A decade ago, transcontinental tattoo trips were rare, but nowadays, thousands of people make these pilgrimages. Some are collectors, others are first-timers. But thanks to more accessible travel and with social media helping spread artists’ work, there’s no shortage of people traveling for their dream tattoo.
Tattoos and traveling have been intertwined throughout history, though the origin is unknown. Before sailors were returning to Europe with Polynesian-style tattoos, pilgrims to the Holy Land were getting inked to mark their journey. Razzouk Tattoo in Jerusalem’s Old City claims to be in operation in some capacity since 1300 and still attracts long lines of pilgrims.
Today, “fine art tattoos are an investment in yourself,” said Paris-based tattoo artist Laura Martinez. “They will adorn you forever — for that reason, travel costs are less of a barrier than in other artistic fields.”
About a quarter of the clients who travel to see Martinez do it just for the tattoo. “Many clients will fly anywhere in the world to work together,” she said. “I’ve tattooed Americans in Brazil, French people in America, Japanese people in France, and so on.”
Martinez’s traveling clients often request “custom work,” meaning an idea brought by a client that the artist helps execute. “Because there is more intentionality in traveling for a tattoo,” Martinez said, “they usually have a specific idea for their project.”
Known for her clean-line work and botanical imagery, Martinez has been found by clients through word of mouth and through Instagram’s Discover feed. “Social media plays a bigger role than ever before,” she said.
Many of Brooklyn-based artist Adria Mercuri’s clients also request custom work. “A lot of that comes from people who’ve been wanting tattoos for quite a while or have had an idea for a while,” Mercuri said. “Then we’ll work together to kind of create that and build it over time.” The time it takes to design the work helps the client plan their trip since tattoos can take more than one session.
Up to 40 percent of her clients travel to get one of her pencil-drawing-style pieces, Mercuri said she estimated, though most still come from the Northeast. During the pandemic, Mercuri’s willingness to do custom work has helped secure clients. “People generally have a less intense attachment to [flash designs],” she said, referring to an artist’s original designs that some clients opt for.
Mercuri’s shopmate, Zachary Robinson-Bailey, who only does original or “flash” designs, noticed early on that clients were traveling for his colorful abstract designs. The first was a woman who took a six-hour bus from Cleveland to New York. For him it was overwhelming that she only came for the tattoo. “That experience [was] incredibly humbling,” he said.
Having access to nonlocal clients also lets Robinson-Bailey focus on his unique style. “Tattooing will always be a service, but there was a time where the goal was to be able to do anything. Now people go to the person who’s an expert in one thing,” he said.
Social media has played a big role in that. “With Instagram, it’s made it so people can seek out something really specific,” he said.
Chavane has traveled to New York for tattoos, but not for contemporary-style works such as Mercuri or Robinson-Bailey’s. He goes for “traditional” tattoo artists, which generally means 2D pieces bound by bold lines. Aside from multiple trips to Japan and New York, the Paris-based Chavane has also traveled around Europe and South America for tattoos.
“The real masters, you really need to make the effort to go see them, wherever they are,” Chavane said. “When you get tattooed by them, you know that it’s staying as it should be. The tattoo doesn’t fade.”
He also enjoys the destination. “The food is quite important for me,” Chavane said. “I’m going for nice beer and really good food and to enjoy the place as much as I can.” He will schedule tattoo appointments near the end of his trip so he can explore without experiencing residual pain, although an artist’s local recommendations on their favorite places can help guide a trip.
Barcelona-based artist Luciano Calderon started off in 2013 doing traditional-style tattoos, but he switched to his bolder style at the recommendation of a friend who was familiar with his paintings. Calderon posted a picture of that first tattoo on social media, and it took off.
Now, Calderon said, almost all clients travel to see him. “There’s a huge movement of people that just collect tattoos from all over the world,” Calderon said. “It’s more exclusive for them in whatever community they’re in, when they can show off the tattoos from tattooers they admire.”
The model is very different from the way it was before social media, Calderon noted, when artists were dependent on local clients or tattoo conventions. “It has to do with Instagram taking over most of contemporary tattooers’ careers,” he said.
Even artists in smaller cities draw faraway clients. Clients around the country fly in to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport to visit Nick York at Dark Age Tattoo in Denton, Tex. In a building from the 1800s on the main square, the shop is a fitting setting for York’s turn-of-the-century tattoos and use of historical fine-line technique.
York would have more clients from out of town, but he doesn’t accept multisession appointments from nonlocals, citing cases of canceled subsequent sessions.
A lot can be done in a single session though, such as the large-scale ship that York tattooed on the chest of Marine Staff Sgt. Joe Giordano. The nine-year serviceman began collecting traditional tattoos in 2015 to memorialize trips or deployments. “It was like, I should just get a tattoo everywhere I’ve been,” he said.
However, getting a traditional tattoo by an artist in Cambodia that didn’t practice the culture’s traditional style made Giordano rethink his approach. He began making tattoos the impetus for his travels rather than a souvenir. “Regardless of where it is, I want to get tattoos by some artists who know and love their craft and are imbued within the community.”
For artists, their trade can also be the thing that enables them to travel. Jill Whit’s work hasn’t taken her out of the country yet, but she’s developed enough of a following to do “guest spots” at shops in the United States.
The Salt Lake City-based artist’s pieces featuring faceless human figures on ceramics have a surreal quality that Whit imagines clients might not find if not for social media.
“[It] has really shifted it in a sense that you don’t necessarily need a shop in order to build a clientele,” she said. “You can create your own clientele.”
Fewer clients have made the trip to Utah lately because of the pandemic, but in the meantime, she continues to draw new followers on social media for future tattoos and for future guest spots around the country. “[Social media] can be devastating at points, but it’s validating to know there are people that think it’s cool and that they would want it on their body, especially where sometimes it can be a little niche.”