If you’ve got ink, chances are you love to show it off.
I don’t blame you. I have eight tattoos so far and no plans to stop anytime soon.
But there are times when I’m traveling that I am hyperaware of my body art. There are still several countries where tattoos are taboo. While you might get some slack as a tourist, it is important to be mindful of your destination’s culture.
Also, just be aware that your art might be really fascinating to folks wherever you go. I have a few tattoos of cartoon characters and tend to get some stares when I go abroad. It can be fun to have strangers admire your ink, just make sure you’re respecting their cultural differences. Be sure to do a bit of research before you fly to avoid uncomfortable situations.
To help you get started, here are some countries where tattoos are still taboo:
Tattoos are not illegal in Iran, despite the popular rumor you can find through a simple Google search. Culturally, however, tattoos are still widely seen as a symptom of Westernization and therefore are frowned upon. They are also not forbidden, or “haram”, by Islamic law unless they show obscene imagery–so just be mindful of what tattoos you have that are visible.
United Arab Emirates (UAE)
Though not expressly forbidden by religious law in Iran, they are seen as a violation of Islamic beliefs in UAE. It is believed that tattoos are an act of self harm, so ink is not viewed favorably at all.
Like UAE and Iran, tattoos are frowned upon for religious reasons in Turkey. Again, it is not illegal to have tattoos despite popular internet myths. Just be mindful of what you have tattooed (is it obscene or vulgar?) to consider if you should cover them while visiting Turkey.
Despite its storied history of tattoo art, Japan still has a complicated relationship with body art. Gangs utilize tattoos to distinguish members and criminals used to be marked with tattoos to symbolize their criminality so everyone would know their place. These connections to the history of tattoos in Japan caused certain public places like pools and public baths to have tattoo policies.
Just know where you are going if you’re in Japan so you can be prepared to cover up if necessary.
China has a similar history with tattoos as Japan where ink symbolizes organized crime. You’ll notice significant cultural differences between rural and urban parts of China which will also impact how your tattoos are perceived. In more Westernized cities like Beijing and Shanghai people will likely be more accepting of visible ink, at least that was my experience.
In the same vein as Japan and China, tattoos have a history of gang and criminal association in Vietnam. Be aware of your visible ink while traveling in the more rural areas. Again, like China, urban areas tend to be more accepting of the aesthetic of tattoo culture.
In Sri Lanka it isn’t so much an issue of having a tattoo, it’s more an issue of what you have tattooed. If you have any Buddhist imagery ink, cover it. Buddhist tattoos are offensive to the people of Sri Lanka, so cover up or you might get arrested like a British nurse did in 2014.