Traveling with Tattoos in Central America
It is true that one of the physical characteristics of gang members or the “criminal” sect of Central America are often characterized by heavy and very visible tattooing, but it has not been my experience that, as a heavily tattooed traveler, I have ever been mistaken as a gang member or that my tattoos have yet gotten me into much trouble. Though I have often wondered myself if my tattoos could perhaps get me mistaken as a part of the criminal class of this region or in another way attract problems — either social or legal — but, after logging years of travel in Central and South America, it has become obvious to me that heavy tattooing is just as indicative of gringos as it is of “criminals.”
There are many tattooed travelers here in Central America from the USA, and it is my impression that their tattoos are taken to be that of trendy kids from the north rather than anything to fear.
It is my impression that when you come to Central America that yours and your friend’s tattoos will only further demark you as a couple of gringos rather than getting you label as some kind of gang member. I have tattoos that completely cover my hands, fingers, arms, neck, and most other parts of my body, and they do attract a lot of attention here, but it is overwhelmingly positive. It is my impression that I am seen as some sort of curiosity, and nobody has yet asked me if I am part of a gang or acted as if I am from any sort of criminal class — even though the tattoos on my hands and fingers do look remarkably similar to those of the Central American pandillas.
Although there is only a small chance of attracting many serious problems from traveling in Central America with tattoos they will still make you a slightly larger target for police looking for foreigners with drugs. It is common for the police here to do impromptu searches and seizures of foreign travelers here. It is my impression that they are looking for drugs and will therefore have a bargaining piece to demand a bribe. It is immeasurable how many young people from the USA and Europe come to Central America for the cheap drugs, and, unless you look like a complete sitcom rendered square, you are going to me a slight target for police corruption if you have tattoos or not. Though it is my impression that the “hippies” with dreadlocks smelling like ganja and going around bare footed in and around the conventional hippy hang outs are going to be hunted far more than someone with tattoos traveling their own path down the Central American isthmus.
I have only attracted a couple problems in many years of travel in Latin America that I can attest to my tattoos. One was in Managua. I was walking down a residential street with a friend who also had visible tattoos. We were both wearing short sleeve shirts, and were walking down the middle of the road like we owned the place — the best way to walk when in a sketchy neighborhood. We were on our way to one of the only ATMs in the city at that time — this was more than a few years ago — and pretty much everybody in this neighborhood probably knew what we were doing. This was not a good place to be in a rough city, we were a little on guard. Well, as the story goes, nobody in the neighborhood hassled us in the least, we got our money from the ATM, but on the walk back a pickup truck full of a gang of cops stopped us.
They demanded that we get into the truck.
We out rightly refused, pretending that we could not understand what they were saying. Perhaps not wanting to physically restrain us in the streets — this is what it would have taken for them to arrest us — they told us to empty out our pockets on the hood of the truck. We piled our spare change and pocket fuzz out in the open for the cops to see. Perhaps realizing that we were not worth the bribe or the hassle of processing, they told us to go away, and they drove off.
I do believe that our tattoos had something to do with attracting this incident.
I have had a couple other run ins similar to this in South America, but, on the whole — when weighted against how much time I have spent in this region — these incidences are rare.
Though I do take precautions. I make sure that when traveling between places that I am wearing a long sleeve shirt and pants. If I choose to roll them up to reveal my tattoos, then I have the option to do so, if I want to cover up — such as a time when going through a police or military road block — I cover up. They type of shirt I wear is a button up, cotton, plaid, “farmer” shirt — they are lightweight, not too hot, can be unbuttoned and rebuttoned easily, and they are commonly worn in Central America amongst the ranchero classes. I usually also don’t go out in a t-shirt or tank top until I am familiar with a place and have a good lay of the land. I take these simple precautions of dress as a standard operating procedure, though I know that in most incidences it is not necessary — I repeat, tattoos are common here amongst foreign travelers.
In point, unless you or your friend are of Hispanic origins and stick around the urban areas of the region, there is very little chance that your tattoos will get you any more attention than a lot of stares and questions from curious locals. Just smile a lot, say hello to each person you pass in the street, and put on a gregarious face in public, and you should be alright. It is my impression that people will just think you are just another gringo backpacking in Latin America doing drugs, partying, and living permissively. But you are in think company, as MANY young people from all over the western world are here doing just that. There are so many hippies here stoned out of their minds all day long that the smokescreen against police harassment is thick. There is little chance that you will be picked out of a crowd and harassed because of your tattoos. It may happen — it probably WILL happen if you stay in this region long enough — but it should be a rare occurrence, and something that just happens from time to time to travelers in this part of the world. Not something to worry too much about.
Having visible tattoos means that you could potentially be targeted for police harassment anywhere in the world. It happens sometimes, but it is rare. I have been traveling perpetually now for 11 years, and I can count the problems that my tattoos have caused for me on one hand.