Jason Momoa and Tattoo Tourism in Budapest

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In May of this year, Jason Momoa, star of “Aquaman” and “Game of Thrones”, got a tattoo done by Grindesign of Budapest. He is just the most high profile example of Budapestʼs latest trend, tattoo tourism, as David Holzer explains.

Momoa was in the city shooting a new adaptation of “Dune”, the classic sci-fi novel. The tattoo, on Momoa’s treelike forearm is supposedly the logo of On the Roam, a production company he’s involved in.

It’s actually not much of a tattoo to write home about, particularly on the giant Momoa, much-loved by the women of Hungary. Especially when you consider what’s on offer in Budapest. In this, Momoa is very much on trend.

(Full disclosure: I was an early practitioner of tattoo tourism. The second of my ten tattoos was done on a stag weekend in Amsterdam. I was a little the worse for wear – back then you could still get tattooed tipsy – and my own tattoo is considerably more colorful than that of the lightweight Mr. Momoa.)

But, although the Hungarian press made much of Momoa’s Budapest inking, tattoo tourism is not actually that prevalent here. Sniffing about online, I came across something called the Yeay.com Global Tattoo Index.

Yeay claims to offer a “space you can trust” in a world of fake news. According to their Global Tattoo Index, based on information provided by real people providing honest information about their lifestyle, only 30% of Budapest’s tattoos are tattoo tourism. Compare this to Las Vegas, where it’s 75%. Not everything that happens in Vegas stays in etc., etc.

This fits with what I was told by Zsolt Sárközi, owner of Dark Art Tattoo at Teréz krt 35, not far from Oktogon in the center of Budapest.

Openminded

Dark Art is rated as one of Budapest’s best tattoo parlors and has an international reputation. The studio opened in the summer 1992, not long after the change of regime in Hungary. It was a time, Sárközi told me, when “people generally became more open-minded [.…] and a lot of things that weren’t part of our lives before started to come alive. Tattooing was one of them.”

Back then, the tattoo you had done in Budapest might well not have been something you’d proudly display for photos, Sárközi said. “We didn’t really know much about tattooing itself. We made great tattoos with great ideas and meaning behind them but without any skills.”

Today, all that’s changed. Dark Art tattoos are likely to be large, colorful and extremely well executed, although that might be an unfortunate choice of word. Although Dark Art does different styles such as the full body sleeves that usually grace the bodies of Japanese Yakuza gangsters, the studio is best known for being a leading exponent of what’s called the Hungarian style, or “fantasy based on realism” as Sárközi puts it.

No doubt there are Hungarians walking around sporting tattoos of Jason Momoa as Aquaman, Khal Drogo or Conan the Barbarian.

Although he did tell me he’s tattooed the crash-bang-wallop Hungarian band Hooligans and his friend Zoltán Téglás, singer of Ignite, Sárközi refused to be drawn on whether he’d tattooed any celebrities of the stature of Momoa. He also pointed out that, in tattooing, “you quickly get to learn that a celebrity is just a person because they’re the ones coming to you, asking for something from you, so they show their most humble selves.”

That makes sense. If you’re tattooing someone like Angelina Jolie, you don’t want to be thinking about who she is and the consequences of spelling the name of her latest paramour wrong.

According to Sárközi, the tattoo tourists who come into Dark Art are either into what he calls “quality tattoo tourism” or of the Jason Momoa persuasion.

Commitment

Quality tattoo tourists travel the world to get tattoos from big name artists, which can be a major money and time commitment. A tattoo artist to the stars like Scott Campbell of Saved Tattoo, New York, can charge up to $1,000 for the first hour of inking. The most ornate, individual tattoos, the ones most worth having for aficionados, will take hours.

Certain styles are also far more popular in certain countries than others. I’ve had most of my tattoos done in Spain, where the “Old School” style is most fashionable. These are colorful, thickly lined versions of the kind of tattoos sailors would have got on shore leave in the 1950s – skulls, hearts, mermaids, galleons and so on. Although they may well exist, I haven’t seen a single Old School tattoo parlor in Budapest.

Incidentally, trends on the rise at the moment include having your hand and ear tattooed, “ignorant” tattoos that are deliberately dumb, and what are called “imperfect sketches”. These are tatts of the kind worn by Foo Fighters front man Dave Grohl that look unfinished.

Tattoo tourists that fall into the Momoa camp usually want a memento of the place they’re visiting or to commemorate an event like a stag do or being at the Sziget Festival. These are usually small and may well be somewhere they can be hidden easily. Sárközi says that the tattoos his parlor does for tourists most often are flying birds or a Hungarian pattern. While he respects the fact that the tattoo is probably meaningful for the customer, “it’s not really a big challenge for the artist.”

Looking at the remarkable tattoos done by Dark Art, you can see what Sárközi means.

But does tattoo tourism say anything meaningful about these interesting times in which we live?

On one hand, you could see it as the opposite of selfie mania, a reminder of the places we’ve visited that won’t vanish into the cloud. Or, you could see it as part of the trivializing of travel. As the world’s destination cities come to resemble each other more and more, why not just get a tattoo that proves you’ve been to Budapest or wherever in case you forget.

Check out the work of Dark Art at www.darkart.hu.

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