Tattoos they are a-changin'

by Monty DiPietro

On the question of tattoos, I’m waiting for some answers.

And the man I hope will provide them is late. I fidget, I buy a can of coffee from a vending machine, roll the hot cylinder between my chilly hands, march my cold feet in place on the sidewalk at the taxi stand where I’m supposed to wait. I take in the unspectacular view – the pachinko parlor, a squat grey building with a big sign of flashing electric lights; the tidy cake shop; the trio of elderly women gossiping at the bus stop. I wave away another taxi cab and lean against the wall, positioning myself so as to catch some of the late afternoon sunlight streaming down on little west-Tokyo Musashseki station. I go over my questions.

Why, I ask myself, would a man invest more than 150 hours of his time, over a two year period, in a weekly series of painful puncture wounds that would leave a meter-tall image of legendary little forest-dwelling bear-killer Kintaro indelibly sunk into the skin of his shoulders, back, buttocks, and thighs?

Suddenly, the trio of chatterbox women become quiet, and a weird stillness seems to descend on the entire scene before me. About the only thing moving is a cream-colored van with dark tinted windows. As it glides into the taxi stand the wrong way, the van’s side door slides open electronically and a low, husky voice comes from the still invisible interior. "Monty-san," it calls out.

I climb in.

The driver I do not recognize – a skinny guy, young, with a buzz-cut and a pair of dark glasses. He will not say a word the entire afternoon. I do, however, know the plump man sitting in the passenger seat cuddling "Poo," his pet shih tsu. He is Takagi Yukio, whose body hosts the tattoo I’m interested in. I met Takagi at a funny little party a week earlier, through a German friend who works as a bodyguard for Japanese pro-wrestler Fujiwara Kumicho, one of Takagi’s associates. After having sized me up and made a play for my date, Takagi agreed to let me come to his "studio" to photograph his tattoo. A five minute drive and we arrive at said studio, which turns out to be a large western-style room containing a desk and two chairs, a double bed, a karaoke machine, and nothing else. When Takagi begins to disrobe, I take a quick inventory of who knows where I am on this afternoon. The total is zero, so I get a little nervous.

"I got the tattoo when I was 22," explains a now-naked Takagi in a matter-of-fact voice, "because I’m a yakuza." Takagi’s tattoo is part of the tradition of the band of "tekiya," or festival and carnival workers, which make up his family background. Fifteen years later, at age 37, Takagi has graduated from a travelling hawker of octopus balls to actor and film production advisor, thanks mostly to his connections to and familiarity with the underworld. "When a film includes yakuza," he says, "the director hires me to make the characters more realistic.

"They also" he winks, "use this studio for the bedroom scenes" Takagi recently completed work on the Toei film company’s gangster flick "Gokudo Sangoshi III."

After finishing our photo session in a tatami room upstairs, Takagi informs me that it is customary for Japanese journalists to pay him 100,000 yen for an interview or photo. The skinny sidekick shifts slightly in my uneasy silence before Takagi reaches out and pats me on the back. "I’ll make an exception this time," he laughs, "just make sure I get a copy of the magazine."

I won’t forget, I assure him.

For Takagi and those like him, the tattoo marks the rite of passage into a group. But there is also an emerging class of young Japanese for whom a tattoo has come to symbolize the opposite – individuality.

"Ever since the New York City hardcore music scene became trendy in Japan some ten years ago, there has been very intense interest in all aspects of American alternative culture," says Pissken, who edits the magazine "Burst," Japan’s leading monthly of things raunchy, revolutionary and irreverent. The March 1999 issue features a pictorial on the bosozoku, Japan’s clean-cut answer to the Hell’s Angels; as well as a selection of nasty scatological photographs; and extensive reporting on the country’s tattoo boom.

"The appearance of American-style, walk-in tattoo parlors over the last five years," says Pissken, "has made it easier than ever for young Japanese to emulate the style of their American musician and biker idols. Where tattoo artists used to be exclusive to the yakuza, now there are hundreds, maybe thousands of clean-cut young kids in their 20s and 30s out there waiting with their machines."

Indeed, introduction of the American-style electric needle machine (most are actually made in England) has dramatically reduced the time, cost, and pain involved in getting a tattoo in Japan. Still, an obvious distinction between tattoo-mania and other body-treatment trends to hit this country is that unlike tanning or hair coloring, the tattoo is forever – a symbol which proclaims that being different is one’s destiny.

Or one’s "Dastiny," as a young Shibuya tattoo artist confesses he once inscribed on a pale white banner unfurling over the bicep of a young customer. "The guy came back a few days later and pointed out the spelling error, but when I found the piece of paper he had originally brought in and asked me to copy, we realized it was his mistake." Enter the black cat’s tail, a fall-back design employed by tattoo artists faced with the task of undoing the undoable. When a long, winding black cat’s tail passes over the text in a tattoo, rendering one or more letters in relief, it is often because the artist is covering up a misspelling.

"Of course we’re professional," protests the tattoo artist, who prefers to remain nameless, "but I’m Japanese, how was I supposed to know how to spell ‘destiny’?"

Scratch Addiction, one of the first American-style tattoo shops to open in Tokyo, offers an alternative to the black cat’s tail – a "do-it-yourself tattoo removal kit." Displayed in a case beside the Harajuku shop’s door, the kit consists of a single item – a pocketknife.

Ha ha.

"At first I considered whether I might one day have second thoughts about getting them, like if I got married, but I just don’t think about it any more," says Godenki Keiko, 23, of the flower and bird tattoos that circle her ankle and run across her back and chest. Godenki began her tattooing when she was 20 years old, the legal minimum age in much of Japan (some regions, including Tokyo, set the minimum age at 18). Soon after starting, however, Godenki discovered that she had more on her shoulders than a tattoo – she carried a stigma. Fortunately, when she was let go from her pachinko parlor job because her tattoos were partly visible through the white blouse of the shop’s summer uniform, Scratch Addiction offered Godenki a job.

Two years later, she says she enjoys both the hip atmosphere and her job’s perks, as she now gets her tattoos for free. As Godenki – who has shown her mother but not her father the artwork – smiles at the bruised aftermath of today’s augmentation to the tattoo on her chest, it is hard to guess where the young woman’s addiction will stop.

Scratch Addiction artist Ichinohe Yushi, 31, says that about half the people who come into the shop already have tattoos. About 90% of his customers are the teen-to-twenty-five crowd that make the scene outside on trendy Takashita Dori, and most opt for "tribal" designs, usually based on Maori or Celtic patterns. Prices at the shop start at 13,000 yen for the simple kanji favored by foreign customers, and can climb into the hundreds of thousands of yen for larger, multi-colored images.

Ichinohe, who learned his craft in California, has a handsome face and scrawny body riddled almost neck to ankle with designs that include a ’53 Cadillac, a half-dead (and half-alive) Elvis, several lucky numbers, his mom’s name (Reiko), UFOs, and one of his most popular original-designs – the pistol-packing tom cat. His left leg ("that’s where I practice…") is a patchwork of graffiti.

"I guess," he smiles, "I started out wanting a label that said I was ‘bad’!"

Apart from drunks or minors, there is only type of customer Ichinohe will not put under his needle – yakuza. "I respect all tattooists," he explains, "but we’re all different and we’re all doing our own thing. So," and here Ichinohe’s voice drops to a whisper, "if a yakuza were to come in the shop, I wouldn’t touch him. Just like in America, where the skull and helmet design is only for the Hell’s Angels and regular tattooists won’t do it – that’s the tattooist’s code."

Other no-no’s at Scratch Addiction include racist, cult, or "political" tattoos, as well as any design on the face or genitals. But for those who simply must have a swastika on their forehead, there are other shops in Tokyo that will oblige.

Take the nearby studio Noon, where resident artist Mamiya Eizo, 42, offers a menu that goes beyond anywhere-on-the-body-tattoos to include piercing, branding, scarification, and implants. Author of Japan’s Body Art classic, "The Piercing Bible," Mamiya’s physique has acquired some 200 extra orifices, 20 of which ventilate his, well, just guess. Mamiya reports that the tongue is this year’s favorite place to pierce, and produces a catalogue detailing his eight different approaches for doing so. A fresh-faced, buck-toothed girl walks into the shop and says she wants a small blue butterfly on her shoulder. I find myself thinking, "that’s how it starts…"

Although an increasing number of young people are getting tattoos, few would characterize Japan as a country where public perceptions and social conventions change quickly. For most people here, a tattoo still says "yakuza."

Late last summer, as Tokyo artist Matsumoto Gento was hanging his work for an exhibition at the Wonder Museum, the Canon corporation’s Makuhari photo gallery, company executives called an emergency meeting which the artist was not invited to attend. From the meeting came an ultimatum: Unless Matsumoto removed a particular set of two-meter tall, computer-enhanced portraits, the show would not open. The reason? According to museum assistant manager Shintaro Abe, the pictures were simply "too shocking for a gallery that children might visit." What Canon had deemed taboo was tattoos.

And they weren’t even real tattoos! The dense net of colorful faux-tattoos that covered the bodies of Matsumoto’s models from head to toe, obscured only by fundoshi (loincloths) or white cotton briefs, were generated using photo-shop computer software. Months after a resolute Matsumoto saw his show cancelled, Canon still would not offer an official comment on why they found the work so "shocking."

A possible explanation lies in a non sequitur – because gangsters have tattoos, anyone who has a tattoo must be a gangster. Hence, many Japanese saunas, public baths, and swimming pools, in an ongoing but outdated effort to keep out undesirables, bar all people with tattoos.

"It’s a rule we have," explains a Wild Blue Yokohama spokesperson when asked about the indoor, virtual-beach amusement park’s policy of refusing entry to people with tattoos. When asked if this is because yakuza have tattoos, the spokesperson briefly puts me on hold before returning as an ad hoc diplomat. "I can’t say that," she answers, "it might be so, but my boss tells me I can’t say that."

If it seems difficult to imagine the young people getting tattoos these days in Japan as yakuza, it is outright impossible to picture Herb Irving as one. Irving, 35, is a Canadian-born English-teacher and sometime musical comedian working the regular Club Asia comedy nights in Shibuya. He has a Keith Richards Telecaster electric guitar tattooed on his right bicep. And while he hasn’t ever had a problem visiting sentos or onsens, a couple of years ago, while Irving was splashing around at Wild Blue Yokohama with two Japanese friends, the rather small and fairly pale guitar on his arm attracted the attention of lifeguards, who promptly ordered it covered.

Bandages were applied over the offending tattoo, and they were of course soon washed away in the surf. A second alert lifeguard approached Irving, and more bandages were applied only to be torn off in the afternoon pseudo-beach fun. Then a team of zealous park officials descended on reckless Irving with polite threats. Eventually, on the forth attempt, the tattoo was successfully concealed beneath a patchwork of bigger, more adhesive bandages.

And Irving had new material for his routine.

"Did they really think I was a gangster?" he would later joke at Club Asia. "Why in the world would a yakuza have a guitar tattoo? They can’t even play the instrument…"

Here it comes: "…they don’t have enough fingers!"



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