A client lies on their stomach, with a tattoo artist working on a tattoo on their back.

Anthropology: An Overview of Tattoo Stigmas Around the World

Tattooing Under Taboo

The tattoo industry is a thriving one around the world: people are increasingly accepting tattoos as a form of self-expression, art, and meaningful commemoration of something personal on their bodies. However, while tattoos are popular among younger generations, there are countries in the world that continue to see them as taboo. This stigma against tattoos can stem from a variety of reasons — religion, cultural conservatism, negative social associations, and more. Whatever the reason, we can see that tattoos present a complicated question in different societies across the globe.  Here we can explore some of the countries which have the strongest taboos against tattoos, and the ways in which people can respect and learn about those cultural perspectives.

A tattoo artist wearing black gloves, and working on a tattoo on a client's arm that is resting on a black bench.
A tattoo artist in the process of working on a tattoo, Image source: Ikidane Nippon

The Force of Law

Before diving into the specific countries where tattoos are the most stigmatized, it is important to understand how such stigmas and taboos are enforced. The most common (and often only) method of tattoo regulation is through the force of law. The governments of these nations have passed laws and official policies which restrict and define the limits of tattooing within the country’s borders. These laws apply to all tattoo artists and tattoo parlors under the governance of the state. Because of this, the cultural views of people end up having a significant impact on what is legal and illegal in the country. The anthropology of tattoo stigma, therefore, is a bottom-up process — travelling from individual cultural beliefs up to the overarching government, it ends up governing what is acceptable in these societies.


Even though Japan has a long history of tattooing, it has a strict approach to public exposure of tattoos. This is largely related to the social association of tattoos with gang activities. The gangs of Japan, known for their organized crimes, are called the yakuza. They represent a darker side of the nation, one where underground networks of gangs are highly-organized and territorial. Yakuza are recognizable through the tattoos covering their bodies — tattoos that are known as irezumi in Japanese. After being outlawed in Japanese history around the late 19th century CE and early 20th century CE, irezumi tattoos are now associated with the yakuza gangs today. Read more about the gangs of Japan which have stigmatized tattoos in the nation here.

A collage of signs in Japanese and English that show pictures of people with tattoos crossed out in red.
A collage of public bathhouse signs in Japan that show restrictions against tattoos, Image source: Tattoo4you

Due to these negative connotations, tattoos now face restrictions to being shown publicly in Japan. The most common places where tattoos cannot be exposed are hotels, public baths, resorts, and gyms. A governmental tourism survey in 2015 found that 56% of hotels and public bathhouses would not permit any visitors from entering with visible tattoos. This ban shows the extent to which the tattoo taboo is a part of Japanese culture, even with regards to foreign tourists that may have tattoos. If you plan to visit Japan and partake in the cultural tradition of public baths and hot springs (onsen), make sure you keep your tattoos covered!


China has experienced a similar relationship to tattoos as Japan has — associating it with criminal acts and prisoners. However, this negative regard is very much dependent on where in China you look. The larger cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai have booming tattoo industries where tattoos are common and more accepted. The farther you move into the rural countryside and villages, on the other hand, the less acceptable tattoos become. Discrimination against this art form (or trade, whichever you would like to classify tattooing as) has become more understated in recent years. This has opened up a space for a more creative and interpretive Chinese tattoo style to emerge — one that is unique to the mix of modern and traditional in the nation. 

The back of a man, with a colorful bird tattoo across his entire back.
A back tattoo done by a Chinese tattoo artist, showcasing a unique style, Image source: Los Angeles Times

South Korea

The tattoo industry in another East Asian country, South Korea, faces a different kind of restriction. While tattoos are not illegal, the law states that tattoos can only be administered by licensed medical doctors. The justification for this law is that needles and the action of tattooing presents the risk for transmittable blood diseases, especially if the equipment is unsanitized. Such diseases include HIV infections and hepatitis. To maintain health guidelines, as a result, the government has placed a restriction on who can tattoo.

A black and white photo of a tattoo artist's hand working on an arm tattoo.
Tattooing without a medical license is illegal in South Korea, but this does not prevent the tattoo subculture from thriving, Image source: Quora

The medical aspect of the tattoo taboo is an interesting point to consider here. It presents an alternative path of regulation that governments can use to control the tattoo industry that has a negative societal stigma. Many people resist this law, despite the risk they face with authorities and law enforcement. There exists a thriving network of tattoo shops and parlors in the country, especially in the capital city of Seoul. Therefore, while it is common to see people with tattoos in South Korea, the methods of getting those tattoos can be questioned by the law. In any case, tattoos have become a subversive performance of the law that many see as ridiculous and unnecessary. The tattoo industry has transformed into a subculture as a result. Read more about the South Korean tattoo industry and reactions to the regulatory laws here!

North Korea

Going across the 38th parallel from South Korea, we encounter North Korea. Interestingly, North Korea does not have a law that makes tattoos illegal. Instead, there are restrictions to what kind of tattoos are allowed. Because of North Korea’s dictatorship and communist government, the tattoos must be in some way praising the leaders of the country or supporting the political ideology and messaging of the state. If someone is caught having tattoos that do not fit these criteria, they can be severely punished under the law: for example, going to prison and being forced to do hard labor. Here, then, tattoos emerge as a tool of political propaganda rather than a social stigma. Tattooing therefore becomes encompassed as part of governmental strategy, rather than being a societal taboo having negative connotations.

Sri Lanka & Thailand

Moving onto South and Southeast Asia, we can see how religion intersects with the tattoo industry. Buddhism is a religion that is widely practiced in Sri Lanka, and tattoo policies reflect this religious belief as well. Anyone with Buddha tattoos or images depicting Buddhist motifs face legal consequences. This is because such tattoos are viewed as defacing or misappropriating the religion and what it stands for. Because of these deeply-held beliefs, even foreigners are not exempt — in fact, it is seen as even more offensive for a nonnative to have tattoos of Buddhist imagery. The line between insider and outsider can clearly be seen here. To protect its religion and the important symbolism and meaning Buddhism holds for its people, the Sri Lankan government maintains a strict approach in tattoo regulations.

A close up shot of a buddha tattoo on someone's arm, with pink flowers surrounding it.
A Buddha tattoo, which is forbidden in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Image source: Best of Where

Like Sri Lanka, Thailand also places restrictions on Buddha tattoos.  The same Sri Lankan law that forbids this religious iconography in tattoos applies in Thailand as well. The Thai government passed this law in 2011, and it reaches a decade this year. Once again, the pride and respect associated with the local religion is the basis for this taboo against such tattoos. The government expressed that these Buddhist tattoos culturally appropriate the native religions, and detract from the respect these religions deserve. As a result, keep in mind that if you are visiting either Sri Lanka or Thailand as a foreigner, it is advised to hide or cover any Buddhist tattoos you may have!


Religion also plays a strong role in the stigma against tattoos in countries whose governments are centered around religious practices and beliefs. One such nation is Iran. An official law making tattoos completely illegal was passed in 2015, under the premise that tattoos promote devil-worship. This belief stems from Sharia law, or Islamic law: religious law taken from Islamic texts and tradition. Read more about Sharia law here. The law illegalizing tattoos brings to light the deep taboos in Iran on what is considered to be unholy and against Islamic faith. Iran, being a nation governed by Islamic religious principles, also resists anything that could be interpreted as “Westernization”. Tattoos are regarded as examples of such Western influences, so that is another reason for outlawing them. If there is any place you should seriously consider covering your tattoos, it would be Iran.

A man with his shirt off gets tattooed by two artists, one standing and working on his chest and one seated behind him and working on his back.
An underground and hidden tattoo studio in Iran, Image source: The Guardian

United Arab Emirates

While not illegal in the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, tattoos are frowned upon because they oppose Islamic law . This law states that one shouldn’t cause harm to one’s own body. Since tattoos are created with needles which inject ink under one’s skin, the UAE government views this as self-injury. The violation of this Islamic law, issued by the government as a legal rule called a fatwa, is taken very seriously.  Having tattoos therefore leads to discrimination and taboos, especially against those who publicly display their ink. In fact, in order to join certain official organizations or establishments in the UAE, there is a rule that you should remove your tattoos. Examples include the army, police, and some airline companies.


The Religious Affairs Directorate in Turkey passed a similar fatwa in 2015. The fatwa stated that tattoos are in opposition to the Prophet Muhammed’s teachings in Islam, and are therefore not allowed. The state has since been encouraging the surgical removal of existing tattoos — focusing these measures only on Muslims within the country.  This regulation has also extended to the school and education system of Turkey. There has been a ban on students getting tattoos, along with other forms of cosmetic alteration like piercings and dyed hair. More information on this ban can be explored here. This conservative and religious mindset has been met with trepidation, especially among non-religious youth that enjoy getting tattoos. The battle over tattoos is closely tied to political struggles in Turkey, leading to a strong link between politics and social taboos.

A young boy in a blue jacket, sitting at a desk with his head resting on his hand, and working on a workbook with a pencil.
A Turkish student at school, where tattoos and other bodily cosmetic alteration is banned, Image source: RT


There is a very specific kind of taboo against tattoos in Denmark: no tattoos on the face, neck, and hands! This is a long-standing law, as it was established back in 1966 and continues to be in effect today. The Danish government outlawed tattooing on these body parts in order to prevent people from getting tattoos that are unsightly or clearly visible. There is also the concern that tattoos on the face, neck, and hands are unprofessional. This could hurt someone socially and be detrimental when finding a job. 

A close up shot of the back of a hand, which has a black and white skull tattoo on it.
A skull tattoo on a hand, which is an illegal part of the body for a tattoo artist to work on in Denmark, Image source: Custom Tattoo Design

What is interesting is that it is not illegal for someone to have tattoos in these places — it is only illegal for a tattoo artist to tattoo those body parts in Denmark. There are many ways to get around this law, ways that are very common and used often. For example, a person can get tattooed on the face or hands outside of Denmark, or a tattoo artist can tattoo someone’s neck or hands outside of Denmark. The legal consequences therefore only affect the tattoo artist! Because of the widespread disregard for this law (as tattoo artists continue tattooing faces, necks, and hands at their discretion and in secret) people have continued to push for its abolishment. It stands to see whether this will happen in the near future.

Anthropology of Regulation and Subversion

Exploring the topic of tattooing under taboo reveals the important role stigmas can play in how people are allowed to present themselves in a society. Depending on a nation’s religious beliefs, social structures, and medical stance, tattoos can face opposition of varying strengths. This provides us with an opportunity to think about the anthropology of regulations, and the ways in which those regulations can be subverted by people. The law often represents the strongest approach with which social practices can be controlled and manipulated. As we can see from all these countries that have taboos against tattoos, governments use the power of the law to carry out such regulations. 

This does not mean, however, that all people within the nation submissively follow these laws. There is an anthropology of subversion here as well, one which represents how people can carry out their autonomy within restrictive societal structures. The fight for freedom of choice and artistic expression continues on in these countries, and others all over the world. The questions we can consider from this discussion of tattoo stigmas around the world are: Do we have the right to control our own bodies? Or are our bodies themselves the subjects of the states we live in?

A woman without a shirt is sitting with her back to the camera facing a world map on the wall, and she has a map of the world tattooed on her back.
We can consider the larger impacts that tattoo taboos have on various societies across the world, Image source: Andrea Catton Laser Clinic

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