Are you looking for a very unique item to bring back from your trip to Japan? Maybe you want something less common than green tea and geta. Perhaps you want something to show off to your friends back home? Are you tired of ubiquitous goods from the 100 yen shop? Maybe you want a souvenir that you will never forget. Well then, perhaps you are ready for a Japanese…tattoo!
OK, so maybe a tattoo isn’t what you had in mind. But if you really want a unique piece of Japan that will be with you forever, then a tattoo is a great gift to yourself. Plus, you are likely to have an exciting experience the average tourist doesn’t usually have.
Much has been written about how mainstream Japanese society has unfavorable views of tattoos. There are many who still do not recognise tattoos as an art form. For such people, tattoos symbolize something entirely negative.
But I am not trying to convince you of the artistic value of tattoos nor am I condemning those who cannot accept tattooing as a contemporary sociocultural practice. Also, this is not meant to be an exhaustive guide to tattooing in Japan. What I want to do here is let you know that you can get a high quality tattoo while in Japan.
First, I should tell you that the opinions in this article have been formed through many hours of discussions with tattoo artists from around the world, and people in the tattoo industry. Through observation and firsthand experience I have come to recognize a basic set of customs and practices within the industry. However, that does not mean I speak for artists. As with most situations when dealing with people, use your judgment and when in doubt, always ask.
It is best not to walk into a tattoo studio expecting to get tattooed immediately. There is a process to go through, and skipping any steps in that process isn’t wise.
Pricing systems in Japan may be different from what you are used to in your own country. In some studios in Japan, artists advertise tattoo prices based approximately on the size of a coin, a cigarette, a fist, or even a postcard. Others want the client to pay by the hour. Starting at 10,000 yen for a coin size tattoo may seem expensive for some people. But you have to take into consideration the consultation and preparation time.
Prices vary from artist to artist, depending on a variety of conditions like placement on the body, design and detail. Also, if you are less than respectful to the artist, forget about even getting a tattoo. Respect, humility and politeness are good social rules to follow in any part of Japan (or the world), but especially so in a tattoo shop. In this writer’s experience, artists (of any kind) can be mercurial. Therefore it is best to approach the artist with a tacit understanding that you are willing to cooperate with them.
Mara Mascaro on Flickr
If you hope to get a tattoo done by a well-known Japanese artist, it is imperative to be patient. The best artists have waiting lists of months or even years. If you are willing to take a chance and want something quick and easy, there are probably more artists available than you realize.
Large bookstores like Tsutaya sell a few tattoo-related magazines. In the back of those magazines you can often find a list of major tattoo studios in many cities. Have a look through some magazines at the articles, and you will find that many Japanese artists have quite different styles.
Most artists use a machine to tattoo, but it is possible to find some artists who use a hand-poke technique called tebori (手彫り). This literally means to dig or carve out by hand. It is a process of tattooing that is at once both painful-looking and raw, but also calculated and impressive.
While you can contact any studio with a phone number or an email address, it is often a good idea to have someone introduce you to an artist – when possible. It’s not as though there are secret handshakes and private clubs to enter in order to get tattooed in Japan, but knowing someone who has been tattooed by, and can recommend a prospective artist, will help you feel more at ease with your decision.
A good tattoo studio should be relaxing for you: Plenty of artwork to check out, interesting people to talk with. If you feel out of place and uncomfortable for any reason, then maybe it’s time to reconsider the environment you’re in.
Certainly there still exists some stigma concerning tattoos in Japan, and in times past, it wasn’t easy for just anybody to find an artist and get tattooed. But nowadays perceptions are changing, and young people are getting “fashionable” tattoos by all kinds of artists who haven’t been traditionally trained by a master. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good tattoo artists.
The notion that a tattoo artist should have trained under a master is possibly outdated. Tattoo apprenticeships are hard work and long hours without much remuneration. Old school artists tell stories of apprenticeships under mentors who made them clean toilets and wipe floors all day, without even picking up a tattoo machine for months or years. In recent times, not many young artists are willing to go through such training, especially considering it pays next to nothing. There are many talented young artists who have spent years learning the craft themselves.
But any respectable artist will tell you that they have learned a great deal about tattooing from other experienced artists, and benefitted from observing other artists in a variety of circumstances. To become an artist without any guidance, instruction or advice at all, is probably rare.
In Japan, a breaking down of social barriers, along with increased popularity has made it easier to get tattooed. But the tattoo industry here is enveloped in an environment that is lacking the proper health regulations that are the norm in other developed countries. There is also a large gray area of legality that makes tattooing a difficult issue to navigate. However, with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looming, the resulting international gaze will undoubtedly put pressure on local governments to discuss, and hopefully clarify, the issue of tattooing in Japan.
In time, hopefully some of the stigma will evaporate, and some more stringent health regulations will be put in place. In the meantime, if you want to get tattooed in Japan, just make sure to do your research, find an artist you like and trust, and allow them some artistic freedom.
Now that you are aware of some basics, I want to introduce a notable tattoo studio in Fukuoka.
Tucked away in Daimyo - the hip, vibrant shopping and entertainment district in the middle of Fukuoka city - is a very professional and very relaxed tattoo studio: Amitabha Tattoo.
Horishow, the owner of Amitabha Tattoo, opened the studio about 12 years ago. He has guest artists come from all over Japan, and sometimes from overseas as well. The atmosphere is easy-going and relaxed. There is plenty of art of the walls.
A lounge area makes it easy to chat with one of the 9 current artists working at Amitabha.
Everyone speaks a bit of English there, but if you encounter any difficulties in communication, Ben, a tattoo artist from the U.S. can help out. It is easy to see why other artists would want to work there: Horishow is a laid back, friendly guy who treats everyone as equals and with respect.
Horishow and I chatted for a while about the state of tattooing in Japan. Many people from all walks of life, like beauticians and salaried company employees, are getting tattooed, he says. There are also many foreigners getting tattooed in his studio he mentions. With many cruise ships stopping in Fukuoka these days, he sees customers come from Korea, China, and as far away as Europe. Horishow prefers people to make an appointment, but walk-ins are also welcome.
gullevek on Flickr
Regardless of whether you call or email ahead of time, it’s good to know exactly what kind of tattoo you want, and where you want it. It’s a really good idea to have pictures or illustrations to show the artist. But if you don’t, it may not be a deal breaker. If you’re looking for inspiration, the tattoo artist should have some flash (typical or common tattoo designs) available for you to look through.
If you just happen to be in Fukuoka, then by all means, check out Amitabha Tattoo. It is well known for good reason. They do awesome tattoos!
If you are elsewhere in Japan and are really interested in getting tattooed while on vacation, it is a very achievable goal. Ask around, do your research, and make sure you have some extra yen. It might be a good idea to remember the old aphorism: Good tattoos aren’t cheap and cheap tattoos aren’t good.