Dreamcatchers lovingly etched on buttocks in Bali. Dragons inscribed by tattooists in Japan. Perhaps even an 'Ibiza 2013' blazing above a navel (or worse, below it).

Travel tattoos – those oh-so-permanent souvenirs – have joined the ranks of hostel guitar-playing and shark-tooth necklaces as global symbols of backpacker douchebaggery.

All tattoos are a matter of personal taste. But enthusing about the skin art you acquired in foreign climes is especially likely to elicit a wince, right along with 'finding yourself' or 'volunteering in an orphanage'.

Swallows instead of sandals... far better than 'Ibiza 2013'. Image by ballyscanlon / The Image Bank / Getty Images

While most travel tattoos are fairly benign, some cause upset for ignorant appropriation of cultural symbols. And indeed, failing to research the meaning of a symbol before planting it permanently on your body can rate anywhere on the scale from cringeworthy through to hugely offensive. And such tattoos can even get you in trouble.

The majority are harmless – words, letters, images and names that tie the tattooee to their trip – but they still have a bad rep. Perhaps it's the clichéd image of mistranslated Chinese symbols, inscribed forever on an unsuspecting shoulder blade ('gentle breeze' and 'thundering fart'; an easy translation mistake to make).

Or maybe it's their often disastrous spontaneity that make us wince. Tattoo art is forever, unless you get a thrill from long sessions with lasers, and the chances of nailing a tattoo's design and placement, and securing a trusted artist (through language barriers), are slim. Hundreds of biceps have no doubt been bespoiled by Tasmanian devils and meaningless kanji. Body-art connoisseurs especially revile travel tats, seeing them as slapdash imitations that cheapen a millennia-old art form.

This gent preserved a precious moment... by having the post code of Bondi Beach tattooed in his back. Image by Oliver Strewe / Lonely Planet Images / Getty Images

Personally, 'spontaneous' and 'tattoo' aren't words I'd happily pair. (Cross-examining a tattoo artist about their sterilising unit, that's much more my style.) But I'd wager that fans of impromptu tattoos are doing what we all attempt when we travel: hoping to absorb a precious moment for posterity.

Some travellers point their Nikon, others upload to Instagram. Then there’s compulsive souvenir shoppers, eager to take traces of an adventure home. I've been known to note down recipes on the road, in the hope of conjuring flavours of a far-flung place – though it never tastes the same back home.

They're all strategies for capturing the joy of travel and taking it with us. Perhaps it's gauche to singe a name and date into your arm, and it's certainly more extreme – but it stems from the same sentiment as photographing, diarising and social media sharing. And the urge to grasp a moment might be futile, but it's an irresistible one. Who hasn't watched a beautiful sunset unfold, and interrupted the moment to take a photograph?

So if you spot Chinese symbols or bulging mountain silhouettes adorning the skin of your hostel bunkmate, resist the urge to scoff. It's their health, their risk, and their concern how it'll look in 30 years. Wrinkly and faded, for sure – but perhaps also the sign of a life well lived.

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