New Zealand Maori warrior


Top 5 destinations to get a traditional tattoo

Published August 28th, 2013

These days tattoos are terribly passé. Walk down the main street of any major town and chances are you will encounter a colourful assortment of ink. What was once the domain of gangsters and sailors is nowadays de rigueur, however there are still some places where tattooing remains a traditional art form. So put away your stencils and prepare for some old-school pain, as we explore some of the world’s top destinations for traditional tattoos.



New Zealand

When James Cook and his men navigated the treacherous straits of the South Pacific, they were greeted by scores of impressively tattooed Polynesian warriors.  The indigenous Māori of eastern Polynesia have engaged in the practice of tā moko – literally face and body carving – for centuries, and they brought the art form with them when they migrated to New Zealand.


Traditional tā moko all but died out in the second half of the 20th Century, however the practice is now returning to the skin of a new generation of Kiwis. While it’s mainly done by tattoo machines rather than the traditional chisels – or uhi – once favoured, the elaborate patterns and intricate lines continue to denote complex genealogical and tribal histories.



While the history of tattooing in Japan dates back thousands of years, it was not until the Edo period between 1603 and 1868 that tattoos first became a common sight. The ukiyo-e world of woodblock printing also gave rise to irezumi – the traditional Japanese form of tattooing. It’s not for the faint-hearted, with the tebori style of hand tattooing involving a row of ink-laden needles tied to a bamboo stick and literally tapped into the skin.


Traditional tattoo artists – or horishi – are not easy to find in Japan, owing in large part to the yakuza-inspired stigma of criminality attached to tattoos. If you’re lucky enough to track down a horishi, expect a lengthy wait list and even longer sitting times for your very own injection of Nara Black.



Though head-hunting was outlawed over a hundred years ago, the jungle-dwelling tribes of Borneo retain links to their primeval past in the form of their traditional tattoos. Ritual tattoos in Borneo have strong associations with head-hunting, a gruesome rite of passage which was traditionally marked with tattooed images of anthropomorphic animals – usually on one’s fingers.


Today, the traditional hand-tapping form of inking one’s skin isn’t exactly available down the local high street in the middle of the dense Borneo jungle. But if you look hard enough, you’ll find this ancient art form still takes place in what is literally one of the most remote places on the planet.



Though it originated in Cambodia, these days the traditional practice of yantra tattooing is more commonly associated with neighbouring Thailand. Also known as sak yant, these intricate designs are believed to harbour magical powers and are traditionally administered by Buddhist monks and special ‘magic’ practitioners known as wicha, who use a long bamboo stick or metal spike to inject the ink.


The result is meticulously-detailed Buddhism-inspired designs, with this ancient form of tattooing still practised in wats and temples throughout Thailand today.



Deep-seated cultural and personal beliefs are often cited as the raison d’etre for tattoos, but whatever happened to getting blind drunk and waking up with a permanent reminder of last night’s debauchery?


Denmark, and in particular Copenhagen’s waterfront district of Nyhavn, is infamous for its long-standing tattoo culture. Not only does it boast what is reputedly the world’s oldest tattoo shop still in existence, the district has long been renowned as the place for flash sheet tattoos. These point-and-pick designs were once the only form of tattoos on offer and today, the colourful ships and anchor motifs which adorn the walls of Nyhavn’s oldest tattoo shops are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.


Mike Tuckerman

From Europe to Asia and many places in between, there's rarely a town or city I've not enjoyed exploring. When I'm not wandering the streets and discovering new destinations, you can usually find me hanging out with the locals at major sporting events.