Traveling With Tattoos: Navigating Cultural Differences

While tattoo acceptance is on the rise, not every country will welcome your ink. So, it’s important to keep cultural sensitivities in mind. Here are our tips for tattoo etiquette when traveling.


A woman with arm and leg tattoos pulls a rolling suitcase down a cobbled street in Poland. Photo © Getty Images / luza studios

Over the last 16 years, I’ve been on the road full time, have made a career out of traveling and have traveled to nearly 100 countries. When I first started my journey, I only had one small tattoo but today I am fairly covered in tattoos and some of these, such as my finger tattoos, are not easy to hide.

I personally have not experienced any tattoo discrimination while traveling but I have found many people I meet are very interested in my tattoos. For me, my tattoos each tell a story and are in fact closely linked to my travels as I have been inked in a dozen countries and, on several occasions, have traveled specifically to meet with a tattoo master.

However, tattoo acceptance can vary within different cultures. Here are my tips for navigating cultural challenges when traveling with tattoos.

Visiting mosques with a tattoo

I’ve been to many mosques with my tattoos and haven’t encountered any problems. Obviously, when one visits a mosque, it is polite to cover up, so it’s not like I’m flashing my ink via a tank top. I haven’t heard of any tattooed travelers who did cover up encountering issues in mosques. But bear in mind, there are certain tattoo taboos you need to be aware of.

A traveler kneels on the floor of a mosque in Iran.
Soaking in some serene vibes in Iran’s gorgeous Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz. Image credit: Will Hatton

Traveling to Japan with a tattoo

The most common example is in Japan where, until 1948, tattoos were illegal, and the social stigma against tattoos still exists. Traditionally, tattoos in Japan were only reserved for members of the Yakuza (the so-called Japanese Mafia, except nastier and less pasta-loving), and so those sporting inked skin would be assumed to be a part of the criminal underworld and may face discrimination.

When I first visited Japan in 2014, many onsens had signs prohibiting the entrance of tattooed individuals. When I recently revisited the country in September 2023, I visited several onsens and didn’t see any signs relating to tattoos. However, other recent travelers have come across onsens that prohibit tattoos, especially in less-touristed areas. If that’s the case, it’s important to respect the local custom and find another option. Some onsens may offer a sleeve or bandage to wear, if your tattoos are small enough to be covered.

A traveler receives a bamboo tap tattoo in the Philippines.
Receiving a bamboo tap tattoo from Whang Od, The Philippines’ famous mambabatok. Image credit: Will Hatton

Face and neck tattoos

Planning trips with tattoos is not especially difficult unless you are inked in very prominent locations. If you have face or neck tattoos, especially if you have opted to go with something controversial, you may face some challenges.

When I’m not traveling, I live in Bali, and while the island is known for being pretty liberal and forward-thinking, there are bars and clubs that forbid the entrance of those with face or neck tattoos. I kind of understand the reasoning behind this as often face tattoos appear quite intimidating and are associated with gangs and crime. While I’m sure there are plenty of lovely individuals with face tattoos, if you are traveling with such a prominent tattoo, you will likely encounter some strange looks and potentially some discrimination.

Traveling with a tattoo of the Buddha

There is one country where you have to be really careful when it comes to tattoos and that is Sri Lanka. In recent years, some travelers have been arrested and deported for having visible Buddha tattoos. It isn’t specifically against the law to have a Buddha tattoo, but authorities are sensitive to any perceived disrespect of their God, and fair enough. Sri Lanka is one of my favorite countries to go backpacking; it’s super laid back, relaxed, and friendly. But if you do have a Buddha tattoo, I strongly recommend playing it safe and covering it up while traveling in this part of the world, or Thailand for that matter.

In Thailand, you will often spot signs informing travelers that “Buddha is for respecting; Not decoration, not tattoo” and this is another country where one must be aware that tattoo acceptance varies across different cultures. In general, Thais have no problem with tattoos and in fact Sak Yant tattoos remain an important part of the culture of Buddhist monks. However, it can be deemed as incredibly impolite to tattoo a culture’s God across your chest. If you do choose to do this, I recommend ensuring you get this tattoo somewhere that’s easy to cover up.

Tips for respectful tattoo display in foreign countries

While in the past, there were legitimate challenges for tattooed travelers, these days most cultures are pretty accepting and accustomed to travelers with ink. On my own journeys around the world, my tattoos have often worked as a great ice breaker as people want to know where I got them and what they stand for.

A man displays his many tattoos from artists around the world.
Some of the author's tattoos from over a dozen artists around the world. Image credit: Will Hatton

It is important that we respect local customs when traveling, though. That comes down to covering up when entering religious places or cultural heritage sites. This is obviously much more challenging if you have face tattoos but even then, it can be done using a scarf or a buff.

If, however, you have a Buddha tattoo on your face… well, maybe you should just avoid Sri Lanka and Thailand. Ultimately, you have to understand that you are a guest in somebody else’s country and while you might not agree with how they view tattooed travelers you have to act with respect. Don’t become a diva and start shouting at some poor guy who’s just trying to do his job by ensuring people follow the cultural norms when entering a place of worship or cultural significance.

Fellow inked travelers, I wish you happy trails and encourage you to consider seeking out tattoo masters around the world. A tattoo pilgrimage is a truly rewarding adventure.

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