlán, yes, it is really this beautiful. Photo credit: Denéa Buckingham

A smile spread across my face as I replied, “oooooooh, tell me more…”

One thing led to another and before my glass of wine was finished my finger had ‘slipped’ and I booked a round-trip ticket to Guatemala City, departing in a few weeks. Much happy dancing ensued.

My friend mentioned that she was keen to get a tattoo during our trip and as it had been several years and one douchebag boyfriend who had an issue with tattoos since I had any new ink myself, I jumped on the idea. In fact, I’d been imagining a life-like little Thor standing guard on my left shoulder for months now. I even had the perfect reference photograph.

We discussed it and my friend in Guatemala put me in touch on Facebook with her favourite tattoo artist in Panajachel, Marley of Marley’s Smoking Papaya Shop. Lots of conversations later, we agreed that we would schedule a time once I arrived in Guatemala.

Fast forward to an amazing (AMAZING) trip to Guatemala which involved a sketchy caving experience in a bikini, floating down the river drinking beers we bought from kids, waterslides and cliff-jumping, and even a scuba dive in a geothermal vent. Unforgettable. The adventure was made even better by sharing it with two of my favourite friends.

When it finally came time for my tattoo, I asked once more (even though I felt like a broken record at this point), “Are you SURE you can do this like the picture? I mean I want it to seem like he could howl right off my shoulder.. and if not, that’s totally ok but please tell me.”

Smokin’ Marley smiled and lifted up his shirt revealing a turtle that spanned his chest from shoulder to shoulder so real it could have been swimming instead.

“Yes, it will be perfect because the girl who did this is also going to do yours.” he said. I felt instantly at ease.

Marley introduced me to a lovely woman named Victoria who was originally from Ontario but had lived in Guatemala for several years now and, I was pleased to see, was covered in beautiful tattoos.

This is Vicky of Scarlet Carwash Tattoo. Photo credit: Scarlet Carwash Facebook

Victoria and I became friends as we talked through my design, the colours, size, location, and I watched in amazement as she drew the most beautiful freehand version of my Thor photograph on tracing paper in blue ink which would eventually be transferred to my skin.

The whole process was a pleasure and 2.5 hours later, I had a truly astonishing piece of new ink that I show off proudly to this day.

Victoria has her own tattoo business in Guatemala and goes by the name Scarlet Carwash. If you are heading her way and want to get inked, send her a message on Facebook. I could not recommend her more.

In fact, I asked Victoria to give me some advice for this article on the things to watch (and watch out!) for when getting a tattoo. The following pieces of advice were written with the help of one of the finest tattoo artists I have ever met.

Read these 12 pieces of advice (and 1 really important bonus note) before you get a tattoo…anywhere:

  1. Research! Research! Research! Ask as many friendly, bi-lingual locals as you can find who have excellent quality tattoos visible where they went to get theirs done and if they recommend the artist. Also ask if they tattoo foreigners and if they would mind giving the tattoo artist a call for you and asking any questions you have beforehand.
  2. Take your time. As exciting as the possibility of new ink may be, there’s no point in rushing to get a tattoo, if it’s done well, you’ll be enjoying it for the rest of your life.
  3. Hygiene is paramount. Every tattoo needle comes in a separate, individually sealed packet. The reasons for this should be obvious but it’s to prevent the ridiculous number of blood-born diseases that afflict our world today. Tattoo artists should have fresh and sealed needles and instruments which you watch them open before they start your tattoo. This also pertains to the hygiene of the bed / chair you’re sitting or lying on during the process. Many artists will wrap their beds in cling-wrap or another type of hygienic disposable material to keep them clean and fresh for each new client.
  4. Ask questions. Any good tattoo artist is a professional, they have spent years practicing and honing their skills and technique. They know what they’re doing (or they should anyway!). So don’t be afraid to ask them as many questions as you like. “Will it hurt?” “What should I wear?” “How did you get into tattooing?” “What are your favourite type of designs?” “Are you sure you can do this ____ that I want? Because it’s totally fine if not!”
  5. Inspect the studio. Would you have surgery in a garden shed, no. So then why on earth would you get tattooed in a dirty tattoo parlour? Of course different countries have different standards of cleanliness (the shop in Guatemala had a non-flushing toilet, for example) but there are several things that should be standard across any tattoo shop.
  6. Watch others get tattooed first. This is always a good idea, whether you’ve already experienced getting a tattoo or not. Watch the artist, watch the person being tattooed. Get familiar with the process, how they work, how long things take, etc. Everyone is different when it comes to getting tattoos (I tend to fall asleep and, aside from the white ink, find it quite relaxing) but it’s good to have an idea of what you’re getting into.
  7. Notice how busy the studio is. This is a fairly common rule when it comes to travel… Do you eat from the lonely street vendor who hasn’t served a customer all day, or the one who has a queue down the block? Busy = popular, busy = fresh, busy = quality. If your tattoo artist is busy and booked up, they probably have so many clients because they’re good at what they do.
  8. Check out their design specialities. Every artist is different, that’s why they are artists. Some people are good at sacred geometry, others at watercolour-style colourful inks, others at realism. Ask your artist to see photos of their previous work and have a chat with them about what they like best to tattoo. Any good artist will be open and honest about their art form and it will help you choose the best person to get the style of tattoo you want. Vicky adds, “Make sure they do their own designs and look through their portfolio. Every good artist will have one individually for themselves, not just a standard sign with ‘popular’ stuff on it.” 
  9. Show them your design (if you have one). I had a very specific thing in mind for my wolf tattoo – I wanted it to look like a photograph on my shoulder. This is a very unique type of tattoo artistry and it is not available everywhere. I knew that I needed a very special kind of tattoo artist who would be able to do what I wanted so I sent the photo I had in mind to them waaaay in advance. This allowed for drawing practice, and for them to tell me honestly if they had the ability and desire to try this type of art on me.
  10. Google the tattoo parlour. These days almost everyone is on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or some other form of social media. This also goes for tattoo artists, even in foreign countries! After all, everywhere “foreign” is someone’s home.. These people are running a business, they are artists who are working and earning a living from their craft. This usually means they have an online media presence. Google the shop, google the tattoo artist’s name, check them out if there are any warnings about getting tattoos in the area and make sure they’re not involved!
  11. Ask about their ink. Unbeknownst to many, not all inks are created equal! A low quality ink is going to fade, lose colour, or blur its crisp lines over time. A high quality ink will last and have better resistance to sunlight, skin’s changing elasticity over time, and the movement of our skin on a daily basis. Vicky says, “There are lists online of good and bad ink brands. Especially if you’re getting a colourful tattoo, make sure you check out the artists’ ink and that it’s on one of the good lists!” Here is a list of top tattoo ink brands.
  12. Trust your gut. Did you walk into the tattoo parlour and feel your stomach try to run back out again at top speed? If so, you could be nervous, or you could have a gut instinct that this is not the shop for you. Take a moment to analyse your feelings and ask yourself why you’re not feeling 100%. IF the answer comes back that you are not comfortable with anything about your surroundings, say “thank you, but I’ll think about it some more” and walk out. Go to the beach, swing in a hammock, relax and go read points 1-10 above again. There will always be another tattoo shop somewhere else or another time when you’re really ready. Ink is a lifelong commitment, and getting it removed is a painful experience no one wants to have.

I’m separating the last one because it deserves to be separated and emphasised.

13. Alcohol lies to you. If you haven’t learned this essential 20-something lesson just yet, alcohol lies to you.

Alcohol will tell you that getting a tattoo ‘right now!’ ‘yea!’ ‘let’s all go do it together!’ ‘cheers!’ is a great idea. Some of your friends will even agree with alcohol. Don’t listen to the cans of courage, and this is one time to downright ignore your friends. I have one tattoo that I got at 3am on Sydney’s Oxford street after an evening mimosa-thon and thankfully (thankfully) I already had the design picked out. Even then, it’s not the greatest tattoo and I wish I had waited until I found a great artist who really knew their trade.

Another incredible before and after tattoo by Scarlet Carwash. Photo credit: Scarlet Carwash Facebook

Last but not least, listen to the after-care advice to ensure your tattoo (and health) turn out beautifully in the end.

Have you gotten a tattoo overseas? Tell me about your experience in the comments! 


*This article was written with the informational assistance of a tattoo professional. 
*All statements contained in this article are of the author’s opinion with research from professional tattoo artists. Information in this article is not certified by any medical authority. 
*Tattoos and the decisions of readers following this article are at the sole discretion of the individual and the author and website claim zero liability for any effects or situations which may arise from the reader’s tattoo experience. 

About DeneaBuckingham

Denea is a world citizen and modern-day nomad. An Australian-American-Canadian, Denea left home at age 17 and has been traveling, learning, and loving life ever since. With a passion for exploration, scuba diving, spelunking, languages, and anthropology, Denea has traveled extensively around Australia, lived in the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and America. Denea is a member of the Explorers Club and is dedicated to building a community of passionate travel bloggers, adventurers, and friends around the world. Each time she ticks off a bucket list item, a new one takes its place. "The best souvenirs are the friends we make along the way."

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