Lonely Planet: Art and travel go hand-in-hand. Local galleries can capture the history and creative culture of a destination, but if you’re looking for a gallery with a difference next time you hit the road, why not check out the local tattoo culture instead? Lonely Planet staffer and tattoo aficionado Jess gets under the skin of tattoo tourism:
Visiting tattoo shops and learning about the people who have expanded the art form can be as inspiring as visiting any art museum. It has been said that tattoos are 5000 years old and are as diverse as the people who have them.
Travelling for a tattoo follows a rich legacy of trend-setters. There are many places that still use ancient tattooing traditions and these might inspire you to travel for a piece of their traditional art. Destinations known for their ritual tattooing include Tahiti, Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, Borneo, Thailand and Samoa. Whether you get a tattoo for fashion, tradition or commemoration, there are many reasons to seek out an artist who you admire. Many people choose to travel to a specific tattoo conference where they can get inked by a world-renowned artist while immersed in all things tattoo. (There is some debate about whether you get a good bargain at a convention as most artists raise their rates due to demand, but the costs can be rationalized considering you’ll presumably have the tattoo for life.)
Tattoo culture has a rich history of outlaws, misfits and travellers. Bert Grimm, the ‘grandfather of old school’, tattooed Bonnie and Clyde, the famous outlaws who travelled the Central US with their gang during the Great Depression. It’s unknown exactly where and when Grimm tattooed the famous pair, but Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo was the oldest continually operated tattoo parlour in the continental US. If you’re taking a road-trip up the Pacific Northwest it’s fascinating to check in at locations that shaped the industry as we know it today. You can pay your tributes at Seaside, Oregon where Grimm is buried, or you can stop by the shop he was best known for running, which was located in an amusement park called Nu Pike in Long Beach, CA. (The tattoo shop was under threat of condominium developers but it was purchased in 2004 by tattoo artist Kari Barba and two silent partners and still operates as a tattoo studio today.)
The highly popular exhibition Skin & Bones: Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor that was staged at the Seaport Museum in Philadelphia beautifully illustrated the journey of tattoos from the east to the west; the melding of travel tales and art. Sailors didn’t just carry cargo from port to port; they also brought new forms of artistic expression on their skin.
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