Last week, a number of people sent me the link to the Kotaku.com article by Brian Ashcraft entitled "Japan Is Trying To Destroy Tattoos." The article makes serious claims about hardships facing tattoo artists in Japan today, so I wanted to reach out to friends who work in the country to get their perspective. Turns out that Ashcraft (who is writing a book on Japanese tattooing) is on the money in stating that the Medical Practitioner's Law enacted in 2001 -- which mandates that "only licensed health care providers could pierce the skin with a needle and insert ink" -- is now being enforced against tattoo artists, although it was originally designed to address issues with permanent makeup application.As Ashcraft also notes, one Osaka tattooer is fighting back. The Asahi News reported that the 27-year-old artist and studio owner known as Taiki was arrested for allegedly violating the Medical Practitioner's Law. Instead of paying the fine imposed on him, which Ashcraft says is 300,000 yen (about $2,445 USD), Taiki is challenging the law in the Japanese courts, "posing the question as to whether or not his job is a crime."
This past April, Osaka's biggest tattoo convention, was suddenly canceled a week before it was to be held. Some after, several tattoo studios in Osaka were apparently raided, and in August NHK reported, five tattooers were arrested for "tattooing 11 people without a physician's license." Yes, it actually said that. The tattooers were arrested because they were not doctors.
A friend of Taiki's created a Facebook page called Saving Tattooing in Japan to inform people of the case. Here is the English language FB page. On that page is a link a survey asking people's thoughts on tattoos in general and in Japan. The goal is to share the results of the survey and likely support the challenge to the law.
I'm hoping that the challenge is successful and Japanese artists no longer have to fear arrest for their craft. As many artists I've spoken to have said, the crackdown this past year could have the very real effect pushing the industry underground and even sending artists abroad, depriving the country of the stellar talent across Japan.
Onna yu ("Bathhouse Women") by Torii Kiyonaga (1752-1815) via Wikipedia.
Last week, a bunch of new outlets worldwide picked up the story that a bathhouse in Hokkaido, Japan refused entry to a Maori woman because of her Moko. As MaoriTelevsion.com notes, the woman, Erana Te Haeata Brewerton, was in Japan to attend an indigenous language conference, "staying with a group of Ainu people indigenous to Japan whose ancestors wore tattoos similar to the traditional chin tattoo."
The tattoo bans at bathhouses throughout Japan are nothing new and not really news to many in our community -- it's almost become a joke to pack a long-sleeved wetsuit when traveling to the country if you want to take a soak. The bans are based on the association of tattoos with the Yakuza crime syndicates, and designed to keep the bad guys out. Indeed, Yakuza are heavily tattooed (and often beautifully so). But so are a lot of people who aren't in the Japanese mafia.
The reason this incident is getting media traction is because Japan was just awarded the right to host the 2020 Olympics, which means a lot more tourists, including the tattooed. At the press conference for the Olympics announcement, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stated that "it is important to respect the cultures of foreign countries, considering we will host the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and expect many visitors ... to come to Japan."
Perhaps, we won't have to pack our wetsuits after all.
I'm often asked about blackwork and dotwork tattooing in NYC, and really, compared to other parts of the world, there aren't as many who specialize in the style (although the number of greats is growing). So, I'm always excited when those who need nothing to travel with but black ink arrive for guest spots in NYC.
One of my faves is Kenji Alucky of Black Ink Power.
The native of Sapporo-shi, Hokkaido, Japan has been tattooing on the road and is now a guest artist at NY Adorned in Manhattan. I believe that appointments are still available, but not for long as Kenji will only be a guest until January 31st. You can hit up NY Adorned by phone at 212.473.0007 or via email: info [at] nyadorned.com.
I've been looking forward to Wednesdays for each new episode of Vice's Tattoo Age video series. With all the reality TV shows, I consider it a tattoo cleanse. The episode that dropped today is Part 2 of the three-part feature on Mutsuo of Three Tides Tattoo.
You gotta see it, but I'll tell you my personal highlights. First, what Tattoo Age has been doing is showing not just telling you about the artists featured, through their personal interactions and filming how they usually live day-to-day. It opens with a sweet interaction between Mutsuo and a woman who works at a noodle shop he's eating at. It's very telling about the artists' personality. Of course, you do have his friends (and colleagues) like Masa, who owns the shop, and Chris Garver, who does regular guest spots, talking highly about Mustuo. And revealing stories of drunken nights. It's all fun. But there's also a lesson about how one becomes a renowned tattooist. In Mutsuo's case, it's not just about dedication but the education he received from those talented artists around him like Horitomo, and guests from around the world including Garver, Chris Trevino, Adrian Lee, and Grime. It explains why his portfolio is so incredibly diverse.
Mutsuo joined Three Tides in 1999. There's an interesting discussion about the evolution of the shop itself, which Garver says will go down in history as one of those "legendary shops." He further explains how Three Tides was the first "Western-style shop" in Osaka, with the goal of becoming like the best shops in America.
Perhaps, the greatest highlight for me was seeing footage of the 1999 Tokyo convention. Damn, everyone looked so young! The convention is discussed as a turning point of tattoo culture in Japan when the art became open to different artistic styles.
Like the other episodes. It's a must see.
If you missed Part 1, check it here.
An interesting slideshow and videos on tattoos of the Yakuza, Japan's criminal underground, can be found on National Geographic's "Crime Lords of Tokyo" investigation. The short stories behind the tattoos discuss the transformation, pain and symbolism of the motifs; for example, this backpiece on the daughter of a Yakuza boss, shown above, is described as "Prostitute in Hell." The presentation also makes mention of Shoko Tendo's Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster's Daughter, which is an excellent read.
Thanks, Niall, for the link!
Photos by John Agcaoili.
The latest issue of Skin & Ink magazine (July 2011), on newsstands now, features my profile on the multi-talented Takahiro Kitamura, aka Horitaka, tattooist and owner of State of Grace Tattoo and State of Grace Publishing in San Jose, CA. Born in Japan but raised in California since the age of two, Horitaka has worked tirelessly to educate and promote Japanese tattoo culture worldwide. In our interview, Horitaka explains what led him on this path. Here's a taste from the article:
"I always had my heart set on getting a backpiece from Horiyoshi III of Yokohama, whose work I found through the Tattoo Time books. Even then, when I had an extremely untrained eye, I knew that this guy was the best. Something spoke to me. But I thought, I can't go there. I can't afford it. A bunch of can'ts. One day-this was around early 1998-I'm making tattoo needles with Jason Kundell and he says, 'Why don't you just call him? The worst thing he can do is hang up on you.' So I got up the nerve and called the number."
During the time he was getting tattooed, Horitaka developed a relationship with Horiyoshi. He would help translate letters sent by fans around the world. He was also encouraged to come to the shop outside of his appointment times and copy the drawings Horiyoshi set out for him. Most important, he intently observed everything that went on around him. "I was amped and inspired. The code, the way people act. Every romantic notion of that Samurai spirit of honor and tattooing all came alive right there." He adds, "Of course I was naive about certain elements, like what types of customers were coming in. In the beginning Horiyoshi said, 'Yeah, I've tattooed some Yakuza [Japanese crime families] but mostly carpenters and laborers.' And I'm thinking, carpenters and laborers don't wear Louis Vuitton. And then little by little he admitted, 'Well, maybe 50% of the clients are Yakuza...well, maybe 80%.' I'm not knocking it because some of those guys were the most polite, respectful clients and seeing that respect was amazing."
After ten years, however, the apprenticeship came to an end. "Unfortunately, as what happens in many relationships, we started to grow apart. I found it harder and harder to be a Japanese apprentice. There is still an element of following the master's will, and I was never 100% good at that. Growing up American, I was always testing that boundary. I was always one to question authority and that doesn't really work well in the Japanese framework. Sadly, I ended up quitting as an apprentice, but I will always love and respect Horiyoshi III and will never forget all he taught me."
Read more on Horitaka in Skin & Ink's July issue, out now. Also check the State of Grace Facebook page.
On a related note:
State of Grace has donated
We've been checking in with a number of tattooist friends in Japan and happy to say that all those we contacted are safe and continuing to work through the disaster. One such artist is Genko of Nagoya. Genko's work will be featured in my next book for Edition Reuss Publishing that focuses on comic, cartoon and more "new school" tattoo styles. But I wanted to give y'all an early taste of what we'll be showing.
Genko's portfolio includes everything from blackwork to Americana to traditional Japanese tattoo themes. But it is his particular renderings of these classic tattoo styles--amplified and mutated into monster-sized figures, often with an ironic wink--that has made him a part of the new generation of Japan's tattoo master class.
The son of a Buddhist altar craftsman, Genko chose tattooing as his own craft after becoming a client of renowned new school artist Sabado of Eccentric Super Tattoo in Nagoya. After years of sitting in the tattoo chair, Genko transitioned from client to artist under Sabado's direction.
In 2006, he went on his own and opened up Genko Tattoo while keeping close ties with the studio that gave him his start. Today, Genko stays true to his Eccentric education by approaching tattoos in a modern way, but with his very own, distinct flair. When not at his studio, Genko is on the road at a number of international tattoo conventions.
See more of his work here.
Last week we wrote about fundraising for relief efforts in Japan that are being organized within the tattoo community. Here's an update:
* The Stand with Japan shirts are now available. Designed by Horitaka and Chad Koeplinger, the shirts can be ordered online or directly purchased at State of Grace, Strong Tattoo, and Yu-Ai Kai Senior Service (all located in San Jose, CA). US orders are $25, and for those beyond, the shirts are $35.
* Many tattoo artists are also auctioning off artwork. Tattoo Art for Japan has a list of some auctions, largely by German artists.
* In NYC, Dan Marshall of Tribulation Tattoo is holding a silent auction online of his paintings that will run until midnight Wednesday, March 23.
* And there are plenty of other sales and tattoo events being listed every day on the Tattooers for Japan Facebook page.
UPDATE: Beyond tattoo artists, some heavily tattooed Yakuza are helping out according to The Daily Beast.
The global tattoo community has been mobilized to help relief efforts in Japan.
One group, Tattooers for Japan, is encouraging artists worldwide to raise funds by donating a day's tattoo fees to a specific charity. Here are more details:
"The goal is to unite tattooers globally to show their compassion and gratitude to a country and culture that has influenced most of us artistically and personally. All of us owe a large debt of gratitude to Japan for its contribution to tattooing and the trade we are all so passionate about. The idea is for each tattooer/shop to schedule a walk-in day in April with all proceeds going to relief efforts in Japan. Choose your own day, advertise to your client base and community, pick a theme if you'd like. Please invite any tattooers you know to join this effort. [...] Let the Japanese foundations of respect, compassion, and integrity inspire you to help!"
A charity has yet to be officially chosen but, according to their Facebook group, it looks like the money could go to the Red Cross. They are still waiting to hear from artists in Japan about more direct methods to help. Their FB group page also has instant updates on the exact days some tattoo studios will be holding their fundraisers.
Tattoo Revolution Magazine and Tattoo.tv also have lists of relief efforts.
We'll be posting updates as well including the release of specially designs tees by Horitaka and Chad Koeplinger, the proceeds of which will be donated to charity. [One of the designs is shown here.]
If your studio or organization is planning an event, please let us know.
So it seems I'm a bit late to the party for the latest in tattoo TV. Last month, the testosterone channel Spike TV launched Permanent Mark, a three-episode special that follows 20+-year tattoo veteran "Permanent Mark" Walters as he travels the world experiencing various tattoo cultures. Here's how Mark explains the show:
I've been beating down doors for 7 years in Hollywood, way before the Miami Ink and L.A Ink and all the other shows about tattoos on TV. I was trying to get networks to film a show about how I would break into the subcultures of indigenous tattoos worldwide no matter what nasty shit I had to eat, what new fever I would catch, or what hole I had to crap in with a leaf too small to wipe my ass. All these things would get me respect in certain tribes and cultures because I never pretend to be tougher than I was, and my humility and stupidity showed them I was only human.
You can watch the full episodes online here. It's compelling TV. Grittier and more SpikeTV-ish than Discovery's Tattoo Hunter with tattoo anthropologist Dr. Lars Krutak, which we loved. Let's see if Permanent Mark has lasting appeal and gets picked up.
Also, check Mark's video blogs on YouTube like the one below.
My next large-scale coffee table book project for Edition Reuss will be a massive collection of top New School work from around the globe. Of course, the term New School itself is pretty fluid and not universally defined, but my approach is to highlight cartoony/animated tattoos that follow the Americana traditions of strong linework and readability but color bombed with vibrant hues, morphed into fantastical characters and imbued with a lot of sexy fun and humor. Think Joe Capobianco, Tony Ciavarro, Jime Litwalk and Kristel Oreto. [*And Joe just reminded me of Dave Fox's work, of course!]
In researching, I've come across many artists beyond the US who have really exciting portfolios that I have to share with y'all. Here's the first artist in this series:
Check Kowhey of Balance Tattoo in Miyazaki City in Japan.
Of course a trip to the Japanese island of Kyushu would be a sweet tattoo vacation, but Kowhey is also traveling to conventions worldwide to work his psychedelic interpretations of ancient Japanese myths as well as tricked-out Americana motifs like pin-ups, pirates and pirate pin-ups.
You can find more of his work here.
Having just written about Holocaust tattoos, I became curious about forced tattooing beyond Auschwitz. Hitler created nothing. His greatest evil was applying ancient barbaric practices to his time. Mass murder, extermination camps, frenzied national pride and race-baiting are tools of the past. So, too, is forced tattooing.
Scholars argue whether the branding of concentration camp victims was an organizational tool, meant only to expedite his far greater crimes, or if it was part of the victimization. Indeed, the process of tattooing to differentiate, degrade and dehumanize is a practice as ancient as the beginning of religion itself.
Imagine yourself in Rome. Your Emperor is sleeping with his horse, quite literally, and drinking virgin blood out of a golden goblet. You, on the other hand, are living in squalor, burning in the unrelenting sun and suffering the perversions of poverty. So, you steal, and if caught, you are tattooed as punishment, permanently marked as a criminal. As Maarten Hesselt van Dinter writes on Mundurucu.com of forced tattooing:
"Their purpose was control and they were used to identify gladiators, soldiers, prisoners and slaves. Tattooing specific groups with clearly visible signs made monitoring their movements easier. From the fourth century, Roman recruits were tattooed with the emblems of their units. Apart from their administrative use, according to Plato, tattoos were also used as punishment. Another reason was humiliation."
Read more of Maarten's writing on tattoo history worldwide (with images and designs) in his brilliant book The World of Tattoo: An Illustrated History.
The same occurred in the 17h century of Japan, where serious criminals were marked on their arms and foreheads with various symbols representing their crimes and places of origin.
The same has happened forever amongst warring tribes of native peoples about which our own scholarship only prevents us from truly recognizing the power they conveyed through forced corporal manipulation.
Even when the criminal classes began to adopt their markings as signs of status, the punishment of forced tattooing remained. Russian inmates, most notable of all prisoners for their extensive and evolved physical hieroglyphics, would brand informants, snitches and homosexuals with unwanted tattoos. Say what you will about criminals, but many have a rigid moral order and a strong sense of visiting justice upon those who violate it. That they choose to use tattoos to stigmatize is proof of its power.
In the last few years and much closer to home, there has been a very public increase in acknowledging the forced inking against marginalized and under protected minorities. THIS STORY from Singapore, and THIS STORY from China describe tattooing as a form of domestic violence. THIS STORY describes an instance of child abuse that is not rare enough.
And so the practice continues, in our jails and neighbors' homes, taking what we celebrate as art and debasing it as infliction.
This post is not meant as a comprehensive academic overview, but a brief look at tattoo history that is not decorative but punitive. Those with more information on forced tattooing are welcome to share their thoughts in the comments.