Tattoos have been around since the ‘beginning’. From our prehistoric days up until the present, cultures all across the globe have engaged in a variety of spectacular forms of body modification, from simply inking themselves to complex and ritualistic forms of self-mutilation. It seems to be part of our collective cultural DNA – yet the urge to get inked certainly isn’t universal, and there are plenty of modern-day cultures that oppose and even fear the tattoo. Depending on where you are in the world, your tattoos could be taboo.
For inked travelers, this can be a problem. If it was ever your goal to visit as many countries and places as possible, it helps to know where you’ll have a much harder time getting around without harassment, or even fear of arrest. While foreigners are generally treated with a far more lax attitude than locals in countries where tattoos are strictly forbidden, there are still plenty of nations that are quite serious about their tattoo laws, and will fine, deport, or even jail lawbreakers. Today, we will go over most of the countries that either forbid tattoos, or heavily frown upon them.
Why Are Tattoos Illegal in Some Places?
If you’ve done any amount of research on the art of tattooing, you may have noticed that the tattoo exists in one form or another on every continent and major region on the planet (save, perhaps, for the South Pole). Some cultures tattooed themselves for ritual purposes. Some did it to signify class and power. In some cases, it was religious. In other cases, it was therapeutic. Mankind has a certain affinity to artwork, and it’s clear that, once we began drawing on cave walls, we came to the realization that it would be even cooler to wear our art.
But this interpretation of the tattoo isn’t universal, and most countries that ban or restrict tattoos do so either because:
- The depiction of certain images and symbols is found to be deeply offensive, and disturbing to the morality of society;
- The human body is a divine creation, and not to be sullied by pigments and intentional ‘self-harm’;
- Tattoos are the hallmark of a criminal/thug/antisocial person, and having one clearly indicates that others should stay away.
Below is a comprehensive list of countries where having or getting a tattoo isn’t just frowned upon, but illegal and even punishable by law in certain cases. Some countries are far less strict about this than others, and in some countries, the restrictions on tattoos are only limited, but they exist nonetheless, and are codified.
Countries Where Tattoos are Illegal/Restricted
While not a country to be expected on this list, certain tattoos are taboo in Denmark, in the sense that it is against the law to be tattooed this way on Danish soil. Danish law forbids the tattooing of the hands, neck, and head since 1966, although it permits people to display tattoos on their hands, neck, and head, so long as they were not tattooed in Denmark. Any tattoo artists that tattoo a client on these restricted areas will be subjected to serious fines. Despite calls for years to change these laws, there is no indication that they will be changed any time soon.
Slovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, France, Ukraine, Austria, and Germany
The law is clear in many European countries – tattoos are fine and dandy, so long as your tattoos don’t celebrate or directly allude to fascist symbols and imagery. That goes not only for tattoos, but all forms of expression. In these countries, having Nazi or far-right tattoos doesn’t just earn you the ire of certain onlookers and a few cold stares, but it can actually land you a hefty fine at best, and land you in jail at worst.
In Germany, this law is part of a wider list of denazification laws introduced after the end of World War II, in an effort made by Allied forces to purge as many elements of Nazi culture from Germany as possible. To this day, openly displaying any sort of imagery associated with the NSDAP (the Nazi Party) is illegal, unless it is within a historical, artistic, or satirical context.
Similarly, other countries in the EU have laws in place that criminalize the use of Nazi imagery and specific fascist symbols. Only a few of these countries have fined individuals for inflammatory tattoos, however any public showing of Nazi imagery and symbolism is illegal and can be fined. As long as you don’t have any far-right imagery on your skin, your tattoos won’t be taboo.
Sri Lanka and Thailand
Another example of cultural sensitivity and limited restrictions, Sri Lanka and Thailand represent two countries where individuals have been persecuted and jailed or deported for what they decided to imprint on their skin. Any tattoos depicting elements of Buddhist culture or, more grievously, the Buddha himself, could be seen as blasphemous and culturally insensitive – to the point of condemnation.
Foreigners are advised to ensure their tattoos remain completely hidden if they depict Buddhist imagery. Otherwise, however, just like in Europe, tattoos of other subjects are generally tolerated (although perhaps not as popular). Offenses are more serious in Sri Lanka than Thailand, where they are not enforced as often. Both of these countries are major tourist destinations, somewhat tempering the potential punishment that might await an unsuspecting traveler. If you’re a big fan of the Buddha and decided a tattoo was the best way to honor him, it might be in your best interest to keep that ink covered up during your stay.
Tattoo artists do exist in North Korea, although it is illegal to tattoo someone without a medical license. Nevertheless, it is not illegal to have a tattoo. However, any tattoos that depict spiritual or religious ideas or imagery, or any form of non-NK propaganda, are illegal. On the other hand, the government welcomes tattoos that depict the regime in a positive light or pay tribute to Kim Jong Un and his family.
In fact, it’s fairly common for teens and young adults undergoing mandatory military service to tattoo themselves with nationalist ideologies and symbols. Even sentences in English have become popular, although there are limits to what they can say (things like ‘Defend the Fatherland’ and ‘Victory!’).
South Korea is laxer than the north when it comes to the contents of a tattoo, but they have the same rules when it comes to tattoo artists and parlors: technically, they’re illegal. Local laws dictate that one needs to be a physician to apply a tattoo, although recent changes have made it possible for certified beauticians to apply permanent make up tattoos.
Despite tattoos and tattoo parlors being illegal, South Korea has a growing tattoo scene. These are artists who work from shops that are not necessarily hidden away in back alleys, but rather hidden in plain sight. There’s no telling whether or not the police will shut your shop down when you start up in South Korea, and it’s certainly not a safe career option as of right now. Nevertheless, tattoo artists in South Korea are working hard to decriminalize the industry.
Iran and United Arab Emirates
While Islamic law generally forbids the act of tattooing, these countries have some of the harshest laws and opinions on the matter. Iran in particular has a very powerful religious police, which cracks down on perpetrators that disrupt and sully ‘public morality’. The country has become increasingly religious since the Iranian Revolution, and tattoos are one of many things that are illegal. Many public cases have shown that having a tattoo in Iran can lead to caning, stoning, and imprisonment.
A similar stance is taken in the United Arab Emirates, where tourists may be banned for life if their tattoos are deemed ‘offensive’. Many more conservative locals will also consider tattoos immoral, as they are considered a form of self-harm, and would thus be haram (forbidden).
Countries Where Tattoos are Heavily Stigmatized
It’s perfectly legal to get a tattoo in Japan, but it certainly isn’t convenient. Japan’s history with getting inked is extremely extensive, dating back to the prehistoric Jomon Period and the Ainu, but its recent issues with tattoos date back all the way to the Edo Period, when tattoos became a way of expressing indirect critique towards the military ruling class.
The practice of branding criminals with tattoos became popular before the Edo Period, but it wasn’t until then that it became an artform. At the time, the warrior class was the ruling class, and Japan’s culture was kept extremely isolated from the rest of the world. Despite being banned by the ruling class due often depicting counter-culture imagery from folktales and stories about outlaws and rebellion (such as the Chinese novel, Water Margin), tattooing became extremely popular, and provided another way for Japanese culture to flourish within its isolated state.
To present a better image to Western powers and avoid colonialization after the end of the isolationist Edo Period, authorities began cracking down on inking, although the practice was common among firefighters, dock workers, and minorities. Crackdowns served not only to produce a neater image of Japanese society and snuff out notions of ‘barbarism’, but also served as a way to homogenize Japanese society and make Ainu and Okinawan minorities more subservient to the Meiji government.
Decades later, reforms were passed that made inking legal again – but because it was still largely associated with minorities and, later, the Yakuza the majority of hospitality establishments in Japan ban people with visible tattoos, including shops, hotels, and hot springs. Many contend that the anti-tattoo sentiments borne by Japan’s majority baby boomer generation is rooted in Yakuza movies, rather than fact.
If you are a heavily-tattooed traveler interested in visiting Japan, you should consider preparing yourself by picking out establishments that are tattoo-friendly.
Tattoos are not illegal per se in China, and there are no specific laws against tattooing or having tattoos, but China’s authoritarian regime enforces a tattoo-less image of the country on state TV, and the cultural stigma against tattoos is even stronger than other East Asian countries (such as Japan and Korea).
Although China has a growing tattoo and hip-hop subculture, it is kept hidden. For China’s armed services, there are stringent rules on how large tattoos may be, and what they depict. When Mao Zedong rose to power after the Cultural Revolution, he outlawed tattoos altogether – currently, tattoos are not outlawed, and artists can work in secret, but tattoo parlors are not licensed and the government could crack down on them at any moment.
For foreigners, there’s nothing to worry about. Tattoos are tolerated, although they are mostly associated with crime, because the main clientele of most active tattoo artists following the Cultural Revolution was criminal.
Tattoo parlors are banned in Cuba, and the only way to get a tattoo is illegally. However, it is not illegal to have a tattoo to begin with. Skin art is a big subculture in Havana and other places across the island, but recent crackdowns have made it difficult for local artists.
Again, there are no rules against having tattoos in Cuba – just receiving them. If you do travel to Cuba, you don’t have to worry about showing ink, but finding an artist may prove a little trickier than in countries where it’s a regulated industry.
Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
While not as stringent as Iran and the UAE, these countries do have rules against inflammatory tattoos, particularly those making references to Islamic faith. Malaysia has previously banned entry for tourists and entertainers with ‘offensive’ tattoos, and Saudi Arabia’s ‘mutawa’ (religious police) strictly enforces proper dress code, gender segregation, and will ensure that tattoos are kept hidden for locals, and taboo, but does not enforce the same rules on tourists. Keep your tattoos hidden or consider asking ahead if you have any religious imagery on your skin (from Christian symbolism to Islamic verses and references to the prophet, or Allah). Tattooing is ancient in Arab cultures, and continues to be important in specific cultures such as the nomadic tribes of the Bedouin.