Guest Blog: These Tattoos Bite
10:02 AM
Horiyoshi dragon.jpgJohn Mack continues his weekly guest blog post on his experience getting tattooed by Horiyoshi III over the course of nine years. Check out his previous posts:  Part IPart II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIIIPart IX and Part X.

When in Japan, I love chatting with the locals in small neighborhood bars. In the comfortable anonymity of these places, I sometimes reveal that I'm tattooed, and often people want to see. If the situation is right, I oblige them and take off my shirt.

Then the most surprising thing happens:  sensing a rare opportunity, other customers and bar employees join in by pulling back their clothing to reveal tattoos -- and it's usually over half the men and women present doing so. Many of the Japanese I've met in these situations think that their compatriots don't have tattoos, but the reality is that they don't show them.

There's a stereotype that tattooed Japanese must be part of the criminal underground, the Yakuza. However, in my experience, only one person I met admitted to a Yakuza connection. He was a civilian, but his father was a Yakuza gangster who wore a dragon tattoo.  He had an amusing story about his boyhood.

When he was a child, his father threatened, "If you're bad, this dragon will bite you!"  That scared the hell out of him.

Like many Yakuza, the father was missing portions of his fingers.  Instead of revealing that he had chopped off his own fingers in atonement for gangland transgressions, the father claimed to have been mutilated by a fan. The boy spent his summers in mortal fear of electric fans.

His father left when he was young and had been largely incommunicado thereafter. Nonetheless, on his chest, the son bore the same dragon tattoo as his father.

A dragon not unlike the one Horiyoshi III gave me (shown above).


Horiyoshi's practice is now limited to finishing existing clients' tattoos.  As I have repeatedly witnessed, all new clients are politely referred elsewhere.


Great story, John! In my short time in Japan, I kept all my tattoos fully hidden, except when I was in Horiyoshi's studio getting tattooed (or visiting other shops in Kyoto). It was winter, so that helped, but I definitely wouldn't have to offered to show my work in a bar. Good for you.

I've heard stories not unlike yours from tattoo artist friends who saw sleeves peeking out from yakuza at the bar.

Wow, left a long comment and now it's gone. Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed this story. The only time I was brave enough to show my tattoos in Japan was when I was in Horiyoshi's shop (to get tattooed) and when I visited shops in Kyoto. Then again, it was winter, so that helped.


i now suffer from jealousness...

Sorry your long comment disappeared. If you have the energy, do try again. If appropriate, submit it to Marisa as a guest blog!

The only time I ever saw Yakuza tattoos peeking out was when I lived in that neighbourhood, Ikebukuro, that turned out to be near Horitoshi's studio. That area was the Yakuza headquarters of Tokyo.

The one time I stumbled into a bar frequented by Yakuza types, me and my white friend were told, "Isn't there something wrong with the atmosphere in here?" We agreed and left.

Interesting. I know Japanese tattoos are revered by many. I find them fascinating as well. Cool read.

maybe it just took awhile to post, that seems standard for this site.
just gotta be patient

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