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“It it safe?”, a young Spanish backpacker asked me right before she was about to go under the needle.
“Yeah, you’ll be fine, don’t worry”, I responded, “…but you do realize he’s my boyfriend, right? Of course I’m going to say it’s safe!”.
And it was. My boyfriend at the time, a Thai tattoo artist based in Chiang Mai, was very careful with the safety, cleanliness and quality of his work, tools and materials. But after years of being around his shop, I’m still amazed at the blind trust travelers put in him without doing their research or asking important questions beforehand. They got lucky choosing his shop.
When people found out I was dating a tattoo artist they’d often ask about the safety and quality of tattoos in Thailand. I imagine they’re probably thinking about the lower food hygiene standards compared to home and are wondering if there’s a difference in tattoo standards as well.
The answer is yes…and no. It all depends on where you go and it’s up to you to try and get the most information you can before making a decision on who will tattoo you. There are plenty of professional, high quality shops that follow the same practices you’d find in shops in the U.S, for example, but there are also plenty of shops that don’t make cleanliness and hygiene a top priority. Thailand doesn’t require special licenses or inspections to do tattoos so the level of safety and cleanliness is entirely up to the artist.
I once talked to a customer who had just been in the islands and saw someone getting a tattoo on the floor of a dingy shop. The tattoo artist was doing the tattoo with one hand and holding a cigarette in the other. Probably not the best idea.
So how do you go about finding someone you trust? The same way you would if you were getting a tattoo in your home country – take time to check the practices, styles and prices at several shops before choosing one and ask the following questions.
How long has the person been working as a tattoo artist?
An artist’s asking price should also reflect their experience. Would you rather pay less for someone who is just starting out tattooing, or pay more for someone who really knows what they’re doing?
Can you see pictures of their completed work?
This should include pictures with them actually working so you know it’s their own work and not images taken from other artists. Look at the styles they do most commonly – do they fit with the design you’re looking for?
Are the needles new?
You should be able to clearly see if they’re using new needles that are sealed in individual packages.
Do they use an autoclave?
An autoclave is a type of sterilizer that uses pressure and steam to sterilize tattoo equipment. (They’re also used for surgical tools, hospital equipment, etc.)
Where do the inks they use come from?
Just like anything else, the quality of tattoo ink can vary with low quality ink resulting in tattoos that fade or discolor more quickly. Believe it or not, there are also counterfeit tattoo inks – knock off inks that have copied labels from real brands. Ask where the inks they use come from and what makes them good quality.
Do they take time to answer your questions and concerns? Or are they pushing you to agree to the job?
Are you getting the answers and information you need? Do you feel comfortable that they understand what you’re looking for and nothing is lost in translation?
Are they willing to give you a tattoo if you’re obviously drunk?
It may seem like a good idea at the time, but if you were sober, would you trust someone willing to give you a tattoo when you’re shitfaced? This is more of a moral issue but, in my opinion, a tattoo artist willing to tattoo you when you’re drunk and possibly not making the best decisions doesn’t have your best interest in mind.
Other things to look for:
Obviously, you need to feel comfortable with the shop and the artist. If you don’t like the look or feel of the place, even if things seem clean, go somewhere else. It’s also good if you can find an artist through a recommendation from someone you trust or take a peek at the artist actually working on someone.
For cleanliness and healing, practices and timelines will depend on the size and placement of your tattoo. However, no matter the size, you should not get a tattoo right before you’re heading to the beach, trekking in the jungle or spending a day with elephants. Keep this in mind when deciding when and where you’re going to get work done.
Additionally, as with anything, the term “you get what you pay for” usually holds true and going with the cheapest deal isn’t always the smartest choice. Sure there’s flexibility in most tattoo artist’s prices and they’re willing to haggle a little, this is Asia after all, but they also should be paid fairly for the quality of their work. Their years of experience, the quality and cost of materials (ink, needles, machine, cleaning supplies, etc.), the time spent on your tattoo and the complexity of the design all factor into the final cost.
There have been some tourists who have come into the shop and, thinking everything in Thailand is dirt cheap, demanded to have a tattoo done for the equivalent of $30. Would you really trust someone to tattoo you for $30?? You can probably find someone willing to do it, but you can be sure that the safety and quality of their work will match the low price. Keep in mind too that the artist needs to spend time before and after your actual inking session to prepare your image and supplies, then clean everything after. Their job isn’t done as soon as you’re out of the chair.
Getting a traditional Thai tattoo, known as sak yant (pictured in the first photo), is a popular choice among many travelers. The beliefs and traditions surrounding sak yant are wrapped in history and magic and worth their own post. Many travelers will have the designs tattooed in a regular studio, but for the full sak yant experience and power, you need to be tattooed by a monk or special teacher.
A great resource on getting a sak yant tattoo in Thailand is WSE Travel not only you can read more about the practice, you can also get help organizing your own trip to receive a sak yant in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. (Note that the process and practices for getting a sak yant tattoo at a temple are often much different than in a studio and cleanliness levels vary – for example, needles are sometimes reused, though not on the WSE trips. Do your research beforehand to make sure you’re fully comfortable with the practice.)
Have you gotten a tattoo in Thailand before? Where’d you go and how was your experience? What tips would you share with others looking to do the same?