It's the travel souvenir that's growing more popular among holiday-makers — but it could have devastating effects.

A doctor is urging travellers to think twice about getting tattooed overseas, warning sloppy hygiene practices, poor techniques and the risk of viral infections in some destinations could turn a cheap inking into a very dangerous — and expensive — problem for travellers.

The warning comes as a Daily Telegraph report last week revealed school leavers in Bali were getting tattooed in "dirty and dingy" nightclubs for as little as $20 a pop.

Professor Stephen Rashford, the chief medical officer for Cover-More Travel Insurance, told the health risks associated with overseas tattoos ranged from skin and blood infections to, potentially, HIV.

Tattoos have become a popular holiday souvenir. Photo / Natalie Rhea Riggs
Tattoos have become a popular holiday souvenir. Photo / Natalie Rhea Riggs

"There are many places that don't have health regulations like we have in Australia and New Zealand. There is no guarantee the hygiene level is the same as here," he told

"There are risks of needles and unsanitary practices, the potential for hepatitis B and C and, it's probably unlikely, but really, the potential for HIV in some environments. You want to be careful with that.

"Everything is so regulated here, that the chances are negligible or a never event."

Prof Rashford said there was also a high risk of skin infection and, for some people, allergic reactions to tattoo ink.

"There is also risk of scarring if the tattoo is not done with the same level of skill as practitioners here," he said.

While the risks associated with tattooing varied around the world, Prof Rashford said it was particularly high in destinations with generally poorer standards of health.

And that meant if there were any complications from getting tattooed, it would be harder to access good emergency care.

A recent survey published by Travel Weekly found close to a third of Australians had been inked overseas, and about 37 per cent had considered it.


Prof Rashford said anyone determined to get a tattoo on holiday needed to do their research and carefully assess the chosen venue.

A rash tattoo decision might cost more than embarrassment. Photo / Shifazz Shamoon
A rash tattoo decision might cost more than embarrassment. Photo / Shifazz Shamoon

It was also worth asking about cleaning and sterilisation practices, and even ask to see clean, unopened needles — reputable venues should be happy to show them.

"A back alley in Indonesia or somewhere in South East Asia is probably not going to apply the same standard of hygiene as you'd expect here," he said.

"Use your common sense. Generally you would get a sense of whether you feel comfortable or not – they're performing a procedure on you like a medical practitioner would so, if you're uncomfortable, don't risk it."

But what happens if you do run the risk, and it doesn't go well?

Prof Rashford said signs of a localised skin infection would generally appear within 48 hours and include redness and warmth that spreads away from the tattoo site, and feeling generally unwell.

In extreme cases, it could lead to multi-organ failure and septicaemia, a life-threatening blood infection.

"With any form of localised infection or reaction, see a doctor straight away," he said.

Viral infections, meanwhile, may take one or two weeks to present symptoms.

Another key thing for travellers to remember is even if they had travel insurance, insurers generally wouldn't provide cover for sickness or injury related to a holiday tattoo.

"Weigh that up — if it goes wrong and you need a procedure, sometimes the cost of medical care can be hundreds or thousands of dollars. Even something quite trivial can escalate," Prof Rashford said.

He urged travellers, especially younger ones, to think carefully about whether they wanted such a permanent memento from their holiday and urged them to resist making decisions while drinking or influenced by social pressure.

"There's nothing wrong with tattoos but you want to make sure you want it because getting rid of it is very difficult," he said.

"Risk assess and watch what you're doing.

"We have fantastic tattoo establishments and practices in this country. Be inspired for a tattoo overseas and if you want to do it, do it back home."