I got my very first tattoos at the age of 18. To be precise, it was the 15th of November 2008, (←I have a good memory) I was much chubbier than now and I had a shaved head. Yes, everyone has gone through that weird phase in their life, when they did everything they could to look the least attractive as possible. Anyway, I decided to get two simple stars on my hipbones, nothing original. 3 years later I got a maneki neko ‘beckoning cat’ tattooed on my back. Then a kokeshi, then some more stars, and a cherry blossom… I’m turning 25 this year. I don’t regret any of my tattoos. Looking at them is like looking at some sort of a vivid picture book of my life. They all connect to some particular events in my life, for better or worse.
I have written about my experiences as a tattooed person in Japan ( →here), but just in case you missed it or it’s the first time you’re here, I can assure you: It’s no big deal! I’ve never experienced anything really bad because of them, neither have I heard any rude comments. But this is my personal experience — the experience of one foreign girl living in Japan for just over 2 years now. What about heavily tattooed Japanese people? How is their life in the country considered to be extremely hostile towards body art? This January I had the pleasure of being tattooed by an amazingly talented artist — Garyō. He created a real work of art on my body. To be honest, I’d been thinking of getting the outline alone, but Garyō suggested getting it filled with a background that would give the crane life, give it texture, make it look real. He chose the best design for me and I trusted him entirely. Needless to say, I couldn’t be happier with the outcome! Okay, it’s high time I stopped blabbering and gave the floor to Garyō, whose stories and experiences will tell you what it is really like to be a tattooed person in Japan.
Interview with Garyō the Tattoo Artist
How did you realize that tattooing was something you wanted to do in life? Was there any event in your life that made you think “This is it!”
I was born in Akita, but I spent my teenage years in Sendai. I guess that many of you may not know that, but at that time Sendai was “the rocker town”. Yes! Not Tokyo, not even Osaka, but Sendai. I was into punk rock — Black Flag, Misfits, Circle Jerks etc. and so were the other guys I met there. I guess you could say we were like ‘bad boys’ you may have seen in some Japanese movies. We definitely were not like bosozoku gang guys, but we were also not what you would describe as typical junior high school students. You know, at that time we didn’t have the Internet, music magazines, DVDs… All we had was cassettes and CDs with our favourite music. Each one had a small album attached, same as it is now, with song lyrics and some photos of the band. We couldn’t get any bigger posters, so that had to suffice. Although the photos were very small, I could see my favourite musicians, I saw their tattoos and all I could think was “I wish I could be like them”. Without even thinking about it much, I decided to get tattooed. I was 16 at that time — and I realize that it wasn’t the best way to do it — but because in Japan you can only get tattooed when you reach the age of 20, somehow I managed to get a fake ID… And this is how I got my first tattoo. It was an oni, a demon. It might have gotten a bit out of control and by the time I was 18 I had both of my arms tattooed. And suddenly, when I got to that age when you kinda have to decide what to do next, get a job and all that, I realized… “How do I get a job NOW?” Long story short — there was no other choice than to become a tattoo artist. Funny thing, I never even knew I could draw. I would do nothing but practice all day, from early morning till late at night. I tattooed my whole legs, all I could reach. I found a tattoo master, who accepted me as his apprentice. Under his supervision I started practicing the art of tattooing. For many years I worked with my master in Gunma and Saitama prefectures, gathering experience, polishing my skills and preparing to be an artist on my own. When I was confident of my skills, I left for Tokyo and started my own tattoo studio.
In English, your profession is called a “tattoo artist” — how about Japan? Do you consider yourself to be an ‘artist’?
I admit it feels good to be called an artist. Tattooing is art, I do think so. But it wasn’t considered such in ancient Japan — tattoos had one special use at that time. People like fishermen, fire fighters and all those people doing all kinds of dangerous jobs, got uniquely designed tattoos, so that in the case of a horrible accident their bodies could be easily recognized. Not very artistic, is it? Anyway, there are special words in Japanese that perfectly describe our profession. We call ourselves 彫師 horishi, we are craftsmen. We ‘carve’ permanent images into our customers skin. It is a craft, that requires us to be very precise. Rather than tattooing designs our clients bring with them, as it is often the case for Western tattoo artists — we talk about the design, add some ideas, give advice, sometimes it’s us who chooses the best design and our customers trust us. We are craftsmen and artists — treating human skin as canvas, making it beautiful.
What kind of tattoos do most of your clients get? Who comes more often, men or women? Is it difficult to find Japanese clients these days?
You should know that here, at my atelier, we never do the same design twice. I treat each design individually, turn them into projects. I like big designs, body suits, back pieces, illustrations that tell a story — that’s what I’m good at, and that’s what people come to me for. Of course I can create original designs for my clients, if they have special requests, but as a tattoo artist with 16 years of experience, I can confidently say that free hand designs are what I am best at. I tattoo mainly men, my clients’ average age is about 30 and I admit, they’re mostly foreigners visiting Japan — thanks to my lovely wife, who’s a very active promoter of my services. I used to tattoo more Japanese clients, but they don’t come so often these days. From time to time I tattoo rock band members. People ask me if I tattoo mafia members… I’m professional, I don’t ask — they don’t tell. Which means I might have tattooed some of them in my 16 years of tattooing career. I guess I won’t know that for sure.
Do strangers on the street compliment your tattoos?
Yes and guess what — it happens quite often! What might surprise you, it’s mainly older women, who compliment me on my ink. Sometimes on the train, they exchange a few words with me and then say something like “Wow, your tattoos are really cool! They look great!” etc. And actually, it happens really often in South Korea. As I was walking down the street in Seoul, many people would stop me and say mixing English with Japanese “Japan? Tokyo? Yeah? Awesome tattoos! Looking cool!”. Even a customs officer at Incheon Airport once told me “Your tattoos are so cool, I want a tattoo too…” I felt kinda sorry for him since tattoos in South Korea are illegal, at least officially.
And how about strangers, whose comments about your tattoos are not exactly on the nice side? How do you react to them?
Those, who actually think badly about tattoos, are usually scared of us — tattooed people, so they never even say anything. They might glower at me, give me the look of disapproval, but that’s about the worst it gets. I’m 39, I have my life experience. I understand there are people who like and don’t like tattoos. Each to their own. So why should I get mad or upset? I just shrug it off. It is not illegal, it is my passion, it is what I do for a living. Some people say “I think you should hide them”… But why should I? It is hot in the summer and I’m just a regular person — of course I’ll choose a t-shirt or a tank top on a hot day. It’s not that I show my tattoos. They are showing, that’s normal. It’s still the same skin as any other person’s in the world. Nothing’s really different.
In Japan is it more socially acceptable for men to have tattoos? Do women get criticized for getting inked?
Unfortunately — yes. They often hear “What will you do about your wedding dress when you get married? Will you even be able to find a boyfriend if you have tattoos? And what will you do when you have kids?” I know of cases, where a girl with small tattoos met a guy, they started dating and he literally forbade her to get any more tattoos, because… “tattoos are not for girls”. I admit to have had thoughts like “Is it really okay?” whenever I tattooed a girl before, who hadn’t had any tattoos yet. “Will she be okay? Will she not regret it?” But not any more. We’re all free to do whatever we please with our bodies, regardless of gender.
What are things you cannot do in Japan because of tattoos? Is there anything you wish you were able to do?
Yes, there are quite a few things tattooed people can’t do here. Can’t go to some hot springs, public baths and even beaches — most of them in Tokyo, Osaka and other bigger cities. Some hotels don’t allow tattoos. If I’m correct, capsule hotels don’t allow them either. Sport centers. Kyabakura clubs. There’s that popular robot restaurant in Shinjuku and apparently you can’t go there if you have visible tattoos. We can’t donate blood. No pool allows tattoos bigger than 10 centimeters, and I guess that’s the only thing I wish I was able to do. They have those water slides, they look fun. I can go to any aquapark, whenever we visit my wife’s motherland — France, so I’m not missing out on anything. In Japan we just think shouganai = It can’t be helped. Japan is my country, I respect the rules. In fact I don’t mind covering my tattoos, whenever it is required. Sometimes I go out to dinner with my family, and want to save them from looks and comments and I wear long sleeve shirts. I’m fine with that.
Are there any onsen (hot springs) where you can have tattoos?
Despite the common belief — YES! There are actually many places, where it’s not frowned upon. You won’t find them in Tokyo though. Go somewhere else, Tohoku, Kyushu. Onsens in mountains, small towns, villages — these are the places to go. There’s Kusatsu onsen in Gunma prefecture, not that far from Tokyo. People tend to be more laid-back about things there. Although, during peak times, they might politely tell you that you might want to come later when there’s less people, as there always might be someone, who might give you a hard time about it.
Do you think that Japanese people are slowly changing their attitude towards tattoos? Is it getting better?
It is changing, yes. It may sound insensitive, but the people, who actually associated tattoos only with Yakuza are… no longer here. Younger generations think that tattoos are cool, fashionable, or just okay. And if for some reason they don’t like them, it’s not like they’ll be vocal about it. And grandmas and grandpas…Well, they might not like it, they might not understand it, but they had to accept that times have changed.
What was the best and the worst thing that happened to you during your tattooing career?
I can tell you with all honesty — I cannot recall a single bad thing. Sometimes clients make an appointment and never show up — that’s about as bad as it ever gets. But there’s definitely been a lot of great things going on. What kind of things? Collaboration with a French clothing brand CELIOCLUB, 3rd Prize in the Asian Tattoo category at the 16th International Tattoo Convention in Prague in 2014… Oh, and definitely one of the biggest things — I had the pleasure to tattoo Jim Root, the guitarist of Slipknot. It was so surreal, all these years I had been listening to Slipknot when tattooing other people, and suddenly, Jim Root came to my studio to get a tattoo! He was so tall, about 2 meters! Basically I draw my designs a bit bigger and then print them out in smaller versions, but this time was special — Jim got the original size tattooed on his arm, I hadn’t expected him to be so tall! He was the nicest person ever and we even got invitations to their concert in Tokyo last year, but since my wife and I are expecting a baby now, we couldn’t attend it.
The best thing that happened? A few years ago I met my wife, Myriam. We met through friends and I know how it sounds, but it really was ‘love at first sight’. She caught a bad cold right after we met, and I went all the way to her house to bring her medicine. Since then, there was not a single day we spent separately. Yes, there’s definitely been a lot of good things going on in my life, ever since I decided to be a tattoo artist.
CELIOCLUB x GARYO clothing line collaboration