Traditionally worn by sailors and criminals, often marking big accomplishments, like getting an anchor tattoo for crossing the Atlantic or getting a teardrop tattoo for… you get the idea. Getting tattooed carried more symbolic significance, and with that came stigma.
But now, a lot of the dangerous mystique tattoos had is gone. It’s hard to feel like an outlaw because you’ve got a tattoo when everyone’s mom has a “Carpe diem” tattooed on their wrists. But that’s not true everywhere. In this article, we’re looking at countries where tattoos are still outside the law.
Breaking the law, breaking the law
While most countries have some restrictions on tattooing, there aren’t many countries where they are outright banned. One of the few is Iran, which banned tattoos as well as spikey hair and fake tans in 2015. Tattoo artists who get caught face fines, public lashing, and imprisonment. But despite that, tattoos are still popular, particularly among younger people.
Iran isn’t alone in the Islamic world in restricting tattoos; several other Islamic countries restrict tattooing in accordance with Sharia Law. Which forbids images of Allah and Mohamed as well as tattooing texts from the Quran. And in Dubai, there’s a ban on visible tattoos, which extends to all holy sites in the United Arb Emirates.
Of Western countries, Denmark has the most restrictive laws surrounding tattooing, with tattoos on the face, hands, and neck being illegal to tattoo. However, it’s less clear whether you would face any kind of charges if you had one.
There’s a rumor that this tattoo law came about due to King Fredrick IX, who got several tattoos while in the navy. The Danish parliament was so worried that he would keep getting tattoos that they passed a law outlawing tattoo artists from tattooing the face, hands, and neck as they felt it unbecoming of a monarch. It’s probably not true, but a good story.
Here’s he is showing off his tattoos.
Going completely in the opposite direction, Ireland is one of the few countries with no tattooing restrictions. Technically, a child could legally get a tattoo there, but reputable studios require a guardian’s permission for anyone below sixteen years of age.
While Iran is one of the few countries with an outright ban, tattooing restrictions are common. Some of these range from straightforward ones like making it illegal to tattoo anyone under the age of eighteen without a guardian’s consent to the Iowa law prohibiting anyone under eighteen from getting a tattoo, unless they’re married…
Several South-East Asian countries restrict tattooing by classifying them as a medical procedure. With only qualified doctors being allowed to open tattoo studios in South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, meaning tattooing is illegal.
Japan got rid of the medical criteria for tattooing in 2017, but it’s unclear how it will affect the tattoo industry. And with more than 50% of hotels baths and spas banning people with tattoos, it seems unlikely that the stigma around tattooing will change any time soon.
South Korea still classifies tattoos as a medical procedure, and tattoo artists can receive up to a $950 fine. Tattooing’s legal status was dragged into the spotlight recently due to a controversy between Korean supergroup BTS and a local politician. The politician subsequently sponsored a bill to change tattooing’s designation as a medical procedure. Even if tattooing becomes legal, it’s unlikely to shake off its long-held prejudices in a very traditional culture. Although with BTS in the tattoo camp, it’s much more likely to see a sea change there sooner rather than later.
Not all symbols are created equally, and some countries ban imagery deemed to be locally offensive.
The Hermit Kingdom is not big on civil liberties, but surprisingly tattoos are allowed.
But, you guessed it, there are some exceptions. Tattoos depicting religious imagery are banned as well as anything anti-regime.
Most tattoos in North Korea are celebrating the Kim dynasty or are tattoos vilifying America. It’s a way to show loyalty to the regime, particularly during North Korea’s mandatory military service. These tattoos make it difficult for defectors when they make it to South Korea —the South Korean government finances the removal of tattoos for North Korean defectors. This makes it easier for defectors to intergrate into South Korean society without facing stigma.
Other communist countries such as China and Cuba also have bans on right-wing imagery and tattoos with religious themes.
Sri Lanka / Thailand
Thailand has a long history of Buddhist tattoos. Specifically, Sak Yant tattoos –dragged kicking and screaming into the mainstream by Angelina Jolie and that one blog post about monks reading your aura. But their love of tattoos doesn’t extend to depictions of Buddha himself.
And while images of Buddha aren’t outright banned, they are considered culturally insensitive. Particularly if these tattoos are on the feet or legs, which are considered unclean in Thai culture. Buddha tattoos are unlikely to get you arrested, but you might get a lot of unwanted attention. And foreigners wearing Buddha tattoos occasionally go viral on Thai social media.
Sri Lanka is even more strict regarding tattoos of the Buddha. In 2014 a British tourist was deported after locals reported her tattoo to the police. This deportation isn’t the first time a tourist was deported over a tattoo of the Buddha. So be careful to cover up your Buddha tattoo if you plan to visit Sri Lanka.
The tide has turned on tattoos perception, particularly in the western world. But progress doesn’t happen equally.
In most cases, the legislation is designed to stop tattooing, not punish tattoo wearers. So as long as you don’t mix Buddhas and Sri Lanka, you should be safe to travel where you want. Unless you want to feel like more of an outlaw, in which case you can use this list to ad a bit of legal jeopardy to your future travels.