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 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…are tattoos even allowed in Japan?
Yes… but it’s complicated. Japan has a long history of negative attitudes towards tattoos, and at times they were even illegal. Even today, some places like onsen or beaches might have anti-tattoo policies, and if you work here your company may make you cover your tattoo up because it’s considered unprofessional.
However, it’s definitely not illegal anymore and in the few past decades 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 also been loosening up, but with small businesses leading the charge — not large chain gyms or spas.
For those living in Japan with tattoos, it’s worth keeping this complicated issue in mind. Small and discreet tattoos might be politely ignored, but larger, more visible tattoos might draw attention to you. Tattoos of any size or placement may still impact your access to certain places, or even your job opportunities. But for those happy to buck the status quo and make the jump, Tattoo Friendly provides a good list of tattoo-friendly businesses around the country.
A short history of tattoos in Japan
Like many countries throughtout the world, tattooing was a common practice in ancient Japan. After that though, things got more complicated. There were periods of time when tattoos were viewed negatively, sometimes they were even banned outright, while at other times they were viewed as fashionable. Sometimes these things all happened around the same time – for example during the Edo period (1603 – 1868) horimono (carving) full body wrap-around style tattoos were incredibly popular, but at the same it was common to punish criminals by tattooing simple designs on their faces or arms. Later in the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), tattoos were made illegal to try to seem more Westernized. This ban was used in an attempt to assimilate the Ryūkyūan Kingdom (now modern day Okinawa) – who had maintained a strong tattooing culture until then – into the Japanese empire.
Oh, and those famous yakuza (gangster) tattoos that we probably have to thank for modern attitudes towards tattoos? That seems to boil down to many popular 1960s Japanese gangster movies showing characters with those kinds of tattoos, which in turn led to an increase in people (often gangsters) actually getting them. Businesses that didn’t want to be associated with gangs often found it safer to ban tattoos in general rather than target the gangs themselves.
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 Tattoo Friendly,Tattooers.net, > 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.
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!
Things to consider
Tattoos are forever – unless you don’t mind paying for expensive laser removal. So before you commit here are a few things to consider:
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 ten-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.
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.
If you’re a tattoo vetran or very competent Japanese speaker, this might not be a big deal for you, but if not you should consider whether you’ll be comfortable getting a tattoo from an artist you can’t easily comminucate with. While artists do their best to make sure you’re getting want you want there’s always the chance of miscommunication. Luckily many artists are aware of this, and have taken steps to address it – some speak English (and advertise as such on their websites), while others hire English speaking assistants to help them.
We’ve put also together a list of helpful phrases below, along with a list of recommended tattoo artists, some of whom speak English.
刺青/入れ墨 (irezumi): Literally, ‘insert ink’. Foreigners often use this word for Japanese style tattoos but beware, it actually has a fairly negative image. It’s often used to refer to the types of tattoos given to criminals as punishment.
彫り物 (horimono): Literally, ‘carving’. This style of tattoo is the full body wrap-around style often associated with traditional Japanese tattoos. Yakuza tattoos are a version of this style. This word has a more positive image, and many Japanese tattoo artists prefer to use this.
タトゥー (tatou): 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
Recommended tattoo shops/artists
Horiazu specialize in large pieces in bold colours. If you want something in a traditional horimono style, then this place is a good bet.
This popular studio is home to a number of tattoo artists, so you’ll find a wide variety of styles available here. In addition to some English speaking artists, they also have a translator on staff so you can rest assured there’ll be no miscommunications here.
This one artist studio specilizes in small, often minimalist designs. The artist, Roy, speaks English and also has a part-time English speaking assistant.
Reina is a Japanese-American tattoo artist who divides her time between the US and Japan. She specializes mainly in large flowing pieces, however she also does ‘heritage’ pieces for Asian diaspora that feature kanji/Chinese characters.
Frequently asked questions
Can you get tattoos in Japan?
Yes! It’s not longer illegal and is gradually increasing in popularity and accessibility.
How much do tattoos cost in Japan?
As we explain above, tattoos are usually charged according to how long they will take to do. In Tokyo you can expect to pay at least ¥10,000 for a small (tiny) predesigned flash piece in black ink. Custom designs, color ink, larger pieces are all going to cost more. Don’t be afraid to ask your artist directly how much the final cost will be.
Can I go to an onsen if I have a tattoo?
It depends on the onsen. Some places will have signs with ‘no tattoos’ or something similar written on them – it’s better not to go to those places, if only to save yourself time and possible disappointment. It’s reasonable to assume if there’s no sign they’re probably not that concerned either way, but it’s rare to find a place that will openly declare itself tattoo-friendly. Don’t worry though, we’ve put together a list of tattoo-friendly onsen near Tokyo to help you with this very problem.
If none of those tickle your fancy the best thing to do is check ahead of time either on the business’ site or a place like Tattoo Friendly. This advice also applies to beaches, water parks and sometimes even gyms or hotels.
How old do you have to be to get a tattoo in Japan?
20 years old. There can be big penalties for artists who tattoo minors, and they take this responsibility very seriously. You will be able to provde photo i.d. before getting any work done.
While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change. Last updated in August 2022 by Maria Danuco.
Photo credit: Tattoo by Horizaru Tattoo.