Serious Ink: Japanese Irizumi Tattoo Art.
Ian D. Robinson Feb 2012.
Opening the door of the ‘Rocker’s Diner’ we are almost pushed back into the street by the wall of very loud rock music and a tsunami of cigarette smoke. I’m not really sure where the hell I am, it’s taken four train rides and a rather long walk through a freezing Japanese winter night to get here, here is the outskirts of Osaka and “near Kinki University” is the best I can get out of anyone.
Inside the bar has been stripped of most of its furniture; tables, chairs and booths that usually seat chatting couples and groups of students. Tonight waitresses (apparently on loan from a downtown Osaka fetish club) in stilettos, fishnets and not much else drift through the crowd handing out tequila shots and the two floors have been converted into an impromptu tattoo parlour. A dozen horishi or tattoo artists hunch over their pale skinned canvasses amid the underlying buzz from electric hand pieces as people get some serious ink done.
Tattooing traditions in Japan go back before the evolution of the written word but for well over a thousand years tattooing has been the shady domain of those living on the wrong side of the law, or close to it. In times of yore criminals were tattooed to forever label them as thieves, brawlers or bandits. In an attempt to conceal their pasts the reformed would have their brands covered with more appealing images of flowery girls or Buddhist saints, but the stigma beneath still persisted and permanent body art became the domain of the Japanese yakuza mafia, prostitutes and delinquents. In the 1800s tattooing was officially outlawed by the Japanese government, driving the art form further underground, the ban only lifted by the occupation forces in 1948.
Still a delicate subject with most of Japanese society irizumi, or ‘insert ink’ is in demand abroad with horishi making tours of western countries where they are commissioned to inscribe traditional designs of koi fish, dragons and demons along with modern anime characters, tribal markings, Sanskrit mantras and the ubiquitous Chinese characters. Horishi are still trained in a master/disciple relationship with the apprentice working in service of his mentor without payment as he learns and then taking his elder’s name and business when he retires.
Getting a tattoo in Japan is far more than just getting a design on your skin that Mum might not like. Here it means forever entering the world of other people with tattoos and staying within it. It means never going to one of Japan’s beloved hot spring spas, never going to a public swimming pool, never joining a gym, even on some public beaches you’ll be asked to leave as in such places this mark of the criminal fraternity is prohibited by law. It also means never getting a much coveted job with a big company or major corporation no matter how easily your tats can be covered with a business shirt, you’ll never pass the company medical. Instead those adorned have to be content with working in the night world of bars, clubs, alternative clothing or music stores, or becoming a tattooist themselves.
“So why get a tattoo?” I ask one very ordinary looking Japanese guy, ordinary that is until he pulls up his shirt to reveal a scene like something from a Buddhist scroll painting.
“Because it’s cool!” he replies.
“Nup, just it’s cool!”
“Most of my customers are just ordinary people,” horishi Yoshimitsu tells me as he takes a break from the body he’s working on. “Tattooing in the west has become an accepted thing, it’s mainstream and without any stigma, that attitude is starting to become more common in Japan though I think it will be generations before we catch up.”
Yoshimitsu tells me the slight young man he’s working on under a desk lamp is a junior yakuza, among the underworld irizumi is still seen as a way to show how tough you are, (some might argue that if you’re really that tough you don’t need to advertise it) an expression of loyalty that states in multi-coloured glory that you are in this business for life.
Back to his work Yoshimitsu is inscribing red tinged marijuana leaves amid cherry blossoms, slurping goldfish, geisha and samurai. He’s using a traditional technique called tebori, which translates to ‘hand-carve’. And it’s an apt description; a long lacquered bamboo stick tipped with a razor needled fork is dipped into a tiny pot of ink and then rapidly jabbed into the skin. This method is said to produce a darker, deeper, more vivid image that retains its clarity longer. The handwork also allows for a more gently graduated shading of colour, something difficult to obtain with an electric hand piece. On the downside it’s also significantly more painful, though the young Mafioso being carved up remains motionless, stoically blank with the non-expression of a tortured ninja.
The work of art gracing his skin is nearing completion, it’s taken nearly 300 hours of pain to get here and cost him around $30,000. I hope the investment is worth it.
The party is starting to ramp up, the cos-play girls from the fetish club have ditched their tequila trays and are now pole dancing, half the guys have got their shirts off taking advantage of the opportunity to show off their ink in an understanding and appreciative environment. The rest of the crowd are university kids thrilled by being in close proximity to such bad-ass-mo-fos but who are happy to just observe, bystanders in the show. Guns n Roses is showing on a projector screen and the girls are swaying to Sweet Child. My mate shouts something to me but I can’t hear above the din, something about how great this is.
“Yeah, great!” I agree.
“No, it’s LATE, we’re going to miss the train!”
“Oh, shit!” we head out the door running for the station and our four trains back home, plenty of time on the way to talk about what we’ll get when we get ink done.