I got a hideous tattoo while on holiday. 20 years later, I’ve covered it up

Bangkok (CNN) — Ah, tattoos.

For some, they’re the ultimate holiday souvenir. A permanent symbol of an enriching experience in a foreign land, a work of art to gaze upon as you recall a time and place that left an indelible impression not just on your soul, but on your skin as well.

For the rest of us, they’re a cringe-inducing reminder of the day we perhaps had a few drinks too many on the beach and asked a stranger to ink us with a bizarre design that did not hold up well to the cruel hands of time.

Sadly, I fell into the latter group. In my case, it was a large piece of black “tribal” art etched across the length of my lower back with an arrow in the lower center pointed in a rather unfortunate direction.

And sorry, I’m not showing it here. Call me a coward if you must, but it was just that bad.

I was in my early 20s, in Bali. It was just one stop on a year-long adventures filled with mishaps including a bad Thailand motorbike accident and a stint on an Australian farm putting stickers on papayas after getting robbed at a nature reserve.

None of those experiences were as regrettable as this tattoo.

I put little thought into it, deciding to get the ink on a whim after meeting an up-and-coming tattooist in the island’s north.

I flipped through the pages in his book of stencils for all of five minutes before hastily settling on a design — it was to be an extension to a bizarrely placed black dolphin leaping through the waves I acquired at the age of 18 back home in Canada.

What’s a bit more ink to memorialize this epic year-long journey of self-discovery, I rationalized?

Covering up past mistakes

Fast forward two decades and, big shocker, I loathed the thing. I spent years trying to hide it while at the beach or the pool, leaving me with limited swimwear choices, deeming it a constant reminder of my younger self’s penchant for making rash decisions.

Late last year, with the pandemic keeping me grounded at my home in Bangkok, I decided enough is enough. I had plenty of time on my hands. The tat must go.

For a very brief moment, I considered laser removal. Then I looked into the cost. Nope.

In the end, I opted to see what the artists of Bangkok’s All Day Tattoo could do for me.
A popular destination for tourists due to the studio’s strict adherence to international tattooing hygiene practices and a large staff of English-speaking artists, it’s also known for its coverups. In fact, owner Gian Luca Tonello tells me that 10-15% of their overall work is dedicated to rectifying past mistakes.
All Day Tattoo artist Bird works to coverup a bad tattoo the writer acquired while on holiday two decades ago.

All Day Tattoo artist Bird works to coverup a bad tattoo the writer acquired while on holiday two decades ago.

Courtesy of All Day Tattoo

“Many tattoo artists and studios refuse to do coverups because, honestly, they’re very challenging and often artists don’t want to have to work around someone else’s work,” he says.

As I fast learned, covering up a huge web of black ink is not as simple as finding a cool design and having the artist slap it on top. There are many factors to consider including size, line details and color.

“We try to be very honest with our clients,” says Tonello. “Often a coverup will come with some limitations because of what’s already there, so we will go through the options with the client about what we believe is possible and will work best to balance both getting rid of the old tattoo and having a new tattoo they love instead.”

That was certainly true in my case. I worked closely with their talented artist Bird, who covered my monstrosity with a monochromatic floral collage after we contemplated several designs connected to special places in my life.

Bangkok's All Day Tattoo is a popular destination for tourists looking for some souvenir ink.

Bangkok’s All Day Tattoo is a popular destination for tourists looking for some souvenir ink.

Courtesy of All Day Tattoo

Getting the size just right was a struggle, given the width of the original and my desire to expand the new tattoo further up my back.

I went for a total of three sessions, each ranging from 4-5 hours and spread out over a couple months.

Numbing cream was applied an hour before each session. This kept the pain to a minimum — in fact I was able to watch plenty of Netflix in relative comfort — but alas, the cream only lasts a few hours. During the final stretches of each visit my teeth were clenched. Curse words were spoken.

But it was worth it and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome. The details are magnificent and the former tattoo is buried — nary an arrow or dolphin in sight.

My kids even love it — and one of them is a brutally honest teenager.

The importance of finding the right studio

My experience got me thinking about why we have the urge to get tattoos while on holiday and what travelers should keep in mind to avoid making the mistake I did.

All Day Tattoo studio owner Tonello says that prior to the pandemic, about 70% of their clients were international visitors.

“As Bangkok is so well known for tattoos, it’s become very common for people visiting Thailand and the region to want to get a tattoo as a souvenir of what often turns out to be the trip of a lifetime,” says Luca, who got his first tattoo at the age of 23.

He has plenty of advice for tattoo seekers — most of which applies regardless of whether you’re on vacation or at home.

“We think the most important thing about getting a tattoo is to ensure that it is meaningful to you in some way,” he says.

“We all know that as life goes on, our likes and dislikes change but a tattoo that was well done, that had a meaning for you at the time you got it is rarely regretted by people.”

Before choosing a tattoo studio, do your research.

Before choosing a tattoo studio, do your research.

Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS/Getty Images

Next, he says to make sure you do your research and find a studio with a good reputation.

“Check reviews, read the website, check out their social media and their artist’s portfolios,” he says.

“Does it look like they put time and effort into presenting themselves well, and ensuring clients are happy with the tattoo and service they received?”

If not, he says this is probably an indication of a lack of effort in other parts of the process — a major red flag.

“Running a good tattoo studio is hard, endless effort. Either you’re willing to put it in or you’re not, I don’t think there’s really a middle ground.”

This also applies to hygiene.

“Tattooing is very safe, if it’s done properly,” says Tonello, who notes that All Day has a government license and strictly adheres to international best practices for tattooing, going above and beyond the minimum requirements.

Don’t be afraid to ask the studio about their own practices, he says. A reputable establishment will have no issues addressing your concerns.

Meanwhile, language can be another issue when you’re in a foreign country.

“Tourists are often rightly concerned over their ability to properly communicate with a tattoo studio and ensure they are understood.” he says.

“I think we’ve all seen funny tattoos that were received because of a miscommunication between the artist and the client on the internet. Well, these things are funny unless they happen to you!”

How will you feel about that design in 20 years?

The writer opted to cover up her dated tattoo with a monochromatic floral collage.

The writer opted to cover up her dated tattoo with a monochromatic floral collage.

Karla Cripps/CNN

Ok, so you’ve found a studio you’re comfortable with and are ready to make that appointment.

But if you’re on holiday, you also need to consider timing and post-ink plans.

Tonello says traveling with a new tattoo isn’t usually an issue but you’ve got to avoid submerging it in water for a full two weeks to avoid infections — a tattoo is basically a big wound — so that means beach trips are out of the question.

For this reason, the majority of people book their tattoo appointments towards the end of their holiday, he says.

Size is another issue. Many big pieces require multiple visits depending on your pain threshold so take that into consideration when making an appointment.

Tonello says their sessions last somewhere around 6-7 hours at most, although in some circumstances they can go on much longer.

“Although there is obviously some discomfort involved, we find that the vast majority of clients find the process hurts far less than they expected, and they can take breaks as often as they wish, so for most people a long session is possible if the design demands it,” he says.

You also need to consider how well that design is going to hold up in the future.

it certainly wasn’t the tattooist’s fault that I hated my ink. The color stood the test of time and he did exactly as I asked.

I just didn’t put any thought into the concept or what it meant to me, instead latching onto a style that was popular at the time.

“We don’t think it’s necessarily a bad idea to get a tattoo that’s currently fashionable as long as it means something to you personally, and you aren’t getting it just because you saw other people get a similar thing,” says Tonello.

This is when getting a tattoo while on holiday can be a good thing, as it represents a connection you have to a destination that’s likely going to stay with you.

For instance, Tonello says few people visit Thailand without feeling that they’ve experienced something truly special, so a tattoo is a great way to commemorate and reignite that feeling of joy later on.

“Apart from Sak Yant (Thai traditional tattoos) which are probably the most popular amongst travelers, we often do other tattoos that symbolize Thailand or traveling in some way.”

These include compasses, world maps, elephants, tigers, tuk tuks, Unalome and Mandala designs, lotuses and even food, like bowls of noodles.

Basically, anything goes. Well, almost anything.

Tonello suggests clients avoid tattooing themselves with the name of a person they’re in a relationship with — no matter how they might feel at the time.

“As much as something may seem like it will last forever in the moment, we know that isn’t always the case,” he says.

“However getting names of pets or children isn’t an issue, as those relationships are unlikely to turn sour.”