Under the skin of Japan’s tattoo subculture

We explore the thorny issue of Japanese irezumi art and meet three Tokyo tattooists challenging its gangster reputation in the hope of making it mainstream

A tattoo artist at work

A tattoo artist at work

Horiyoshi III in his studio

Horiyoshi III in his studio

Full-back body art in full color

Full-back body art in full color

Artist Asao in her studio

Artist Asao in her studio

Tools of the trade

Tools of the trade

Tattoo artist Aya Dolce

Tattoo artist Aya Dolce

Tracing a realistic image

Tracing a realistic image

Despite the “No Smoking” sign on the door of the Bunshin Tattoo Museum in Yokohama, Mayumi Nakano can often be seen stubbing out a cigarette as she sits behind the front desk. Her arms are covered in colorful designs — the work of her husband, the renowned classical tattoo artist Horiyoshi III. Rumored to have once been a member of a yakuza gang, Yoshihito Nakano became Horiyoshi III when he apprenticed himself to a traditional tattoo master in 1971 at the age of 25.

Scaly koi fish and dragons, multi-petaled peonies and symbolic Buddhist deities often appear in Horiyoshi III’s works of body art, which reference Japanese folklore and iconography, and employ classical designs. He is one of the few remaining artists to use a tebori or “hand digging tool”, instead of a tattoo gun, for shading and coloring his designs. His specialty is a hand-drawn, full-body tattoo suit or irezumi.

There are other artists in Tokyo creating mythological portraits that cover the entire backs of their human canvases, but most use modern equipment and techniques. Many more tattoo artists in Japan’s fashion-forward capital make their living inking anime characters, phrases in kanji (Chinese characters adopted into Japanese writing) and tribal designs. Despite the fact that by some estimates there are over 3,000 tattoo artists in Japan, both traditional and fashion tattoos remain largely underground.

Tattoo rebels

The Bunshin Museum chronicles Japan’s tattoo culture, which stretches back to the country’s indigenous tribes in Okinawa and Hokkaido. Horiyoshi III’s private collection, spread over two cramped floors, comprises photos, sculptures, books, needles and all manner of subcultural ephemera that together illustrate the rich history of this artform.

Colorful irezumi became popular during the Edo period (1603–1868), when samurai ruled Japan and artistic pursuits like woodblock prints and kabuki theatre were at their height. Firefighters in the tinderbox neighborhoods of Edo (Tokyo’s former name) covered themselves in tattoos to demonstrate their toughness and bring good luck. Their distinctive and indelible body art also served a morbid but practical purpose — it helped their families recognize their remains if they didn’t return from a blaze alive.

Tattoos also became a way that Edo residents could subtly express their frustrations about living under an oppressive ruling class. Artists took design inspiration from Water Margin, one of the great classical novels of Chinese literature, which tells tales of outlaw heroes rising up against a more powerful army.

Before long, the samurai lost patience with the working class’s attempts at self-expression and political activism. Body art was outlawed and then used by the state to brand criminals. A convicted man would be forcibly marked with a coded symbol, such as two lines on the forearm or, more blatantly, the kanji characters describing his crime would be tattooed directly onto his forehead. The punishment was lifelong; post-crime redemption was impossible.

After samurai rule ended and the emperor was restored to power, the government continued to discourage ritualistic or expressionistic tattooing in a bid to subjugate minority indigenous tribes and create a unified Japanese identity. The ban on body art was officially lifted in 1948, but the connection between tattoos and organized crime was reinforced through the cinema in the 1960s, when a slew of gangster movies depicting heavily inked yakuza villains enjoyed widespread popularity.

Inking goes underground

Despite the long history of body art in Japanese culture, this anti-tattoo narrative has firmly taken root in “polite” society. Today, people with visible ink are unwelcome at onsen (hot-spring baths), beaches and fitness centers on the premise that — even if they are not prone to criminal acts — their tattoos might be unhygienic or cause distress to children. In May 2012 Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka, went so far as to order all city employees with tattoos to remove them or leave their jobs. In the private sector, many Japanese companies — including the country’s two biggest airlines — ban staff from going under the needle.

Showing off a tattoo in the cooler districts of downtown Tokyo is one thing, but in the suburbs many Japanese find body art unsettling. “They think all tattooed people are criminals,” says Asao, a female tattoo artist in her early forties, speaking in her sunny Shibuya studio. Though she takes inspiration from traditional woodblock prints, among Asao’s designs is a grey-shaded motif with a modern Japanese aesthetic. She pulls back her dark hair to show off a small tattoo under her right ear. “I always wanted to get a tattoo sleeve,” she explains, “but I also want to be able to wear T-shirts.”

Aya Dolce, who among other styles creates tattoos worthy of Edo-era firemen in her one-room studio nearby, agrees. She recalls once being in a suburban shopping mall and hearing a mother say to her child, “Don’t look at her.” After that, Aya, whose fresh-faced beauty belies the fact that she has been tattooing for more than 20 years, has been careful to wear long sleeves when taking her son to school.

Drawing new lines

Over in Shibuya’s Yoyogi Park there are plenty of tattoos, alternative fashions and graffiti on display. All human life is here: alongside joggers and picnicking families, there’s a large flea market, rappers, skateboarders and rockabilly dancers who look like they just stepped out of a production of Grease. In this part of Tokyo, self-expression and individuality are celebrated, and foreshadow a day when mainstream Japanese culture will be more accepting of a range of aesthetic choices.

Also read: A glimpse of Tokyo’s slick rockabilly scene

The 2020 Summer Olympics may bring that day closer. When Tokyo hosts one of the world’s most watched sporting events, tattooed athletes from all over the globe will show off their body art as they swim, run, vault and mount the medals podium. Even if they are not usually inclined towards ink, it is not uncommon for elite athletes to have the Olympic rings tattooed onto their bodies. This is one occasion when, under an international spotlight, swimming pools and other venues in the capital will not be able to ban tattoos.

Asao is optimistic that increased exposure to body art of all kinds will lessen the negative image of tattoos, and she sees this happening already: “As Japanese people see more foreigners, Hollywood stars and sports stars with tattoos, their perception is changing.” Aya also hopes that hosting the Olympics will have a positive effect on Japan’s attitude towards tattoos. “Tourism is so important — so how can we continue to turn foreigners with tattoos away from onsen or public places like the beach?” she says.

Acceptance of small fashion tattoos may be achievable, but Horiyoshi III has more ambitious goals. He hopes that the Japanese will not just tolerate the modern tattoo styles preferred by foreigners but will reconnect with their own long history of body art. A crucial step will be to dissociate full-body, Edo-style tattoos from lawless gangs. Helpfully, irezumi is declining in popularity among yakuza, who are reluctant to advertise their criminal gang connections.

Once the association between crime and tattoos is broken, discrimination against law-abiding citizens who choose to adorn their bodies with ink might fall away as well. Overall, Horiyoshi III is optimistic about the future of his craft in Japan. As he told national daily The Japan Times last year, “No matter how many times the government tries to prohibit tattooing, it will never disappear. To receive and give tattoos is a human instinct.”

Ready to get inked?

  • Horiyoshi III and the Bunshin Tattoo Museum 1-11-7 Hiranuma, Nishi-ku, Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture; +81 45 323 1073; ne.jp/asahi/tattoo/horiyoshi3/top.html
  • Asao of Muscat Tattoo 3F-D Green Heights, 6-6 Uguisudanicho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Prefecture; +81 3 5459 1700; www.muscat-tattoo.com
  • Aya Dolce of La Perra Negra 2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo Prefecture; +81 90­ 9344 ­8579; la-perra-negra.net

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue of Smile magazine.

Written by

Arwen Joyce

Photographed by

Richard Atrero De Guzman aka Bahag

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