A few weeks ago I attended an irezumi tattooing demonstration at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Tokyo, an event for a fantastic new book that’s just come out: Tattoo in Japan.
The club magazine asked me to do a story so I contacted the writer Manami Okazaki and one of the photographers Martin Hladik by email for a couple of quotes. What I got was much too interesting and detailed to waste, so I’ve pasted it below.
Here are some of my photos from the demonstration too:
Why did you decide to write a book about tattoos?
“Quite simply, I am a fan of Japanese tattoos. Ever since seeing traditional work by master artist Horitoku, whilst browsing through some books at Kinokuniya when I was a teenager, I have been enamored by them. If you compare Japanese tattoos to the tattoos I was seeing on the beaches of Sydney, the level is exceptional, in terms of artistic vision, and technical skill.
As a journalistic topic, it is fascinating - the people, both the artists, and the clients are unique characters, and the old school masters themselves are incredible story tellers. They are in middle of a hidden society. I admit, I also liked the adrenalin of interacting with people you would never have access to in normal situations.
Also, tattooing is largely ignored by Japanese media, as it is not seen as something artistic, so there are few high quality books with captivating photography to reflect the Japanese tattoo scene as it is today. Often the photographers in Japan that shoot this subject matter are not particularly good shooters, but have great access. Luckily I was working with photographers like Martin who had both the enthusiasm to shoot this material, and could photograph it to a high standard.”
Was it difficult to get permission from the artists?
“The reason we had such cooperation from the tattoo artists is because we somewhat immersed ourselves in the industry. We contacted the top international tattoo magazines, and began to work for them. Many Japanese clients were incredibly hesitant to have their faces shown in Japanese publications due to the nature of their work, or are simply in the “tattoo closet” – i.e. they didn’t want to get found out by friends and family, or colleagues.
By working for foreign publications, the clients have a chance to show off their pieces, without “incriminating” themselves, and we were given a level of trust. If we went as regular journalists working for regular Japanese magazines, I think the entire project would have been close to impossible. Again, I am lucky to work with diligent photographers like Martin who visited the artists many times, and took the time to become well acquainted with them.”
“Let’s just say that many evenings were spent at bars, festivals and restaurants. However, because our topic was “tattoos” as opposed to “yakuza”, it didn’t really make a difference to the photographers if they were bosses or not. Of course, people in that world have more money, so the pieces are usually more magnificent than the guy who works in the record store!
With the clients shot in the Kansai area, photographer John Harte is also a noise musician, and knew many of the artists and the clients from shooting his previous books on the Osaka underground music artists. So, that entire section of the book was easy to organize.”
Is prejudice against tattooing lessening in Japan?
“It is to some degree, in that Western style tattoos can be seen in the media, and celebrities are getting inked. There are an estimated 500 shops in Japan, and many of the popular shops have several month waiting lists, reflective of their popularity. However, you still aren’t allowed into onsens, gyms and golf courses with tattoos, and you don’t walk around the street and see tattooed people unless you are in subculture friendly places like Harajuku or Koenji. Traditional Japanese tattoos are particularly frowned upon as they are seen as the markings of the underworld, and yakuza associations are very strong.
Very few “regular” Japanese people will look at a full body suit, and think that it is “art”. So whilst things are changing somewhat, it is nowhere near the level of the West where there are several reality TV shows on tattoo artists, and tattoos are almost mainstream.”
What reaction have you had from Japanese family and friends to the book?
“My parents hate tattoos, as they are quite conservative. So their sentiment reflects most people their age, in that they find tattoos scary, and hardly worth spending time on. I think they would prefer that I wrote about Japanese ryokans, or flowers instead.
My Japanese friends (who aren’t tattoo fans themselves) were quite fascinated. The most common questions and comments we got were “How did you find these scary people?” “Weren’t you petrified?” “It looks painful” and some comments about the gangster’s faces looking ominous! Basically, a lot of questions about the Asakusa denizens that were shot at Sanja festival. The book wasn’t aimed at the Japanese market, however, and there is little, if at all distribution here.”
Have elements of Western tattooing entered irezumi? Like what?
“Yes, very much so. Both in the sense of traditional tattoos being executed by machine, as opposed to by hand, because it is easier to learn. Then in the designs of the tattoos themselves. Many tattoo artists are very much into the “art” of tattoos, and want to put a personalized spin on classic Japanese tattoo renditions to make it something more original, and creative.
So for instance, while the artist might use motifs from the lexicon of Japanese tattooing, such as a carp, or a Buddhist motif, they will then use elements of American tattooing, such as compartmentalized colors, and solid line work. There has been cross pollination of tattooing between America and Japan for a long time, especially when the godfather of American tattooing Ed Hardy stayed with Japanese master Horihide in Gifu.
Also the work system is different. Many traditional Japanese artists work out of shops now, and advertise in tattoo magazines, whereas they used to operate out of apartments, and introductions were usually word of mouth. Getting a traditional Japanese tattoo is not as difficult as it used to be, and rather than a hidden craft done by a downtown artisan, it is becoming more like commissioned art done in a shop.”
How did you become interested in Japanese tattoos?
“I was not interested in tattoos at all when I arrived in Japan, because in the Czech Republic tattoos were still at the stage of gypsies or criminals doing it for fun, usually by themselves. This inevitably means it looks very bad. There weren’t any tattoo studios in the Czech Republic at that time.
When I first saw traditional tattoos at a local festival in Japan, I was quite amazed at how great a tattoo can look. Later I was asked by my friend to photograph him while he was getting a Western tattoo, so I went to shoot him quite often. I had a chance to also see the books of Japanese tattoos and discuss these topics with tattooists. I also visited several tattoo conventions here in Japan, but I realized that I am not very interested in Western tattoos.
I think I found an interest for traditional Japanese tattoos together with an interest in the environment of Asakusa itself. It is a very unique place for me. Even though it is the busiest tourist sightseeing spot, most of the Asakusa spirit is hidden to tourists that are passing by. You have to devote plenty of time and socialize with locals to find the beauty of this place.
Japanese tattoos are very magical with deep meanings behind the drawings, which are even more important for the most of Japanese people then the aesthetic of the design itself. There are people who never show their tattoo. It was done only for themselves to give them encouragement, success, safety. However, for these people tattoo was not done for any exhibition purpose like in Western countries.”
Was it easy to get access to take the photos?
“Sanja matsuri probably helped the most. I have photographed Sanja already for several years. However it took me about 3 years to be recognized by local people as a foreign correspondent and with a lot of help from local tattooists, Okazaki san and I were able to meet tattooed people for photoshoots or interviews. Also a quite important point was that we always came with an assignment for the biggest overseas tattoo magazines. These are probably the only magazines they would agree to pose for.”
Were you nervous about dealing with people connected to the yakuza?
“I dont know whether the people who I photographed are connected with Yakuza. I don’t ask.
My interest is tattoos.”
Have you ever thought about getting a tattoo yourself?
“Actually yes, after several years working among great tattoo masters it changed my mind. However I could not go swimming with my little daughter then. The rigid rules of sports facilities and onsens are very discriminating for people who are tattooed. The only accepted tattoo in this country is eyebrow tattooing!!
I hope this unhealthy situation will change soon in Japan and the tattoo will be legalized as an art form, and also seen as a proper job. Tattooists are actually breaking the law by not having a license to insert a needle under the skin. However there is no any institution which can provide them by such license. So it stays underground and all of tattooists can be officially arrested.”
Here’s a link to the full set of photos on my archive: Tattoo demonstration in Tokyo