In today’s travel guides to Japan, tattoos are generally only mentioned in the context of places where tourists should be prepared to cover them up, such as gyms, public pools and bathing houses known as onsens. A century ago, it was a very different story.
Guidebooks, like Basil Hall Chamberlain’s 1893 “Handbook for Travellers in Japan,” feature ads for fine art galleries that double as tattoo parlors; you could pick up a piece of Japanese pottery while getting a more permanent souvenir. In “Vacation Days in Hawaii and Japan,” published in the early 1900s, Philadelphia-based writer Charles M. Taylor Jr. devotes multiple pages to a meeting with Hori Chiyo, an artist who claimed to have tattooed the British princes Albert Victor and George (the future King George V).
In Japan at the time, tattoos were seen as a sign of degeneracy. They were used to brand criminals — and for those criminals to then cover up their brands. As the country opened up to the West for the first time, the emperor outlawed the art, seeing it as antithetical to modernity. Ironically, tattooing for tourists remained legal — and, as Chamberlain wrote in a 1905 travel guide, the Japanese take on the art was considered the champagne of tattooing: “an art as vastly superior to the ordinary British sailor’s tattooing as Heidsieck Monopole is to small beer.”
Today, tattoos are popular among travelers, as ways to pay homage to a place (e.g., Japanese kanji script, an iconic building) or to traveling as a way of life (e.g., a compass, a map of the world). But how far back does the practice go? The history of tattooing as a way to mark travels is hard to pin down. But there is something that most scholars agree on: The most common origin story is wrong, and the meaning of tattoos isn’t always clear cut.
Tracing back to the Holy Land
Yes, Capt. James Cook sailed the Pacific Ocean in the 18th century, and many of his crewmen may have received tattoos from the Polynesian people they encountered along the way. Sometimes there may have even been an overlap in the reasons British and Polynesian sailors got tattoos: protection, for example. The letters “H-O-L-D F-A-S-T” tattooed across the knuckles was thought to save a sailor when letting go of a rope was a matter of life and death.
But the common narrative that those sailors were the first people to bring tattoos back to Europe isn’t true. Rather, according to some, it’s a story rooted in some of the same instincts that make people get tattooed on their travels today.
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“There’s a misconception in certain Western cultural memory that tattooing is sort of something that’s foreign,” says Matt Lodder, senior lecturer of art history at the University of Essex in England. “Certainly that’s what drove a lot of the history: it was part of a cultural encounter, acquiring something ‘exotic.’”
Igrejinha, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
The Araucaria, a massive and endangered tree species, grows in Brazil. In one of my trips to my hometown of Igrejinha, RS, in 2017, I got it tattooed on my left arm. The exposed roots depict my nomadic nature. I’ll always be a Gaúcha, but my grounding comes from within.
On a ship in deep water traveling toward Papeete, Tahiti
While turning 65, I was traveling around French Polynesia again on a hybrid cargo ship called the Aranui 5. In 2008, I had taken the line north from Tahiti to the Marquesas Islands. This 2019 trip was a rare one heading to the Southern Archipelagos and Pitcairn.
Eddie was a Marquesan tattoo artist who worked other jobs on the ship as needed. On this trip, he was a dishwasher. He waited until the sea was less choppy. He held my leg down on the table and created art for my first tattoo while the ship rocked.
Years ago, when I only had a single tattoo, the artwork from Xoil went viral. I was mesmerized by his work and vowed if I was ever in Lausanne, Switzerland, I would visit his shop. Amid a four-month roving trip, I decided it was the perfect time to make an appointment and get a tattoo symbolizing the global journey I was currently on, my love for travel, and striving for continued growth. “To travel well is better than to arrive,” is a favorite quote from philosopher Alan Watts.
I’m a journalist. When Obama lifted travel restrictions on Cuba, I was determined to visit. I traveled to Cuba last year and decided to report a story about the tattoo industry. Like many industries, tattoos occupy a gray area in Cuba: They’re technically illegal, but are popular and operate out in the open. I interviewed the owner of La Marca in Havana about challenges of running his business and got a tattoo as part of the story. Trying to conduct an interview while getting inked is a challenge!
I work remotely for Tattoodo and travel often to visit artists. I had to go to Seoul because the artwork there is mind-blowing. Tattooing is mostly illegal in Korea [except when performed by a medical professional]. I visited Sol Studio because it’s very popular. It was completely different from any shop I’ve seen. I saw Youyeon and got a recreation of a photograph by Zhang Huan, a Buddhist artist who really inspires me. It turned out beautifully.
During the summer of 1963 between high school and college, I was hitchhiking around the country. My final stop was New Orleans, where I lived on Bourbon Street, flipping hamburgers to pay the rent. In wee hours after work after having much beer, my classmate and I decided to get tattoos of anchors. They would be our ticket to jobs on a freighter to see the world, we decided, instead of going to college. Though that freighter gig didn’t happen, the aspirational tattoo foreshadowed my life of endless traveling.
I’m 73 years old and have been to 73 countries, including an around-the-world trip. I lusted for a tattoo in so many exotic places, back roads of Shanghai, along the river in L’Isle sur la Sorgue [in southeastern France], but as a single woman traveler in a certain era, my dear, it just wasn’t done. About 10 years ago, planning my next escape, I popped into the artist who’d done my niece’s full-body tattoos and started my next adventure with this one that tells what I’m all about. Then left for the airport.
Each IATA (International Air Transport Association) code represents one of my favorite cities. Each of these places has a beautiful memory, and I wanted it to last. I lived in Florence (FLR) for six months and fell in love with Italy, as most do. I backpacked through Rome (FCO), Berlin (TXL) and Dubrovnik (DBV). Corfu (CFU) is special for my own reasons. New York (JFK) has been such a great place to visit, where I saw “Hamilton” and have many other memories.
My first solo travel was to Peru in summer 2018. It was a tumultuous time in my life. I was in therapy for anxiety and depression and coming to terms with being a survivor of sexual assault. When hiking Huayna Picchu, I reached a point where I was completely alone and thinking about my growth over the past year. At that exact moment, a butterfly landed on my leg and stayed on my hand as I walked for about 20 minutes. This was a deeply spiritual moment for me — a symbol of my metamorphosis.
My tattoo wasn’t inspired by travel; in a way, it was the other way around.
I am a geologist, and in my early training I became aware of 1900s scientist Alfred Wegener. Wegener surmised that the world was once one place, the supercontinent Pangea. That is my tattoo. Before I had ever traveled, by looking at Wegener’s map of the world, I knew that all things were connected.
Mammoth Lakes, Calif., and Atlanta
I’ve had the opportunity to travel quite a bit. Having my passport stamps in a book wasn’t enough though, so I decided a cool way to fill in my left arm would be to get the stamps tattooed. These are some of my favorites, one from each continent as well as including a stamp from Port Lockroy in Antarctica. I also got a little old-school tattoo to commemorate my seventh continent.
In my last semester of college, I had the opportunity to work for a Copenhagen-based nonprofit. It was my first time out of the country as an adult, and I lived near downtown with almost total independence. I got to truly examine my resilience and vulnerability for the first time and wanted to commemorate that. My tattoo shows my resilience guarding my vulnerability, but still evolving. And I can color it in to match my mood or outfit.
As a lifelong cyclist, it was my dream to ride the mythic routes of Le Tour de France. In 2011, that dream came true when at age 57, I finally rode in the Alps, including the cathedral climb of Alpe d’Huez. The left calf shows the route of that climb. In 2013, nearly 60 years old, I returned and rode solo a full stage of the Tour-100 miles (right calf). Dreams do come true, and my ink has provoked many stories and inspired many others.
End of carousel
Tracing the history of Europeans getting tattoos to mark trips to distant lands brings us much further back than British nobility visiting Japan or even sailors returning from the Pacific islands with the bold, black Polynesian tattoos that are still popular today.
Both Lodder and Lars Krutak, a tattoo anthropologist, pinpoint some of the first instances of traveler tattoos in Europe to pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. In the 1600s, a trip to Jerusalem was arduous, dangerous and the ultimate way to show just how good of a Christian you were. There, Coptic Christians from Egypt had tattooing down to a brisk business, using carved blocks to replicate commonly requested designs, like the Jerusalem cross — a grid of four small crosses around one central cross — accompanied by the year of the pilgrimage.
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“By having a stencil block premade, they could just stamp it on somebody’s arm and go on to the next person,” Krutak says. “On holy days, you’d have a line of people out the door and around the block.”
Hundreds of years later, some of those blocks can still be found at Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem’s Old City. Claiming to be in operation in some capacity since 1300 and run by the 27th generation of tattooists in the Razzouk family, the shop still attracts long lines of pilgrims during Easter festivities.
By the 19th century, tattooing was integral to the pilgrimage tradition in Jerusalem, to the point that even British nobility — the future King George V among them — were getting inked as a way to show their piety. At the same time, according to Lodder, some visitors complained about it being too commercialized.
“We have traveler accounts from the 1850s, where people are complaining about how dirty, busy and noisy it is,” Lodder says. “And in those descriptions, you have peddlers selling trinkets in a big list of things found objectionable, right alongside all the tattoo shops.”
They were descriptions that would be just as applicable to tourist strips in Bali or Cancun today. Or New York City’s Bowery neighborhood at the turn of the 20th century.
A different kind of pilgrimage
Starting around the 1880s, the Bowery in Lower Manhattan was a destination for a far less wholesome kind of pilgrimage.
“The Bowery was the place that you came to in New York City when you wanted to have fun, get in trouble, do some drinking, maybe do some fighting — and get tattooed,” says Michelle Myles, a co-owner of Daredevil Tattoo in New York’s Lower East Side. “Whether it was with tourists, sailors or New Yorkers, the Bowery just had this reputation as a playground for the working class.”
Myles, who also led tattoo history walking tours of the neighborhood before the coronavirus pandemic, says she often meets visitors from all over the world looking for vestiges of that past.
Myles and her business partner, Brad Fink, opened Daredevil Tattoo in 1997, the year tattooing was re-legalized in the city after being banned since 1961. Today, the shop doubles as a museum, with artifacts including a Thomas Edison electric pen that the first electric tattoo machines were based off, signage from Charles Wagner’s shop, where he was famous for giving tattoos for a quarter, and plenty of “flash” (tattoo designs) from the Bowery’s glory days.
As a tourist attraction itself, Daredevil has always received a steady stream of visitors looking to mark their trip to New York City. Oftentimes, they will pick a design “off the wall,” where the shop has vintage flash on display. Many will go for more predictable images of New York: a linework skyline of the city is a common request. But Myles says that what comes to symbolize New York City varies from person to person. Case in point? Her husband’s New York tattoo depicts a cockroach riding a rat.
Tribute or appropriation?
Of course only talking about Europeans and their descendants in the United States traveling around the world and getting tattoos ignores large populations. Indigenous groups across all six inhabited continents have incorporated tattooing into their traditions for thousands of years. Tattoos told uplifting stories of cultural exchange, like shipwrecked sailors who married into Polynesian families and got the tattoos to mark their new allegiances, or French fur traders in North America who got tattoos from their indigenous colleagues. But there were far less harmonious interactions, too.
Krutak, for example, talks about an Inuit mother and daughter, both tattooed, who in the 1560s were taken from their home in the Arctic and sent to Belgium to be put on display in taverns. Some time later, a tattooed man from an island that is now part of the Philippines was taken to London to be shown off. He died of smallpox.
“Christian doctrine stated that to mark one’s skin was basically the mark of Cain,” Krutak says. “And so people were fascinated by these individuals.”
Long before the Western narrative of exoticism, some indigenous people were using tattoos to mark their own travels. The word “tattoo” itself comes from Polynesian languages. Krutak points to the Iban “bejalai” tradition in Borneo, for example, wherein young men were sent away from their communities as a rite of passage. As they explored the wilds and neighboring settlements, they received tattoos to mark their journeys.
I planned my vacation around getting this tattoo. I’d been following the artist on Instagram for a little over a year when he posted a series of flash designs that were up for grabs. I saw the “Girl with the Pearl Earring” and knew I had to have her, so I wired him a deposit and then started making plans to get myself to Germany. The artist, Fynn Röller-Siedenburg, was pretty young at the time and had only been tattooing for 2 years, but was absolutely wonderful. He even gave me some tips for things to do in the city!
I got this tattoo in 2019 on my first solo trip — a stopover in Lisbon on my way to Senegal. There was a tattoo parlor and vintage shop close to my hostel, so I walked in and struck up a conversation with a woman who happened to be the tattoo artist. She was sketching eyes in her notebook, and I loved the designs. She started free handing on my arm; first just the evil eye and eventually the hamsa design. Two hours later and less than four hours after arriving in Portugal, I had new ink.
Backpacking through rural Laos, I began seeing dozens of U.S. bombs from the Vietnam War that had been upcycled into flower pots. The locals carefully cut open the undetonated bombs, took out the explosives and planted beautiful flowers. What a wonderful analogy for taking something negative and deadly and creating something beautiful and positive.
Dan Q. Dao
New York City
I had just come back from two weeks in Vietnam. There was a moment, a few days after I got back to NYC, that I realized I was going to move to Vietnam. It was the first time I’d said it aloud. So one night when I was a little tipsy, I stopped into a St. Mark’s Place tattoo shop and got a phoenix, after my mom’s Viet name, to signify my commitment to chase a new chapter of my life in Vietnam. For children of immigrants, traveling can also mean going home.
I started this trend on my 25th birthday where I would get a tattoo, usually with just an idea of what I want but no real outline. This one is an illustration of what President Obama said during a speech in Virginia about “The sun will always rise, and you will be okay” that always just really vibed with me. I got it on my 26th birthday at a random shop in Barcelona. Came out perfect.
From 2010 to 2012, I taught in a rural village in the mountains of China. To reach the school, you had to take an overnight bus from the province capital, exit at an unmarked side of the road and climb a staircase of 400 steps up the side of a mountain. The four American teachers placed in the region decided to mark our years of service and learning with something permanent: a tattoo that depicted the very roads we had walked, biked and bused so many times to and from our schools.
“You have to get a tattoo from Ondrash!” said my Foreign Service colleague when she found out that I was going to Berlin. “He has a two-year waitlist.” And so that was one of the first things I did before I arrived in Germany for a two-year tour with the diplomatic corps ― sign up for this artist’s waitlist and hope that I get off it before I departed. I knew that I wanted something that represented my spirituality and belief in a higher being that influences our timing and luck.
All of my 13 tattoos are from different states I’ve visited. This one is a blue guitar with “Of things exactly as they are“ wrapped around it. The quote comes from a poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” by Wallace Stevens. I first read it in high school, and it’s been my favorite poem ever since. The idea of creating your own reality resonates with me.
I was in Barcelona in summer 2017. I had just been spectacularly dumped. Existential discussions led me to get a tattoo inspired both by the spirals in Gaudi architecture and an Oliver Wendell Holmes poem, “The Chambered Nautilus.” The nautilus reminds us that our life’s journey is never done. Even when we think we’ve found the ultimate chamber, we eventually outgrow it. To stop growing is to stop living. This symbol is a good reminder to always embrace change and growth, even if it wasn’t in the plans.
End of carousel
Krutak believes that those young men were getting tattooed for reasons that aren’t so different from today’s travelers getting a permanent reminder of their journeys. “These guys were also taking a souvenir; a story to talk about, of this incredible journey,” Krutak says. “It’s something they can always share with their family and friends.”
The thick blackwork of Iban tattooing became popular around the world with non-Iban travelers in the 1970s, in part because of a few intrepid tattooers who went into Borneo to get tattooed by some of the last remaining masters of the tradition and learned the craft. With that, of course, came questions of appropriation. You only need to go to Venice Beach in Los Angeles for an afternoon to see a plethora of “tribal tattoos,” derivative of Polynesian traditions that go back thousands of years. So when is it okay to mark yourself with a souvenir that might intersect with the traditions of another culture?
For Indian tattoo artist Moranngam Khaling, who goes by Mo Naga, it is a question that he grapples with daily. Mo Naga, who splits his time between Delhi and his home state of Manipur in the country’s northeast, has spent the past decade devoted to reviving the traditional tattooing practices of his people, the Naga, a group made up of more than 30 tribes spread across northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. To do so, he has spent years traveling in the northeastern regions the Naga call home, talking to elders who are the last people to have the tattoos that were once commonplace.
After years of research, Mo Naga began offering tattoos that used many of the motifs and symbols of traditional Naga tattooing, something he dubbed “Neo-Naga.” Today, he says, over 80 percent of his clients are members of the more than 30 tribes that make up the Naga, but travelers from abroad play a role in reviving a lost art and spreading awareness of its importance.
“I have a very tough job,” Mo Naga says over the phone from his home in Manipur. “But people who come to me are also very conscious about appropriation, they have no idea what they are going to get, and they want to be part of the revival. They know this is something important.”
Mo Naga says he gets regular requests on social media from people overseas asking for Naga designs they can use in their tattoos, but he always refuses. A big part of his process is the consultation, in which Mo Naga explains the history of Naga tattooing and the intricacies of the tradition to his client, and then they settle on an appropriate design.
“Sometimes that consultation can go on for one whole day — and the actual tattoo might just take an hour,” Mo Naga says.
Some off-limits tattoos, regardless of the tourist, include the tattoos that were once given to headhunters to mark their bravery in battle and those that symbolize family lineage. Instead, Mo Naga often opts for motifs that draw from the natural world, something relevant to both the Naga people and his clients from far away.
Mo Naga, who is in Manipur working on building a Tattoo Village where people would come to learn more about traditional Naga art, hopes that the travelers he tattoos today could lead to more interest in the at-risk tradition.
“When you have a Neo-Naga tattoo on your body, you become a cultural ambassador for my people: you will be telling a story about us to the world,” Mo Naga says. “You’ll be spreading the news of a dying tradition, and maybe you’ll get my people excited and interested in preserving and protecting it.”