Why you should care

Because this cultural trend is a lens into how a nation globalizes. 

Late on this night in Tokyo, the Romanian tattoo artist known simply as Dali still hasn’t left his parlor. The dude is busy. His clients come in for all sorts of designs. Many women want a meaningful phrase or a couple of Kanji characters inked. Guys come in for tribal patterns or, Dali’s favorite, biomechanical work — using some machinery that moves sleekly with the body. It isn’t until nearly 11 p.m. that Graphic Tribe Tattoos, Dali’s studio in Shibuya, finally goes quiet.

Dali’s clients are a mix of expats and Japanese folks, but either way, he probably shouldn’t have so many of them. In Japan, tattoos have long been culturally verboten — so much so that three years ago, a Maori woman from New Zealand was rejected from entering a bathhouse (where customers bathe in the nude) for her ink. Last year, an Australian woman reportedly suffered the same fate. The cultural aversion to tattoos in Japan isn’t mere insensitivity or conservatism. Traditionally, this island nation has associated body art with the yakuza, the famous and dangerous Japanese Mafia, who ink up upon joining their organized-crime ring, in part to keep them loyal to the clan. Their tattoos, done with unsafe needles and ink that poisoned some of them into liver cancer, were for ages done the old, painful way — needle and bamboo.

Dali says that, sure, he sees more clients these days than in his first chunk of time in Tokyo — many Westerners who aren’t troubled by the cultural baggage here. And that might itself cause some changes. Brian Ashcraft, an American, Osaka-based author of the book Japanese Tattoos, which was created with fellow Osaka denizen and tattoo artist Hori Benny, tells OZY over email that Japanese tats have long been “the folk art of the working class and of bohemian types.” He’s written that the once “backroom studio” tattooing culture in the country shifted to a more open, shop-oriented culture in the ’90s. That shift, Ashcraft writes, undid the standard old-master-and-apprentice model, freeing up aspiring artists to learn on their own or from foreigners. And then there are the otattoos — Benny’s phrase, which takes the word otaku and combines it with tattoo — which tend to be geek fare, drawing on animé designs; now you can find many of these beyond Japan’s borders, given the worldwide exportation of manga and animé.

Really old people in Japan continue to make policy into their twilight years.

Hori Benny, Osaka-based tattoo artist

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Chapi waits for her tattoo session to begin.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Chapi Yamada, Benny’s 23-year-old apprentice, is sitting in Benny’s parlor with an edgy animé tattoo on the side of her head. It took two sessions to get this monster from D.Gray-man tat. Her dad is cool with it — he’s a Harley-Davidson motorcyclist, and Yamada dates a boy with plenty of tats and piercings. But, she says, she has to have a mutual friend introduce her to new people, who often think her appearance is “scary.” And she can’t hang out at the gym or pool, which she doesn’t care too much about.

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Benny uses a marker to indicate areas for shading.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

Discrimination may end for folks like Yamada in 2020, when Benny expects a change — thanks to the Tokyo Olympics, which will bring a wave of globalization to the country, where English-language penetration remains low. “There’s going to have to be a change,” thanks to the games, he says, and he notes that it’s already begun with athletes — he says he’s tatted several sports stars but can’t specify. Look to soccer (and David Beckham’s prominent, beloved ink), he notes. And baseball, a Japanese favorite, is open to tats too, which means Japan, “very concerned with its image, especially seen by the rest of the world,” will probably get on the global bandwagon, Benny says.

Yet in some ways, things haven’t shifted much. Ashcraft says the changes today are less toward acceptance than toward new styles. And Benny, who arrived in Japan 15 years ago, says in the decade and a half of his time here, old values still reign. “Really old people in Japan continue to make policy into their twilight years,” he says. “And no one gives youth a chance here.” Dali notes that many of his clients are foreign, expats or folks stopping in for a while, and that anyway, his work isn’t Japan-specific — so arguably, he’s not building a culture of tats. Prices remain high too — Benny might charge anywhere between ¥15,000 (about $150) for small pieces, ¥50,000 (about $500) for larger ones and, much like Dali’s rates, the prices go even higher for huge body artwork, such as sleeves or full backs.

Now, as Japan faces more questions of globalism, its tat culture might be one of the societal casualties.

Benny draws a nice parallel to the history of Japan’s geopolitical weaving and bobbing between isolationism and globalism. Toward the end of the 19th century, Japan began to open up for the first time, undoing the centuries-long policy of sakoku, or closedness, and allowing both its citizens and Westerners to swap ideas. Now, as Japan faces more questions of globalism — induced in part by its demographic crisis and the accompanying need for foreign labor and international students — its tat culture might be one of the societal casualties. “Once someone from the outside comes and says, ‘Oh my god, Japan, you’re so backward; tattoos are totally cool,’ change will set in,” Benny says.

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Chapi watches anime on her smart phone as Benny tattoos the side of her head.

Source Sean Culligan/OZY

And Ashcraft points out it’d be bad practice to pretend that all of Japanese tattoo history has been yakuza territory. He nods to the Edo Period fireman tattoos, often depicting dragons. For men who spent their days taking apart surrounding buildings to stop the spread of fire, a tattoo helped represent their strength and work. Other physical laborers like messengers or horse grooms enjoyed tats for similar reasons. And then, yes, he admits, there are the gamblers and criminals; for a while, gangsters even kept tattooers in business, he says. “But it’s unfair and incorrect to paint with a broad brushstroke and label everyone in the mid-19th century with tattoos as gangsters,” he writes OZY. Perhaps the taboo was exacerbated when, in the late 1800s, tattoos were banned — some could pay fines but “those who got new work done were not only rebelling against social norms, but breaking the law. That spirit of the outlaw and its association with tattooing only got stronger as yakuza organizations became increasingly powerful during the postwar era,” Ashcraft writes. That outlaw era coincided with yakuza madness in pop culture, and those markings, Ashcraft explains, became motifs by which to identify them — “much like a black outfit is used to represent a ninja or peg legs or hooks and eye patches represent pirates.”

Some young people are still taking the risks, though, even if they’re not loud about it. Yoshitake, a 20-year-old musician with a Mickey Mouse tattoo visible on the top of his foot who didn’t want his full name used because of stigma, can attest to this. He covers up when he needs to, but on this day in the Roppongi metro station, he’s letting the design breathe. Why? “Sometimes, you want to be yourself,” he says in strained English. For Yoshitake, being himself means vibing Western — on his arm, he sports a line from the Beatles: “Speaking words of wisdom.”

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