I have noticed that many people choose to commemorate a trip to Asia with a tattoo. When lots of people do the same thing for more or less the same reason, I wonder why they bother. Getting a tattoo in Thailand just does not seem that special when everyone does it.
That's not to say I have never been impressed by traveler's tattoo. Sarah, an adventurous Englishwoman, showed me a tattoo she got on a four-week trek through the jungles of Sumatra. It seems a local tribesman had used nothing more than a safety pin to tattoo her arm. Sarah's tattoo -- crude though it was -- truly represented something special. I had to admire it.
As it happened, staying at the same Bali guesthouse where I met Sarah was a lovely blond twenty-six year old German woman named Beatrice. Beatrice told me of her intention to get a large tattoo of "boy riding a dolphin" on her back.
I pleaded with her not to do it. But Ludo, her boyfriend, was adamant that Beatrice should go through with it.
The night before her appointment with destiny, over dinner, I laid out my case.
"Beatrice," I began, "you don't know what is in those inks! This is Indonesia! Do you think they test the chemicals that go into the inks? Who knows what kind of poisons you could be injected with."
"Don't worry. They assured me they clean their needles so I won't get HIV," Beatrice replied.
I urged Beatrice should go back to Germany and get tattooed there, where shops are likely to practice better hygiene.
Beatrice would have none of this. She had already picked out the dolphin-rider picture, and spoken with the local tattoo "artist."
"Besides," said Beatrice, "I want the tattoo to remember this time in Bali." Ludo, arm around her shoulder, gave Beatrice a squeeze.
What I did not know back then was that even in the US, tattoo ink -- the ingredients that go into it -- are unregulated and potentially toxic. US News reported:
Delaware Valley College chemistry Prof. Ronald Petruso has found what he says are potentially carcinogenic substances manufactured solely for car paint in a yellow-orange pigment he tested. And traces of lead turned up in ink samples analyzed by a Northern Arizona University colleague, Jani Ingram. "It just boggles my mind that the federal government has never set regulations for anything like this," Petruso says. Experts believe these materials are being mixed into ink because they endure. "Look at your car—the color is there for 20 years," says Wolfgang Bäumler, assistant professor of experimental dermatology at the University of Regensburg in Germany. His own study of some 40 inks revealed that most contained potentially hazardous chemicals.Car paint? The bottom line is that there is probably no such thing as a safe tattoo, whether in Bali or Thailand, or anywhere else.
Also worrisome: Animal research has shown that pigment in ink doesn't stay put where it's injected but rather roams to the lymph nodes.
But if the tattoo causes any health problems, you can always have it removed later, right? The US News article continues:
Chemists from several laboratories, including the government's National Center for Toxicological Research, have identified low levels of carcinogens in tattoo ink. But the laser removal process, which demolishes the pigment by scorching it with heat, triggers chemical reactions that generate carcinogenic and mutation-inducing breakdown products, which are then absorbed by the body.As for Beatrice's tattoo... How did that turn out? Well, I caught up with Beatrice in her guesthouse room, her back wrapped up in white bandages. She didn't look too happy. It seemed the "dolphin rider" mural intended for Beatrice's back did not end up looking quite the way Beatrice had anticipated.
"What's the matter?"
"It looks as if the girl is riding a shark."