One morning, when staying on the west coast of Sri Lanka in a town called Hikkaduwa, my friend Ty and I were joking about getting tattoos. I’m not sure how the joke started, but eventually it turned into an idea. It was our second last day in Sri Lanka – we were both catching flights out of the country. We both already have a few tattoos; Ty had collected his from around the world, but I had gotten my two from a trusted tattoo place in Melbourne called Heretic. However, we both want more. We have the bug. So when our joking began to turn serious, we started to brainstorm ideas. Neither of us had an image in mind, just vague ideas, but both being very spontaneous people, we started searching the web for inspiration, and tattoo parlours. Hikkaduwa is a medium-sized beach town, with a tourist side and the locals side. It was nowhere near being a city, though, so the options for tattoo parlours were limited. Some ‘saloons’ (salons) which offered hair cuts, facials, and massages, also offered tattoos. But to us, this seemed a bit dodgy. We had some standards.
Eventually we both came up with ideas for small tattoos; a circle on the back of my leg, two inches above my ankle, and a cube for Ty, on the back of his arm above his elbow. Both simple line tattoos. On Google, there seemed to be one tattoo parlour in Hikkaduwa, and one in Galle, the nearest city. However, this didn’t include the saloons or places that advertised tattooing outside their stores with cut-and-pasted Google images of tattoos. We contacted the place in Hikkaduwa, but they wanted to charge us $75 USD for a 5 cm tattoo each. Way too much. I could get a tattoo for this price from a high-end tattoo parlour in Melbourne.
The next option was to go to somewhere that advertised tattooing and try our luck there. As it was our last day in Sri Lanka, I was pretty determined to get one (it was also a belated birthday present to myself), so we tried a place that our tuk tuk driver recommended to us. The ‘parlour’ was a room inside a hairdressing studio, and the tattoo artist took about 40 minutes to reach the salon. Finally, he entered the room: a huge, overweight Sri Lankan with long hair tied back. The tray of equiptment was already laid out on the table, with ink made in Australia, packaged needles and ordinary napkins.
As we are both used to getting tattoos in the West, we were a little disconcerted when the artist began to draw our designs freehand. By freehand, I mean tracing a coin for my circle tattoo, and using a ruler to try to construct a cube for Ty. No perfectly printed out designs here. Although Ty and I knew what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to get a tattoo in a tiny shop in Hikkaduwa, I think we were both a bit disconcerted. Finally, the artist had drawn a perfectly round circle and traced it onto purple typewriter copy paper, which he then pressed onto my skin in the right spot. I examined it in the mirror for a while, making sure it was in the right place. It was. I lay down on the bed, which had ordinary home towels laid on it, and concentrated on my breathing as the tattooing began. It was the most painful one I’ve had yet, but that’s just because of the spot it is in. It was finished within ten minutes, and the artist wiped some cream on it and wrapped it up in cling film. During the tattooing, I had an audience of four people in the room; the hairdresser, her husband, the tattoo artists friend, and Ty. I was relieved when it was over, and I was happy with the result. I was expecting a less than perfect circle, without the security of using out a computer print out of a circle, but it was fine. Round and mostly even.
Next it was Ty’s turn. The artist had had a bit of trouble drawing a perfect cube, and Ty wasn’t going to settle for a dodgy design. All of his other tattoos are perfect. After finally agreeing on a design, the tattooing began. This time, things went wrong. First of all, the artist had only brought one needle as he thought he was doing just one tattoo. He had to use another tattoo gun, with another needle (not sure what type of needle this was). After half a minute of tattooing, he stopped and changed the gun and needle. He said that the second needle was a thick one, but he was going to use it on the side to make it thin. In the reflection of the mirror, I could see the panic in Ty’s face. The unprofessionalism of this man who he had trusted to give him a tattoo had just increased tenfold. A tense ten or fifteen minutes passed, until the tattoo was finished. The artist wrapped Ty’s arm in cling film, but had no tape to hold it together. Eager to get out of the small room, we paid the artist 10,000 LRK for both (about $40 AUD each) and left the place.
Ty wasn’t entirely happy with his tattoo. It wasn’t perfectly straight, with one edge a little wonky. I admitted that to him, but it really didn’t look as bad as he thought it did. I was happy with mine; it turned out exactly how I wanted it, for less than half of what I would have paid in Australia!
Overall, my experience of getting a tattoo in Sri Lanka was positive, but like always, it is so important to get one by someone you trust. Ty and I rushed into the decision, but next time I would choose more carefully, especially if I were getting something more complex than a single line circle. Be prepared to experience a little less professionalism than you would at home, because you have to remember that it is Sri Lanka after all. Things are done differently. If the spontaneous decisions grabs you, like it did with me, I say go with it! I have no regrets at all.