Tattoo Tourism: Mesa artist cashing in on new souvenir trend

If you go on a trip, you may buy a T-shirt or small knickknack to remember your vacation. But for many younger people, they want a more permanent souvenir. It’s a trend called ‘tattoo tourism,’ and one local artist is cashing in.

For about eight hours at Next Wave Tattoo in Mesa, tattooist Kenneth Shaw works his magic.

"I would describe it as abstract realism and surrealism," Shaw said. "There's realistic elements in it, but then I'm going to add funky shapes or geometrical patterns to it to give it a different look."

Shaw who opened his shop in 2009, was obsessed with art as a kid.

"I was just the type of kid that would go home from school, and I would just draw all day," Shaw said.

Now, he leaves a permanent impression on anyone who books with him. Like Stephanie Yonts, who traveled from New Mexico. This is her second tattoo from Shaw.

"I knew that it would be something I’d be proud of to remind me of where I came from, but also it’s incredibly vibrant and meaningful to me," Yonts said.

For her first tattoo with Shaw, the 30-year-old had to book a year in advance. She is not alone.

"It’s always great having that feeling that someone is willing to wait for your work," Shaw said.

Because Shaw has nearly 130,000 Instagram followers, people from around the world see and want his work. His bright designs stand out. Shaw doesn't travel out of town for work, but about half of his clients travel to him.

Clients, or tat-tourists, from Amsterdam, Canada, Oregon and California travel to the valley just to see him.

Tattoo tourism is a relatively new trend popular with millennials and Gen Zers. Social media easily connects people with an ink master.

"Over the last year, it’s been huge," Shaw said. "I've noticed a lot more people actually plan their vacations around their tattoos."

Regardless of where his clients come from, Shaw wants them to leave with artwork that can be a conversation starter, just like Yonts' finished product.

"When I tattoo people, I want them to have something truly unique to them not just something that some guy down the street can do," Shaw said.

Shaw is booked up through 2024, so clients must wait until early 2025 to get a tattoo from him. The tattoos that take a full day are not cheap.