Thursday, April 24, 2008

Getting a Tattoo in Japan

This little note is not for those who might be interested either in my new tattoo (which I will post in time) or in what tattooing itself is like (which has been done to death on the internet) but for those who might be interested in finding a tattoo artist in Japan, and on negotiating whatever strangenesses may abound in the Japanese tattoo world. It's not, of course, the definitive guide - just a description of my experience.

Obviously, when one is in Japan one may prefer to get a tattoo in a Japanese style, particularly the traditional "irezumi" style. To do this one needs to find a good quality Japanese tattooist. Fortunately (particularly for those who are familiar with the tattooing world) these tattooists have much in common with Australian tattooists, particularly:
  • they advertise
  • they have folders full of pictures of their previous work in their shops
  • they have web pages
  • they are government certified
The latter is particularly good to know, and my experience at the tattoo shop where I went was that cleanliness and infection control procedures were broadly the same as any certified professional in Australia. This means that in choosing your tattooist you can be confident that the same measures (cleanliness, organisation, infection control) by which you might judge an Australian artist apply here too.

I found my tattooist first through walking past their Matsue branch, but confirmed their quality through a particularly useful shop: Peacemaker in Osaka. Peacemaker is a shop for officionados of death/thrash metal, runs its own clothing line, and has example artwork from many of the major tattooists in Western Japan, on display in folders in the shop. I examined several of these, and discovered that the local Tottori tattooist, knockover decorate, is quite famous and very good. So we (the Delightful Miss E and myself) went to their main shop in Yonago, to see what we could see.

It was here that we discovered just how easy the process is here. The apprentice tattoist, Miss Hotaru, was working at the counter, and speaks very good English (as you can see from the website, English is a common part of the tattoo world). Both the Delightful Miss E and I had no particular design, just an idea. We explained this to Miss Hotaru and she signed us up. We gave a 10000 yen ($100) deposit, and agreed to come back 2 weeks later to inspect the design and get the tattoo. Miss Hotaru explained what we wanted to our chosen tattooist (Mr. Takami) and when we returned the designs were ready. Neither of us were satisfied, so we conveyed our concerns to Mr. Takami and he changed the design admirably quickly, and well. The Delightful Miss E's design included art nouveau elements (of course) and he, Mr. Takami, had completely missed these on the first draft; however, when given an example of what needed to be done, he immediately produced on the spot a picture-perfect example of art nouveau for the tattoo. I suspect his ability to reproduce Western art styles is generally good, if that is what one needs.

Mr. Takami and Mr. Sohei (the resident tattooists) are both masters of the Japanese style, and given a general brief can produce a design to suit. My brief (cherry blossoms on a kind of flowing background) was pretty broad, but the design most admirable; another chap came in while I was there for a full back tattoo, all designed and laid out (and some to be done freehand!) by Mr. Sohei. A brief review of their website will show the level of their skill in the style, and I certainly have no complaints about the quintessential Japaneseness of my tattoo.

I should mention however that I think there is a limit to the flexibility of these artists. Not because they are limited as artists, but because the Japanese customer-service style often includes an element of "staff know best": the staff think they know what suits you, and aim to give it to you regardless. I have experienced this with real estate agents, among others, and I think it exists to a certain extent at this tattoo shop. I expect it is prevalent in all tattoo shops in Japan, though I have no proof. This means that the more information you can give the tattooist, the less he will be able to pull off this kind of service style. But in some instances with my tattoo, Mr. Takami's opinion was, I think, for the best - he is the expert after all. Of course the only way to manage this judgement between wise advice and personal opinion is to be very confident about what one wants, and not allow anything one doesn't want to be stuck on one's body.

I should also mention that books of tattoos in the shop included the works of female tattoo artists, so they can be found in Japan if that is one's wish. And also, I should mention that the tattoos were quite cheap comparatively - the Delightful Miss E's took about 3 times as long as my first tattoo did, and cost about 3 times as much - even though I got my first tattoo 10 years ago.

The actual tattooing was done quickly and professionally, and Mr. Takami showed appropriate concern for the Delightful Miss E, who was receiving her first tattoo and was therefore quite nervous. Miss E found his manner quite gentle, and thought he gave her just the right amount of breaks.

Finally, the manner of the shop staff and tattooists was, as always in Japan, kind, cheerful, warm-hearted and welcoming. The shop uses the usual formal language of Japanese customer service, with maybe just a tiny leavening of informality. The staff (even those who spoke no English) are friendly and welcoming and showed no reticence about engaging foreigners, and the shop itself was comfortable and well lit, with nice decorations and couches. The staff were inobtrusive during the tattooing process, genuinely interested in the design and the result, and polite and friendly throughout. Whatever gangster/yakuza associations tattooing may have in Japan (and I shan't deign to have an opinion on this), the tattoo shop environment itself retains the quintessential Japanese service traits of gentleness, politeness and inobtrusive attentiveness.

Though my tattoo hurt like buggery (and considerably more than the last one I got!) I heartily recommend the process for anyone who wants a classically Japanese, permanent reminder of their time here.


Post a Comment

<< Home