The popularity of tattoos has never been this high. In the past few decades, almost 30% to 40% of all Americans received at least one tattoo. Nowadays (before the coronavirus), hundreds of thousands of people attend tattoo conventions across the Western world.
So, it is safe to say that tattooing is widely accepted in the countries of the Western world, like European countries, North American countries, and certain cultures around the world.
However, there are still places where having or getting a tattoo can get you in a lot of trouble; in some cases, people are even thrown in jail for getting inked. In some regions, tattooing is considered blasphemous or linked to crime and crime-related organizations.
So, in case you were wondering where having or getting a tattoo could get you in trouble, you’re at the right place. In the following paragraphs we’ll take a look at countries where tattoos are illegal, banned, and punishable, so let’s get started.
Countries Where Tattoos Are Illegal or Limited
It is illegal in Islamic countries, like Iran, to get a tattoo. Under the claim that ‘tattooing is a health risk’ and ‘forbidden by God’, people who get a tattoo in Iran are at risk of being arrested, fined heavily, or even retained in prison. It is even a common practice to ‘parade’ the arrested people through the city, in public, so that the community can shame the person for having a tattoo.
What is interesting is that tattoos weren’t always illegal in Islamic countries and Iran. However, Iranian authorities, under Islamic law, have made tattoos illegal and punishable. It is believed that tattoos are done by criminals, thugs, or people who are not in Islam, which is considered sinful in itself.
Other Islamic countries with the same or similar tattoo prohibition are;
- Saudi Arabia – tattoos are illegal due to Sharia Law (foreigners with tattoos must cover them and they should remain covered until the person leaves the country)
- Afghanistan – tattoos are illegal and banned due to Sharia Law
- United Arab Emirates – it is illegal to get tattooed by a tattoo artist; tattoos are considered a form of self-injury, which is forbidden in Islam, but tourists and foreigners don’t have to cover them unless they’re offensive. In such a case, people can be banned from UAE for life.
- Malaysia – tattoos showing religious quotes (like quotes from the Quran), or illustrations of god or the prophet Muhammad, are strictly forbidden, illegal and punishable
- Yemen – tattoos aren’t strictly forbidden, but a person with a tattoo can be subjected to the Islam Sharia Law
When it comes to these countries, foreigners, and tourists who have tattoo must cover them in public at all times, otherwise, could face fine or punishment in form of being banned from the country, especially if the tattoo is offensive to the local people and religion in any way.
Even though tattoos aren’t illegal per se, in South Korea tattoos are generally frowned upon and deemed unsafe. The country does have some extreme tattoo laws; for example, some tattoo laws outlaw tattooing unless you’re a licensed doctor.
The reasoning behind such laws is that ‘tattoos aren’t safe for the public due to numerous health hazards’. These health hazards are, however, anecdotal and based on a handful of stories where tattooing ended in a health-endangering occurrence, like a tattoo infection.
Luckily, many have seen through the act of medical and tattoo companies in South Korea who promote these ridiculous laws for the sake of getting rid of the competition. People are increasingly getting tattooed in South Korea, especially the younger generations.
But, it is incredible how by deeming a practice unsafe when not performed by doctors, chances are that any other practitioner of the same thing will be put out of a job, especially when deemed dangerous for the health.
In North Korea, the situation is pretty different from the South Korean tattoo laws. Tattoo designs and meanings are regulated by the North Korean Communist Party. For example, the Party is allowed to ban certain tattoos, like religious tattoos or any tattoos that might depict rebellion of some sort. Until recently, the Party even banned the word ‘love’ as a tattoo design.
However, what the Party does allow are tattoos showing one’s dedication to the Party and the country. Quotes like ‘Guard the Great Leader to our death’, or ‘Defense of the Fatherland’, aren’t just allowed, but highly popular tattoo choices for the local people. The word ‘love’ is also allowed only when used to express one’s love towards North Korea, Communism of the leader of the country.
Countries with similar or same politics and practices include;
- China – tattoos are associated with organized crime, and tattoos depicting any religious symbols or anti-Communism quotes are banned. Tattoos are frowned upon outside large urban centers, but in the cities, with the arrival of foreigners and tourists, tattoos have become more acceptable.
- Cuba – religious and anti-government/system tattoos aren’t allowed
- Vietnam – just like in China, tattoos in Vietnam are associated with gangs and organized crime. Tattoos depicting gang affiliation, religious symbols, or anti-political tattoos are banned.
Thailand and Sri Lanka
In Thailand, it is illegal to get tattoos of certain religious elements and symbols. For example, tattoos of Buddha’s head are completely forbidden, especially for tourists. The law prohibiting this kind of tattooing was passed in 2011 when tattoos depicting Buddha’s head were deemed completely disrespectful and culturally appropriative.
The same tattoo prohibition applies to Sri Lanka. In 2014, a British tourist was deported from Sri Lanka after getting a Buddha tattoo on their arm. The person was deported under the claims that the tattoo ‘was disrespectful to others’ religious feelings’ and insulting to Buddhism.
Even though it’s been decades since tattoos in Japan were deemed gang-related, the public opinion about getting inked hasn’t changed. Even though people can get tattoos without being punished or banned, they still can’t do normal activities like going to the public swimming pool, saunas, gyms, hotels, bars, and even retail stores if their tattoo is visible.
In 2015, any visitors with visible tattoos were banned from nightclubs and hotels, and the prohibitions just keep piling up. These prohibitions and limitations are self-imposed by the Japanese public narrative and, as of recently, even law.
The reason for this lies in the long tattoo history in Japan where tattoos were primarily worn by Yakuza and other gang- and mafia-related people. The Yakuza are still powerful in Japan, and their impact isn’t ceasing or diminishing. That is why anyone with a tattoo is considered potentially dangerous, hence the prohibitions.
All over Europe, tattoos are pretty popular and common among all generations and ages. However, in certain countries, particular tattoo designs are forbidden and can get you deported or thrown into jail. For example;
- Germany – tattoos depicting Fascist or Nazi symbolism and themes are banned and can get you punished and banned from the country
- France – just like Germany, France finds tattoos with Fascist and Nazi symbolism, or offensive political themes, unacceptable and bans such designs
- Denmark – in Denmark it is forbidden to get a tattoo on the face, head, neck, or hands. However, it was believed that the Liberal party in this country would impose changes regarding the prohibition under the claim that every individual has a right to decide where they want to get a tattoo. That was in 2014, and unfortunately, the law still hasn’t changed.
- Turkey – in the past few years, Turkey has introduced a set of strict laws against tattoos. There is a ban on tattoos in schools and colleges, and the overall education system, despite their populary among the youth in Turkey. The reason for this ban is the Islamist AK Party governemnt, that is imposing religious and traditional practices and laws.
Things To Do To Avoid Trouble
As an individual, all you can do is get educated and respect other countries’ laws. You must be aware of the things a certain country is sensitive to, especially the country’s law, which could get you in serious trouble.
People get banned or deported from countries because they have a tattoo that is offensive or culturally appropriative. However, ignorance cannot be a justification for this because all the necessary information is available on the Internet.
So, before you get a tattoo, make sure to do thorough research on the design origin, cultural/traditional significance, and whether it is deemed offensive and disrespectful by any people or country.
However, if you already have a tattoo, make sure to keep it either well hidden or check if you could get into trouble because of its design or for exposure in a certain country.
So, to summarize, here’s what you can do to avoid potential trouble;
- Get educated and inform yourself on tattoo laws and prohibitions in other countries
- Avoid getting potentially offensive or culturally appropriative tattoos in the first place
- Keep your tattoo(s) well hidden while in a foreign country where tattoo laws or prohibition exists
- If you’re moving to a certain country, consider tattoo laser removal
However ridiculous it may seem, certain countries take tattoos pretty seriously. As travelers, foreigners, and tourists in other countries, we are supposed to respect other countries’ laws and traditions.
We cannot just parade our potentially offensive and insulting tattoos, or keep them exposed when the law strictly prohibits such behavior. So, before you embark on a journey to a foreign country, make sure to get educated, informed, and stay respectful.