Getting A Tattoo in Japan – How the History Contributes To The Experience

by Azra Syakirah
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Japan has built quite a reputation for itself when it comes to tattoos — people all around the world look up to Japanese tattoos while the locals have almost the complete opposite outlook. Yet, despite the negative association, getting a tattoo in Japan seems to be an essential activity for ink enthusiasts.

To get one in the Land of the Rising Sun is unlike any other — given that tattoos have made a mark (pun intended) way back in the history of Japan, as far back in the 5,000BC, their quality and techniques are unquestionable. None can match up or even compete. The ancient tale of Japanese tattoos carved the scene of this art-on-skin today — from methods and studio settings to design and creativity — and it is not only inspiring but a motivation for some to travel across the globe just to get inked. 

With style and skills that are exclusive to Japanese tattoo artists due to them being passed down from generation to generation, it’s no wonder Japanese tattoos have been highly regarded to this day. Explore the history behind Japanese tattoos and discover how it has shaped and contributed to the unique experience of getting a tattoo in this island nation.

A History of Japanese Tattoos

Japanese woman with face tattoos (1900)

Just like every other aspect of Japanese culture, Japanese tattoos — also known as wabori, which translates to Japanese-style engravings — have a rich and long history of its existence that dates back to the fifth millennium BC, which influenced the state of tattoos in Japan today.  Not only are there evidence of face-engraved figurines but Japanese tattoos have also made a few appearances in ancient Chinese historical records. During this time, it was said that people had tattoos to mark their social ranks while others have them as a superstitious belief to fend off evil spirits. 

Irezumi as a criminal punishment

Various tattoos of criminal punishment for different regions (n.d.)

The use of tattoos for symbolism and superstitious reasons started to fade around the 7th century when irezume, referring to the general act of putting ink onto the skin, was used as punishment in place of the death penalty for severe crimes like murder and treason. 

These irezume can be found on any part of the body but the most common areas were the face and arms. What was interesting was that the designs of the tattoos weren’t categorized by the act of crime, but it was instead differentiated by the region that the crime was committed in — the Hiroshima criminals were identified by the dog symbol tattoo and Fukuoka criminals had lines tattooed all the way around their upper arms.

Tattoos were a way to identify criminals in those days, and they were generally outcasted, disowned by families, and were banned from participating in any sort of public or combined activities.  

Woodcarvers-turned-tattoo artists bring about the tebori

Portrait of a man with Japanese Irezumi tattoos (1868-1880, Bairon Raimund von Stillfried)

It took centuries before the use of tattoos became more than just a symbol of crime. Even though tattoos were prohibited at the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was also then that they became a decorative art form inspired by woodblock prints. These woodblock prints were often created with a unique style of art called Ukiyo-e to illustrate plays and novels. Ukiyo-e artists team up with woodcarvers to manifest these woodblock prints — the artists would draw or paint the design on a block of wood and the woodcarvers would simply carve it out.

Woodcarvers didn’t earn much for the effort they put in. Their tremendous hand-eye coordination skills were just not paying off. This led to them seeking out other potential works, and it was then that the tebori came about. Tebori is a type of tattoo unique to Japan based on the carving techniques from the woodcarvers. 

Not only did this conversion of woodcarvers to tattoo artists result in a spike of the number of tattooed people, especially in the lower social class citizens, but it also influenced the style of Japanese tattoos today as these woodcarvers-turned-tattoo artists based their tattoo designs off of Ukiyo-e style of art — everything from folklore to religion.

The Yakuza adopting decorative tattoos

Man with decorative tattoo on his back (n.d.)

It was about the same time as the birth of tebori when the lower class citizens moved to what we now know as Tokyo. Part of these migrants was the Yakuza who consisted of people like gang members and outlaws. More often than not, the Yakuza would be seen with a bunch of tattoos as it symbolized their courage — because of the extreme pain to get them — as well as loyalty — since tattoos are permanent. Outlaws with punishment tattoos took advantage of the rise in decorative tattoos to cover up their existing tattoos with larger ones befitting the style of tattoos back then. 

This evolution of tattoos from marks of criminal acts to decorative body art brought about the association of organized crime with tattoos in the present day. 

The Golden Age of Horimono

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Suikoden (1798-1861)

Tattoos only reached its peak in Japan in the late eighteenth century when the Chinese folklore story was translated into Japanese, completed with Ukiyo-e illustrations. This folk story known as Suikoden narrated the journey of outlaws fighting their corrupted rulers and became the heroes of the common townspeople. The people of Edo strongly identified themselves with the characters of the narrative and it became an extremely popular tale among them.

While there were various artists that illustrated Suikoden in different versions that included tattoos in their art, what shook the grounds of Japan was when a woodblock print artist, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, portrayed the popular characters of the story with full-bodied engravings. This revolutionized Japanese tattoos as a new style was formed, known as the horimono which translates to “things that have been engraved”. 

The beginning of the nineteenth century might as well have been considered as the Golden Age of horimono as full-bodied engravings were seen in more than just Ukiyo-e prints. Other forms of the Japanese art culture like plays and songs portrayed characters fully tattooed, horimono-style.

Unfortunately, every good thing has to come to an end — and so did the horimono. While it wasn’t completely wiped out, the horimono style suffered a dramatic decline during the Meiji Restoration when the strict, oppressive regulations were implemented. It wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the ban was lifted and the tattoo scene in Japan started setting down roots again.

Getting A Tattoo in Japan

With centuries of dated history and techniques, it’s safe to say that the tattoo scene in Japan today is definitely not amateur-ish. Some might even dare to say they’re one of the top few experts, which explains why people near and far are dedicated to getting inked in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Despite its relaxed laws on tattoos, there is still a bit of coldness on the matter. From public perception to the difficulties attached to it, tattoo businesses aren’t exactly having a walk in the park — these all affect every tattoo experience. 

Don’t let that sway you from going under the needle in Japan — it’s all a matter of knowing where to look for quality, authentic wabori.

Finding A Tattoo Studio and Artist in Japan

Finding a tattoo studio with the artist that’s perfect for you in Japan can be a challenge, but not necessarily in a bad way. All the Google searches and social media stalking will pay off. The tattoo artist that you pick should depend on the style of tattoo that you’re planning to get —  whether it is the color-focused or more strokes and gentle gradients, realistic or abstract. Because of the rich history, most Japanese tattoo artists specialize in Japanese-style tattoos. Tattoo artists would usually have a portfolio online, anywhere from a website to Facebook and Instagram. Browsing through them would give you an idea of their specific Japanese tattoo style.

The next step is to think of the technique you want to get your tattoo. In Japan, there are two: the standard wabori which uses a machinery tool for the tattoo, and tebori which are made by pricking the skin with a small bamboo needle comb that’s been dipped in ink. The former one’s the more common of the two, while the latter is far more time-consuming, expensive and exclusive — to the point where some tattoo studios might require an introduction from an existing client. It also usually has a longer waiting list and is not so English-friendly.

On another note, tattoo studios in Japan aren’t like the ones you normally get everywhere else in the world. While you’re still able to find that standard, western-style tattoo parlors on the streets where walking in casually to enquire about getting a tattoo is acceptable, it’s not that common. It’s actually the lesser option of the two, with the other one being private studios.

Private tattoo studios are extremely popular in Japan. More often than not, these private studios are home-based, consisting of a separate room or area dedicated to the proceedings of tattooing located in the tattoo artist’s own home. There are some occasions where it could be a separate apartment altogether where the artist rents out the room especially for his work. It’s not uncommon if there isn’t any signage to indicate where the studio is. Don’t worry, they’re not shady business — it majorly has to do with the negative associations to tattoos from history that people would rather not publicize. 

Contacting and Communicating with the Tattoo Artist 

Reaching out to the tattoo artist to enquire or book their services is not as simple as walking in. In Japan, tattoo artists might not even accept walk-in requests. The best way to get in touch with them is through their preferred methods of communication.

When initially contacting these tattoo artists, it’s best to include clear and concise information like preferred dates and the size of the tattoo and placement. Have a good idea of what you’re looking to get — the clearer it is, the better.

Because Japan’s first language is Japanese and not English, it limits your options of tattoo artists when you don’t speak their native language. Being able to communicate with the tattoo artist is an extremely important factor to note — you don’t want to get the tattoo in the wrong position or size because of miscommunication.

Based on initial contact, regardless if it’s email or call, you’ll be able to judge how well you can communicate with the tattoo artist. You’re the best person to decide for you if you’re comfortable with getting the tattoo done by them.

The Process of Tattoo-ing in A Japanese Tattoo Studio

The usual process of getting tattooed in a tattoo studio in Japan is just like any other. The initial consultation consists of the client coming up with ideas and sending them over to the tattoo artist who would then have a few designs for the client to pick. It’s also fine to have your own tattoo designs ready for some tattoo studios.

On the day of the tattoo appointment, the tattoo artist would advise on the size and position of the tattoo print. After the decision is made, the client would have to sign a form of consent as well as present their identification card (you’re only allowed to get a tattoo if you’re over 20 years old).

After the tattoo process, the tattoo artist would go through the aftercare with the client. 

Enjoying the Tattoo Life in Japan

Over the years, there have been obvious shifts in the perspective of tattoos in Japan. With the Japanese being more and more influenced by the West and the booming tourism of Japan itself, the younger generations have started to loosen up. Don’t take it personally if an old granny stares at your body art with disapproval. The youngins would definitely have more appreciation — it might even be fascination.

Even though Japan is changing ever so slightly, it is still best to be safe than sorry. Take extra measures to cover up your tattoos when visiting sacred places, public facilities, beaches, and ryokans. Many also noted that despite the supposed strict ban in bathing facilities, some were even let off with covering them up temporarily just to get into the onsen.

The Wrap-Up

Who would’ve thought that the rich, historical tale of tattoos in Japan has influence in not only the styles and techniques of Japanese tattoos but also the experience of getting one. Because of the deeply-rooted perception that’s still lingering in present-day, getting inked in Japan is more than just an insight into the local culture but also an educational and inspiring journey.

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