Stories

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Getting Tattooed in Japan

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.

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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.

Inkrat Tattoo

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.

Rei working at Inkrat Tattoo

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.

Geisha Tattoo

My beautiful Geisha tattoo.

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.

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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”.

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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.

Giselle and Rei and Inkrat Tattoo

Giselle and Rei

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.

Inkrat Tattoo

Hata, Giselle, and Rei.

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.

Comments To This Entry.
  1. Franca January 19, 2015 Reply

    Even if I don’t have any tattoos myself, I know how much you like your tattoos guys, so I can understand how interesting and incredible this experience has been for you Giselle. It’s a very fascinating art and it must be nice to have it done in different part of the world 🙂

    • Giselle and Cody January 25, 2015 Reply

      Franca, it is very addicting once you start getting tattooed and it is such a great memory to have.
      Meeting different people, getting tattooed in different countries are always going to stick with us. We can always look at a tattoo and remember when and where we got it. It takes us back to those great times. 🙂

  2. Jason Dopko January 19, 2015 Reply

    Stoney knows how!! What a good hard working role model to have. Good read and nice piece, Rei! Miss you guys, looks like such a good time!

    • Giselle and Cody January 25, 2015 Reply

      Thanks Jason. Japan was a blast and we really need to travel there sometime.
      So many great artists and you would love all of the traditional Japanese art everywhere. 🙂

  3. Melissa January 19, 2015 Reply

    I have a small tattoo on my ankle so most people actually don’t notice it. The only time I had a problem with it in Japan was when I went to an onsen and had to cover it up with bandaids.

    • Giselle and Cody January 25, 2015 Reply

      I guess that is the price you pay for having a tattoo hey Melissa? 🙂
      We knew there was no way we could ever enter an onset with the amount of tattoos that we have so we just decided to get more. It is such a beautiful tradition in Japan but still very much frowned upon.

  4. I absolutely love this post Giselle, and the geisha is stunning, what a great souvenir from your trip. I also love that pomegranate one your other leg, where is it from? I just got tattooed in Chiang Mai a couple of weeks ago and I think it might just be the start of a collection from around the world, at least I hope. I’m dying to travel to Russian to be tattooed by Sasha Unisex, you should check out her work if you don’t know her. You guys are awesome. I’m blabbering. Ok, bye! x

    • Giselle and Cody January 25, 2015 Reply

      Hey Amélie, Thank you so much for the comment on my tattoo. I am in love with it and think he did a wonderful job on it. I got the pomegranate tattoo by Alex Snelgrove at the shop Okey Doke Tattoos in Toronto. She is an incredible artist and I will most likely go back to get more work from her.

      Where/What did you get tattooed while you were in Chiang Mai? I am sure it will be start of more to come 🙂 That’s always how it happens.

      Yes, Sasha Unisex is an amazing artist!! So many great tattoo artists from Russia. If you ever want to blabber you can always comment on her and we can blabber back and forth 🙂

  5. Tez January 22, 2015 Reply

    Great piece. I got a tattoo during my time in Korea and the service was good but not like this. Great pics, too.

    • Giselle and Cody January 25, 2015 Reply

      Thanks so much Tez. What did you end up getting in Korea?

      Would love to see photos.

  6. Kristin Addis January 27, 2015 Reply

    I love getting travel tattoos. Lovely choice!

  7. Abi January 27, 2015 Reply

    What an interesting historical factoid. I never knew this – thanks for sharing!

  8. Diana Edelman January 27, 2015 Reply

    What a cool experience! Can’t wait to see it in person.

    • Giselle and Cody January 28, 2015 Reply

      When will that be Diana?? We miss you?

      Wish you were still in Chiang Mai. We will be heading there soon.

  9. Mindy & Ligeia January 27, 2015 Reply

    Really beautiful work! Very impressive 🙂

    • Giselle and Cody January 28, 2015 Reply

      Thanks so much Mindy and Ligeia. Now we are in Koh Lanta and really want to get tattooed here 🙂

  10. Leah January 28, 2015 Reply

    What a lovely story!! I love the way the tattoo turned out…so bright and colorful. And what a generous and respectful man to have for an artist!

    • Giselle and Cody January 31, 2015 Reply

      It really was a great experience Leah.

      The artist has so much respect for the customer and vice versa. 🙂

  11. Karianne January 29, 2015 Reply

    What a fascinating article! I love Japan and tattoos, but didn’t realise they had such a long and complex relationship.

    Your geisha is simply stunning. What a wonderful reminder of your time in Japan.

    I want another tattoo soon and we are hoping to return to Japan within the next couple of years. Maybe I can pay the lovely people at Inkrat a visit!

    • Giselle and Cody January 31, 2015 Reply

      Thanks so much for the lovely comment Karianne. I am in love with my new tattoo 🙂

      We didn’t have any bad interactions with our tattoos. We just weren’t allowed to visit a Japanese bath house but that’s ok.

      If and when you make it back to Japan you should definitely pay Inkrat a visit. Such nice guys and amazing artists.

  12. Jessica February 14, 2015 Reply

    What an excellent experience! I have two tattoos so far and I think getting a new one in a place you’re visiting is such a great way to remember the trip! 🙂

    • Giselle and Cody February 16, 2015 Reply

      Jessica, well we will only get tattooed if we can find an artist good enough 🙂
      What do you have tattooed? Always love hearing about others tattoos.

  13. Elizabeth February 25, 2015 Reply

    Do you guys even have any space left?? LOL
    Every time you come back there is always more art to see.
    Hopefully, I will be getting my first soon. You need to come with me.

    • Giselle and Cody February 25, 2015 Reply

      We have so much space left!! When we run out we could always tattoo our faces 🙂
      You need to book and just go and get one. Hurry you’re running out of space.

  14. Christian March 11, 2015 Reply

    I’m thinking about going to inkrat in April for a tattoo. I am curious to know how much yours cost, as I know tattoos in Japan can be super expensive.

    • Giselle and Cody March 12, 2015 Reply

      Hey Christian,

      Tattoos can be pretty expensive in Japan but Inkrat was pretty reasonable. My geisha ran me $350 and it is a pretty good size. Hope that helps

  15. […] 2 weeks in Japan wouldn’t have been complete without visiting the Magical […]

  16. Kitty July 6, 2015 Reply

    wow thank you for e review. Im thinking of getting a tattoo in Japan. But do they understand english? Would it be hard to communicate with them?

    • Giselle and Cody July 14, 2015 Reply

      Hi Kitty, our tattoo artist spoke enough english that we could communicate. We think that is probably the case at most shops in japan.

      • kitty July 18, 2015 Reply

        Imma try email ink rat and see if they could give me a reply! Thank alot!!

  17. Jess November 10, 2015 Reply

    Such an amazing experience! Love the tattoo too 🙂

    • Giselle and Cody November 15, 2015 Reply

      Thanks so much for checking out the blog Jess. It was a really amazing experience to be tattooed in Japan.
      We will definitely visit Rei and Hata again when we go back. Have you been to Japan?

  18. Kerry Furlong July 14, 2016 Reply

    Wow, that is a beautiful tattoo! I’m hoping to get tattooed myself when I visit Japan later this year.

    • Giselle and Cody July 16, 2016 Reply

      Thanks so much Kerry!! <3
      There are so many great tattoo artists in Japan.
      Looking forward to seeing what you are going to get 🙂

  19. Audrey September 11, 2016 Reply

    Hi there. Wonderful post! I’m sorry if I missed it, but how did you go about contacting this shop in the first place? I’m going to Japan in March and I’m so excited to get some ink there. Too bad about the Onsen though. Thanks again!

    • Giselle and Cody September 11, 2016 Reply

      Hey there Audrey, glad you found us and liked the post.
      We emailed Ink Rat at inkrat00@yahoo.co.jp and you could also message them on Instagram as well.
      Hope you have a great time in Japan and let us know if you get booked in with Ink Rat!! 🙂

  20. Janet Darbey June 6, 2017 Reply

    Hi I loved this article and it was a great story, the Geisha is amazing. I work for a company in Thailand that offers hand poked sak yant sacred tattooing. We have a resident Master of Sak Yant or you can choose to go to the temple where the Monk does the tattooing with blessing. I have just had the king butterfly done on my arm and it is amazing. Check out the info at sakyantmagicalthaitattoo.com, loads of info on there if you are interested in the history of it. Thanks a million, come and see us sometime!

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