A couple of years ago, one of my housemates ‘Sarah’ went travelling to India, where she and her friends all decided to get souvenir tattoos. Souvenir travel tattoos or “tattourism” is becoming a common, fun way that more and more of us are doing to celebrate our trips. A lot of the time, the cost of getting a tattoo overseas is much cheaper than getting it done in Australia.
A 2019 survey by Hostelworld about “tattourism”, found that nearly one in three Australians have said they’ve gotten ink overseas and of those, a third said that their decision to get that tattoo was spontaneous. Over half say they’ll consider getting another tattoo on their next trip overseas!
Souvenir tattoos continue to rise as a popular trend and it’s becoming easy to get a tattoo on the spur of the moment. When I was backpacking in Europe in 2017, I stayed in a popular hostel in Rome that was well known for its tattoo service. I could easily put in a request and a local tattoo artist would come by the hostel to ink me. It was as easy as that.
When she got back to Sydney, Sarah started to feel unwell. After a week of fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain and feeling pretty under the weather, she went to a doctor with what she thought was a severe case of the flu.
When her doctor asked her if she’d been overseas recently, she happily talked about the trip and proudly showed him the healing tattoo. It was a shock to hear him suggest, he immediately test her for hepatitis C and HIV!
Getting inked overseas is usually cheaper and a cool way to commemorate a trip abroad. It can also be a major risk to your health.
Tattoo and piercing artists in Australia are guided by strict laws that enforce high standards of infection control practices. This protects you as well as your artist from the risk of getting a range of bacterial and fungal infections as well as blood-borne viruses (BBVs) including HIV, hepatitis B (HBV), and hepatitis C (HCV).
When you get a tattoo or piercing overseas, this can be super dangerous to your health especially if that country doesn’t follow the same infection control practices we’re used to here in Australia. These can be hygiene practices like having a well-lit and ventilated space to work in, a supply of clean, warm water, transferring the ink into single use containers for your tattoo, or cleaning your skin with a skin antiseptic. Additionally, personal protective equipment (PPE) such as single-use disposable gloves, and following universal precautions and infection control practices with the use of single-use needles, and single-use disposable razors if you need shaving before the tattoo should be standard practice. When parlours and artists don’t follow these standards, you run the risk of picking up a number of unexpected infections or viruses.
Sarah was shaken when her GP asked her to have a blood test to check for hepatitis C and HIV. The last thing she thought about when getting her beautiful mandala tattoo, was the risk of catching a blood borne virus! While her results came back negative for HIV or any type of hepatitis, she found out she had Dengue fever instead, which can be quite serious in some people.
The situation was a wakeup call for Sarah. She’s more aware of the risks of getting a tattoo overseas and she knows what to look for.
Schoolies is another a really popular time for many young Aussies to head overseas to celebrate the end of high school. Just last year, there were reports that a popular Bali nightclub was offering young schoolies $20 tattoos in what was termed ‘filthy conditions’. Other young people haven’t been as fortunate as Sarah. A few years ago, we heard of two young men who celebrated the end of school in Bali. They both got tattoos while on holiday and unfortunately it wasn’t long before they’d unknowingly contracted HIV and also transmitted it to their girlfriends. Four young lives were instantly changed for life.
As a young person myself who has often thought about a piercing and tattoo on an overseas trip, I’m glad my indecisiveness stopped me. I wish we had more education in high school about how to get tattoos and piercings in a safe way. It’s definitely something we need to talk about with each other more.
At the end of last year, my 19-year-old younger brother was planning his trip to Bali with his school mates. One of the things he was most excited for? A cheap first tattoo. After we talked about what he and his friends knew about the risks of getting tattoos and piercings, I asked him to think twice about getting it.
The risk of acquiring HIV is very real today in 2020. Whether that be through unprotected sex (with anyone of any gender or sexuality!) or blood to blood transmission through unsterile injecting, tattooing and piercing equipment. It can happen to anyone. I think one of the biggest risks to young people today is our lack of knowledge about HIV.
If you’ve had a tattoo overseas in the past few years, it would be a good idea to get tested for both HIV and hepatitis, to make sure you haven’t picked up anything unexpected.
Knowing your health status can take a weight off your mind. You’ll be able to get a free test at any GP who bulk bills, or at any sexual health clinic in NSW or any Aboriginal Community Health Service.
Some quick tips if you’re thinking about an overseas tattoo:
- Research the tattoo parlour before you visit.
- Ask your artist about cleaning and sterilisation practices.
- Look around. Make sure they are wearing gloves, using new needles, sterile equipment opened in front of you and disposable ink pots. Check out the NSW Health safety precautions required by artists and parlours in NSW here.
- Tattoos are expensive. Cheap doesn’t always equal quality.
- Check if your travel insurance covers holiday tattoo complications. If they don’t and if you have any reactions, complications or infections, this cost will be out of your pocket and could be pricey.
- Get a free HIV and hepatitis C test when you return to Australia.
If you have any questions you can ask anonymously and get answers from the NSW Sexual Health Infolink (SHIL) line on 1800 451 624.
Check out our HIV & Tattoos and Piercings Factsheet. If you have any questions about HIV, tattoos and piercings, you can also call Positive Life NSW and chat to one our Treatments Officers on (02) 8357 8386 or 1800 245 677 (freecall) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.