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.