Getting a Tattoo in Japan
Japan is known for many things. Samurai, geisha, sushi, Mt. Fuji, and one of the most controversial-tattoos.
Japan and tattoos have a long and tumultuous history, and are seen by most as undesirable; but I was determined to get tattooed in a country where tattoos date back to 5000 BC.
The first written record of tattooing in Japan was discovered when a Chinese dynastic history was compiled. According to the text, Japanese men decorated their bodies and faces with design done by tattooing.
Japanese tattooing is mentioned in other Chinese histories, but mostly in a derogatory way. The Chinese thought tattooing to be barbaric and used it only as punishment.
By the early 7th century, rulers of Japan had adopted much of the same style, culture, and attitude of the Chinese, and as a result decorative tattooing was looked down upon.
This is how and where the accepted stereotype that all tattooed people were criminals and outcasts began.
Criminals were marked with a variety of symbols telling the story of where the crimes were committed.
Marking the skin was reserved for those who committed serious crimes, and people wearing these marks were ostracized from their families and denied all participation in community life.
For the Japanese, tattooing was a severe form of punishment.
During the18th century; Edo, now Tokyo, was in need of artists for movie advertisements, publishers needed illustrators for novels, and the Japanese wood block print was developed to meet those needs.
The woodblock print had a big influence on the art of tattooing, but marking the skin was still not accepted by the Japanese as the yakuza were getting tattooed.
Because tattooing was illegal, the yakuza saw it as being outlaws forever. It was also proof of courage because tattooing was painful, and because it was permanent, it was evidence of lifelong loyalty.
In between the 18th century and the present day, tattooing in Japan has been looked down upon, and celebrated, loved and hated, and although people with tattoos are banned from entering bath houses; it is legal to get tattooed in Japan, and there are hundreds of shops all around Japan offering beautiful traditional Japanese art work, as well as traditional American tattoo art.
From when Cody and I arrived at Inkrat Tattoo Studio in Tokyo; to when we left, my tattoo experience in Japan was phenomenal.
We were greeted by Hata-a tattoo artist at the shop, and were offered a seat and some water. Rei-the owner of Inkrat was busy drawing up my piece.
Hata chatted with us for a while about the shop, tattooing in Japan, and art in general.
Once Rei was done the drawing he brought it over to me, but it didn’t quite fit my leg.
I told him we could do it on the other leg but he said he would just draw it up a little smaller.
Another customer at the shop explained that because I had already chosen which leg I wanted the piece on, Rei didn’t want to inconvenience or disrespect me by placing it somewhere else.
I had never experienced that kind of service anywhere else, but I suspect it is a very Japanese thing. I would have been perfectly fine with the tattoo on my other leg, but the whole situation made me smile a bit.
Respect is very important in the Japanese culture.
Once Rei re-drew the design and I approved, it was tattoo time.
The piece took 2 hours to complete.
After it was done we were asked to stick around and relax for a bit. We spoke with Rei about the taboo of tattoos in Japan, his art collection, and how long he had been tattooing for.
Rei has 22 years of experience, and it shows. His work is solid, and his style is bold, bright, and traditional.
He told us about his hero Stoney-a small man who’s growth was stunted due to suffering from arthritis since age 4, and being forced to go through life in a wheel chair,
But through all of his adversities, he was a happy man. He began tattooing in freak shows back in the 50’s, and did well for himself.
Rei gifted us with 2 t-shirts with a famous photo of Stoney on the front and a quote on the back that reads “I Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair. am in the business of rendering a service to this community, for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another”
We were so thankful.
After thanking him several times for the t-shirts, Cody was curious about a hat that was in a cabinet. There was a patch on it that read “get tattooed”.
Rei told us that it was all hand stitched by a friend of his, and asked Cody if he liked it. Cody said “yes” and Rei said “it’s for you”.
At this point we were speechless and weren’t sure how to respond. Being in Japan we thought refusing to accept it would have been rude, so we said Arigato Gozaimas several times to Rei’s generosity.
Hata then told us “Rei is very generous and kind, and always giving” then Rei replied with a laugh “yes I am very kind”.
Our experience at Inkrat Tattoo was first class. The guys were respectful, and friendly.
We couldn’t have asked for a better tattoo experience in a foreign country.
It is a fond travel memory we will keep with us for many years to come.
After all I have the tattoo to prove it!
Tattooing is an ancient craft that is used to heal and give closure to many.
It bonds others, some use it to remember loved ones, and for me, I simply love collecting art work from around the world. Check out Giselle getting tattooed in Nepal.
I love the look, I love the creative process, I love falling in love with a piece, I love it all.
I also love that something that started out as neutral, was then twisted into something negative, has now managed to make its way back into the mainstream and is being seen in a positive light.
Minds can change and art will always thrive within people who desire to express themselves and feed their spirit.