You’re a woman. You’re traveling solo. And you have tattoos? This one’s for you.
I love my tattoos. I’ve wanted them for as far back as I can remember and I fully intend to get more. But traveling as a woman with tattoos can draw unwanted attention, and when I travel, I find myself extra aware of them and the messages they’re sending.
Which means I often have to do things just a little bit differently, depending on where I am.
The Comfort Factor
In certain parts of the world, being a foreigner already makes you feel like you’re standing in front of the whole class in your underwear.
Everyone is looking at you, (some people are even giggling), you can feel it, and there’s no blending in or hiding. Add to that a few pieces of colorful artwork, and the fact that you’re female, and now you’re a target for added attention.
I’ve even had people physically grab me and stop me while I was walking so that they could get a better look at what tattoos I have (Thailand).
It can be jarring, and it happens, kind of a lot.
Tattoos are conversation starters and every single day someone says something to me along the lines of, “hey miss, nice tattoos!” or “what does your tattoo mean?” or the ultimate ICK phrase of all time, “ooh, you must like pain.”
In countries where staring is already a real problem (I’m looking at you, India), I take extra care to make sure I’m covered up as best as possible by bringing long-sleeved shirts, and always having a scarf or shawl I can throw on. Even when it’s balls-ass hot.
Am I Offending?
There’s also the very real and valid worry that your tattoos are offensive. In Sri Lanka, travelers with Buddhist tattoos and/or images of Buddha have been deported.
Culturally, there are many countries where tattoos are still taboo (Japan) and there are several other places where they’re becoming more common with the younger generations—just not for women (modern India).
I have certainly felt before that older women, specifically, look at me like I’m an impure heathen if they catch a snippet of ink on my skin.
If you’re traveling with tattoos that you can’t cover up, consider what they are—if they’re religious, anti-religious, political, or represent death (skulls, fire, etc), know that those types of tattoos might be particularly jarring to locals in other countries.
Tricks to Manage This
Now, it isn’t all bad–some people genuinely do just want to admire what you have going on and some countries think tattoos are really cool. I always spend the first couple of days on any trip looking at how the locals dress. Are they showing their arms or legs? Are other travelers?
If you’re moderately tattooed and can cover much of your ink, I think it’s always better to err on the side of caution and cover up, at least for the first few days when you arrive at a new destination and can assess the situation. I know some travelers who use bandages to cover their ink
If you’re heavily tattooed, well, you’re going to have to prepare yourself for heavier stares and comments.
When this happens, you can choose to keep on walking, or to stop, laugh, and say hello to the person hollering at you. I go back and forth on which option I choose, depending on my mood.
I always bring a long flowy scarf with me, and I cover up particularly in bus stations, train stations, on public transportation, or en route to my destination.
Be extra cautious in bus stations and train stations, which are notoriously sketchy, and on public transportation.
My Go-To Favorite Products That Help Are:
Countries To Be Careful In
Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand: Be mindful of any tattoo you have that is religious, or anti-religious. The Thai government believes these to be inappropriate, and other Buddhist religions are extremely sensitive about their religion being defaced, meaning you could find yourself in trouble here.
Vietnam, Japan: Tattoos are still perceived as being associated with criminal activity in these countries. In Japan, traveling as a woman with tattoos means they won’t allow you to enter an onsen, and in Vietnam, you might find yourself the brunt of extra scrutiny or questioning by authorities if you are tattooed.
Germany, Slovakia, France: If you have nazi symbols or anything associated with the third reich or white supremacy, don’t even come here. (And also, wtf were you thinking? Gross).
China, South Korea, North Korea: In China, if you have anything related to Tibet, Buddhism or North Korea, keep it hidden. In North Korea, if you have anything that’s not related to praising North Korea, be very careful.
Iran, Turkey & Muslim Countries: It is not traditional or common for women to be tattooed and therefore, keep your tattoos under wraps. In larger and more modern cities like Istanbul you’re less likely to have issue, but in smaller more devout towns it’s a real no-no.
Hi Kelly, this is all so true! as I continue to travel and collect ink, sometimes the attention can feel unbearable. I typically go with the cover up strategy, but man is it HOT and sometimes you feel frumpy, or even as if you’re being untrue to yourself. However, the alternative is feeling like a walking freak show LOL. Linking up with other travelers defi itely helps as youre now alone. Thanks for writing this!
Hey Cee, the struggle is definitely real! I was boiling when I was in India but there was no way I was going to walk around with my arms out all tattooed. The stares were enough as is! Glad to hear it resonated with you. Happy traveling!
Much of this rings true! In Ghana and Vietnam I found people would be keen to touch my tattoos and many would start taking photos of me without asking – some people asked, and were polite, but mostly not! Thailand I didn’t find anybody cared, and saw lots of other people with plenty of tattoos / lots of tattoo parlours, but I’m currently planning a trip to South America and keen to know any issues that may arise in places like Cuba where tattooing is effectively illegal now or Mexico where there are gang connotations
Whether men or women, we must take care at all times. Bdw, thanks for the information.
Hi! I am a tattoo artist and also avid solo female traveller 🙂 I travelled extensively in Cuba (circa 2008-2010) with full sleeves and a leg sleeve with no real issues back then. likely because they are lenient with tourists there… I did get lots of awkward offers to buy drugs haha (no thanks!) Mexico along the beach areas (PV, Cancun, Mazatlan) had zero issues, and same in Mexico City. I saw recently more local women in mexico with small tattoos so I think it is becoming more common, at least in cities. Honduras outside of the cities I got some looks but nothing aggressive. In Peru, out in the back country areas it was mostly curiosity, but in the cities no one really noticed.
Do you have any thoughts on Buenos Aires? I’m here now, with sleeves, and I feel like I stand out. I’ve noticed a lot of tattoos on younger men, but have seen only a couple women with tattoos on their ankles and they may be tourists too? I’m curious if it relates to their religious attitudes and machismo cultural?
I definitely felt the same way in BA. except in Palermo where there were lots of tattooed young people!
anyone been to Casablanca?
I’m in Bogota, Colombia, now and I was worried about my full sleeves (and my tattoo on my scalp). Mostly, no problems, and I’ve seen a few people my age (30) or younger with tattoos. However, I was stopped by police on my way back to my Air BnB, and I think my tattoos are the reason (my boyfriend had a much more frightening experience in Juarez, MX, and he told me some tattoos there signify cartel affiliation, and I inadvertently have a few, like an anchor and some sparrows…). Once I asked if they’d speak to me in English they backed off, I think they understood I’m a tourist, but it was pretty scary for a moment. Even though it’s warm here, I’ll be wearing my sweatshirt for the remainder of my visit!
I totally get where you’re coming from! I’ve had a few encounters with authorities and were pretty sure it was because I had tattoos. Thanks for sharing your experience and I hope you love Colombia!
My father and Turkish and I have traveled there alone to see my family twice in the last year once in the middle of summer and once in the spring both times
Wearing strictly shorts, shorter dresses and swim suits. I’ve never once had a problem or Ben disrespected in Istanbul I’m Adana where my father is from and even when I traveled right to the other side of Syria lol. My legs and arms and chest all have large viable tattoos.
I am in Panama right now and the 20-40 year range of local women stare at my sleeve. The women 40 – 60 range don’t care and seem to be very friendly when they see it. The men don’t seem to care. In Costa Rica and Nicaragua I had the same reactions.
Thank you for posting this article!
My daughter lives in Japan. She works for the BOE. She covers her tattoos at work to avoid unwanted attention (her coworkers don’t are that she has tattoos, she just does it as a sign of respect to the culture), but she has found a couple of onsens that will allow her and others with tattoos to visit. But as far as beaches, she won’t go swim because of the scrutiny surrounding tattoos in that country. This article is very helpful!