Every cheapo has their reasons for striving towards a thrifty lifestyle, a special thing they splurge their hard-saved yen on. For some of us, that thing is art—large and painful art that goes right onto the skin and lasts a lifetime. I got my first tattoo a few years after leaving Tokyo for London, and once I got caught up in the ink addiction, I knew I had to come back and get a piece or two done. Because what journey to Japan would be complete without taking home a piece of local artwork?
There can be some mystique surrounding irezumi (literally “insert ink”—the native word for tattoos) in Japan, mostly due to the country’s long and complicated relationship with the art. In reality, though, getting inked here isn’t so hard. If you’re thinking about going under the needle while vacationing or living in Japan, read on for some tips learned over the course of three tattoos.
Wait…but aren’t tattoos NG in Japan?
Yes…but things are changing…kind of. For centuries Japan has hit down hard on tattoos, historically due to their clash with religious values, as well as their seemingly inextricable link to organized crime and, much later, troublesome Russian sailors. But in the past decade or so there has been a very gradual change in attitude as ‘fashion tattoos’ have gained popularity with celebs and normal people, while ‘yakuza tattoos’ have fallen out of style with the new generation of white-collar gang members.
Anti-tattoo policies have been loosening up, but with small businesses leading the charge—not large chain gyms or spas. As Japan gets ready to welcome a huge influx of tourists leading up to the 2020 Olympics, local businesses are slowly realizing they’ll have to start accepting foreigners with tattoos, or lose out on a lot of revenue. In March, the Japan Tourism Agency kindly requested onsen and bath house operators to please, please accept tattooed foreigners—but turning away Japanese with tattoos is still okay.
So while things look to be changing over the next few years, be aware that a double standard is being formed, and if you live and work in Japan you might not be on the lucky side of it. Visible tattoos, or even non-visible tattoos that your co-workers find out about, may still cause problems at your current or future workplace depending on the company.
For those happy to buck the status quo and make the jump, Tattoo Spot provides a good list of tattoo-friendly businesses around the country.
Finding an artist
The first step to finding the perfect artist is deciding what style of tattoo you want. Japan is the natural place to seek out a wabori (traditional Japanese) design, but there are also plenty of artists who do old school, realistic, anime, geometric, or even good ol’ tribal tattoos—if that’s what you really, really want. Next, consider where in Japan you’d like to find an artist (the closer to ‘home’, the better) and, of course, your budget.
If you’re looking to get a traditional tebori tattoo, à la Horiyoshi III, be aware that it’s a slow process. Tebori means “to carve by hand”, and these tattoos are made by pricking the skin with a small comb of bamboo needles that have been dipped in ink. Hand-poked tattoos take much longer than a machine, so larger pieces will require many more sessions. Large tattoos often take years to complete, requiring a visit to the artist every few weeks or months for a session.
Tebori artists have long waiting lists and are less likely to accept inquiries in English. Some also require an introduction from another client. Unless you’ve got the time, money and connections for it, you might want to stick with something small or give this one a miss.
With all that in mind, get out your keyboard and start cracking. These days the internet is the best place to hunt for lists of studios, check out portfolios, and gather information about pricing and how to get in contact. There are some (incomplete) lists of Japanese artists at places like Tattooers.net, Tattoo Spot and Tattoo Hit, but you’re really just better off jumping down the rabbit hole through your favorite search engine. Many artists also curate their work on Facebook and Instagram, so have a look there too.
If you’re in Japan and a luddite, there are tattoo magazines like Tattoo Tribal, Tattoo Burst and Tattoo Girls, but they’re published infrequently and may be difficult to find.
Many spectacular Japanese artists often do conventions and guest spots around the world. Have a look at the past lineups of major tattoo conventions and see what kind of Japanese artists participate. If you’ve been tattooed before, you can also ask your local artist or studio if they have any recommendations for artists in Japan, as they may know someone personally from said conventions and guest spots. Having a Japanese artist that travels to your area can be a huge bonus if you want large work that cannot be completed in a few sessions.
Contacting the artist
Once you’ve found an artist or studio that feels right, get in contact through their preferred means of communication, which could range from a form on their website to a phone call or a walk-in. But don’t just stop by without warning unless their website states they accept walk-ins! If you arrive unannounced, the artist may be in the middle of a session and unable to give you the time of day; it doesn’t make a great first impression. Email or call the studio instead.
Have a good idea of what you want—the clearer and more fleshed-out (ahaha), the better. Every artist does things at a different pace, and they may or may not want to hear specific details right from the start. But for the introductory email or call, be sure to give them information like preferred dates and desired size of the tattoo so they can figure out how long they’ll need and if they have time.
Contact the artist as early as possible, especially if you’ll be travelling from abroad to get inked. If you don’t hear back in a week or so, don’t be afraid to email again or try to contact them another way. Even digital mail can slip through the cracks!
Ready to get your full-body yakuza tattoo? Plan ahead…the larger tattoo the longer it takes, and the inked area should be almost completely healed between sessions—a process that takes up to two weeks. If you live in Japan it’s not an issue to repeatedly visit an artist, but things become more difficult if traveling from abroad. While multiple sessions can be done in a row (ouch!), a tattoo that takes three or more sessions will likely require a 10-day to two-week healing period in between every two sessions. Most sessions run a maximum of four or five hours, so do the math. If coming from abroad, extremely large tattoos (back, chest or leg) will likely take more than one trip to Japan to complete, unless your artist travels and is planning to do a guest spot somewhere near you.
How much does it cost?
Tattoos are generally charged per hour of actual inking time, but some artists charge extra for time spent sketching designs and drawing up the transfer. They’ll be able to estimate how many hours a piece will take, but the actual time may differ in the end. In Tokyo prices generally range between 10,000 yen and 15,000 yen per hour for machine tattooing, but tebori will cost more. Be aware that some artists also have a minimum charge, even for small designs.
For rates, terms and deposit requirements, ask the artist directly, but be polite. A tattoo lasts for a lifetime—this isn’t the time to be a cheapo!
刺青/入れ墨 (irezumi): Literally, “insert ink”, the native word for tattoo. This often connotes traditional Japanese-style tattoos, like the kind worn by the yakuza.
タトゥー (tatou): Can be used interchangeably with irezumi, but often refers to tattoos done with a machine, Western-style tattoos, and tattoos worn by foreigners.
彫り師 (horishi): Tattoo artist
手彫り(tebori): Traditional style of tattooing, using bamboo needles dipped in ink and poked into the skin by hand.
機械彫り (kikaibori): Tattoos done with a tattooing machine.
和彫り(wabori): Tattoos with Japanese designs.
洋彫り(yobori): Tattoos with non-Japanese designs.
ファッションタトゥー (fashion tatou): Used to vaguely designate between tattoos worn by criminals and tattoos worn by other people ‘for fashion’.
ワンポイント(wan-pointo): Small stand-alone tattoos, often about the size of a matchbox or a deck of cards.
五分彫り (gobun-hori): A half-sleeve tattoo, from the shoulder to just above the elbow.
七分彫り (shichibun-hori): A ¾ sleeve tattoo, from the shoulder to the thickest point of the forearm.
十分彫り (jubun-hori): A full sleeve, from the shoulder to the wrist
Photo credit: Tattoo by Horizaru Tattoo.