Your Guide to Getting (and Flying With) a Tattoo in Southeast Asia

Some people love collecting shells. Some want to come back from vacation with a whole new wardrobe. But what about when you want to mark your travels in a more permanent way?

With Southeast Asia growing in popularity with each and every day, we’ve provided a guide to getting inked in this region. However, the advice in this guide applies to almost all tattoos on tour!

Getting a tattoo – especially a first tattoo – is a big decision, and that decision only gets more complicated when you’re away from home. Don’t let that stop you, though: sometimes a tattoo is a perfect way to commemorate your experience. If you’re ready to take the plunge, read on for your guide to getting and flying with a new tattoo in Southeast Asia!

Travel to: Asia 

Girl with tattoos - Your Guide to Getting and Flying With a Tattoo in Southeast Asia

Getting tattooed abroad

Many major cities have bustling tattoo scenes, and you’ll often find studios in amongst the more touristy areas. If you think you may want to get a tattoo before you depart, do your research from home to see if there are artists you like in the area. Just make sure their books are open, or they take walk-ins!

If you’re more into doing things spur-of-the-moment, a quick Google search should reveal the most popular studios in the area. Read reviews, check out their Instagram pages, and don’t let yourself get intimidated! Most tattoo artists are laid-back, friendly, and respectful – as long as you are.

Keep in mind that there may be a language barrier if you venture more off the beaten path for your tattoo (many of the more popular artists tend to work in less-busy areas of the city, so be prepared to step out of the usual touristy areas). The best practice to avoid any confusion or heartbreak is to show the artist as many pictures as possible, and don’t agree to start that tattoo until you’re 100% happy with how the design looks.

Of course, the most important thing is making sure the studio is clean and you’re comfortable. Artists should use sterile needles, and set up everything in front of you. Don’t be afraid to ask for an explanation of the process, or to speak up if something feels wrong.

tattooed woman on mountain - flying with a new tattoo

What design should your tattoo be?

Speaking of design, how do you pick the best one for you? After all, it’s going to be a part of you forever.

Sometimes, the best advice is to just go for it: at the end of the day, the tattoo is going to remind you of your trip and the memories you made on it, and it may not even be about the design itself. Some of the popular choices, such as the coordinates of the place you’re visiting, can be made fairly small and placed practically wherever you want.

Most artists will have a “flash book” of available designs they’ll tattoo at a flat rate, so if you’re having trouble deciding, that can be a great place to start. Just keep in mind that those designs usually can’t be altered, so make sure you’re happy with them before you decide on it.

A final note: being friendly and respectful to your artist can go a long way. This means:

  • Not crowding the shop with large groups of friends (keep it to one or two extra people, maximum, and don’t get offended if they have to stay in the waiting area while you’re getting inked)
  • Being polite to everyone in the shop, from artists to other customers
  • If applicable, tipping your artist. In Southeast Asia, tipping your artist isn’t required (and could sometimes even be considered offensive)

Coordinates tattoo - flying with a new tattoo

Travelling with a new tattoo

So you’ve done it: you’re walking out of that studio, wielding your bandage like a badge of honour. Congrats! But if you’re in the middle of a tour, you still have to get through at least the flight home without damaging your new tattoo. So how do you do that?

First of all, your artist should usually provide you with aftercare instructions. These tend to vary depending on the artist, but they generally boil down to keeping the tattoo clean, away from direct sunlight, and moisturized, in order for it to heal properly. Doing that on tour, though, can sometimes be easier said than done! Fear not, because we’ve got you covered with all you need to know.

Can you fly with a new tattoo?

Flying with a new tattoo doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or complicated. There’s no time you have to wait between getting a new tattoo and getting on a plane, but, obviously, things get easier the longer it’s been since you got it.

The most important thing you need to consider when you’re flying with a new tattoo is how dry the air in a plane is. You’ve probably noticed before that your skin dries out and you feel dehydrated more easily when you fly, and that’s kryptonite to a tattoo. Be sure to pack a travel-sized bottle of unscented, uncoloured moisturizer, and apply it to your tattoo as often as you need.

tattooed man on a cliff- flying with a new tattoo

What clothing should you wear with a new tattoo?

Don’t worry: you don’t need any special clothing for a new tattoo. However, if you’re travelling somewhere particularly sunny (like Southeast Asia),  and your new art is somewhere exposed to the elements, it’s important to keep it out of direct sunlight as much as possible. Having something to cover your arms and shoulders, or wearing pants or long skirts, can make a huge difference in how your tattoo heals.

In saying that, however, tattoos also need to breathe! Try not to wear anything too tight over your tattoo. This will prevent ink from staining your clothes, in the early days, but will also give your tattoo the chance to air out.

If you’re planning a dip in the ocean or pool, be careful. New tattoos shouldn’t be submerged in water (and, as they are technically an open wound during the healing process, many public or hotel pools won’t allow you to swim with one anyway). It may be best to save your tattoo dreams until the end of your tour, to ensure you don’t miss out on anything!

tattooed hand in sand - flying with a new tattoo

Taking care of a new tattoo

The most important thing you can do for a new tattoo is to keep it moisturized! Not all moisturizers are created equal when it comes to tattoos, though, so make sure you find one that’s unscented, uncoloured, and gentle. Diaper rash cream can be a great option, as it’s relatively easy to find and guaranteed to protect very delicate skin.

As tattoos heal, they itch. Though it’s difficult to resist the urge to scratch, you must if you want your tattoo to look as beautiful as it did when you first got it. The solution, of course, is more moisture! While you shouldn’t be slathering on the lotion, thin layers at regular intervals will keep your tattoo looking and feeling great.

Tattoos in Asia: important tips

While getting tattooed in Southeast Asia will generally be the same as getting tattooed in most other places, there are a few things to consider. Depending on where you go, certain designs are considered offensive and could land you in hot water with your artist– or even the law. Here are a few important things to note before you decide to get a tattoo on your tour of Southeast Asia.

  • Thailand and Sri Lanka: in these largely-Buddhist countries, it is illegal to have a tattoo of the Buddha. In 2014, a British woman was arrested and deported from Sri Lanka for her Buddha tattoo.
  • Malaysia: as a mostly-Muslim country, laws governing tattoos are more strict. Permanent tattoos are forbidden in the Sunni Muslim religion, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get inked here. However, quotes or imagery relating to the Quran, Allah, or the Prophet Muhammad are strictly forbidden.
  • Vietnam: tattoos have grown more popular in recent years here, but in more rural areas it may be a good idea to cover up, if possible.

Sak Yant tattoos in Southeast Asia

While there’s always a range of options for getting tattooed in Southeast Asia, perhaps you’re looking for a more spiritual experience. Sak Yant tattoos, traditionally given and blessed by a monk, are a great option. Whether you opt for standing in line at a temple and allowing a monk to decide what you receive (not recommended, as generally the same needle is used to tattoo multiple people), or take a little more control over the process and visit a monk in a samnak, or private studio, getting a Sak Yant tattoo will be an unforgettable experience. The tattoo will come with a ceremony, in which your tattoo will be blessed with specific qualities and protections.

Have you ever gotten a tattoo while on tour? We’d love to see it! Show it off in the comments below.