©Photo by Sydney Seekford

Tokyo Tattoo: My First Time Getting Inked in Japan

Navigating Japan’s Ink Culture And Getting Insight From A Local Artist

By Sydney Seekford
February 23, 2024
Lifestyle, Subculture

Safety, commitment to service and everything we love about Japan also makes it a great place for getting your first tattoo. Read on to learn about my first Tokyo tattoo experience and get some insight from a local artist.

Japan has a pretty high reputation for being unaccommodating to folks with ink on their skin. Incidents range from common ones like being restricted to certain gyms and onsen, to borderline unbelievable, like being refused from entering restaurants. The stigma comes from a complicated history (spanning the Meiji Restoration, yakuza activity and even samurai punishments) that boils down to “tattoos are a symbol of criminality.” Considering this, how did an average office worker like myself deem Tokyo as the best place for my first tattoo?

From Consultation To Commitment

Tokyo Tattoo: My First Time Getting Inked in Japan© Photo by Sydney Seekford

Living in Japan, more than my own preferences had to be taken into account. For one, I’d like to continue going to onsen (hot springs) and sento (public bath) facilities. To do so freely, the tattoo couldn’t be so big that I couldn’t cover it. In preparation, I got a set of large, water-proof bandaids from Welcia and handed it to my artist. Together we measured the size of the tattoo stencil against the pad. Fortunately, the size I requested fit neatly under the bandage.

The studio was kept as cleanly as anything you would come to expect from a Japanese shop. It was neatly decorated with amply sized massage tables, plenty of bright lighting and disinfectants. After an hour of prep—straightening the stencil, reconfirming the design and setting up tools—we got to work. Two hours and some wincing later, we were finally finished and I strutted out into the chilly Tokyo winter.

An Artist’s Perspective

Tokyo Tattoo: My First Time Getting Inked in Japan© Photo by Sydney Seekford

During my session, I chatted with one of the tattoo artists working in the studio about their day-to-day. Located in Harajuku, Ken (whose name has been changed for privacy), said a lot of tourists come in looking for souvenirs of their trip.

The flashes he showed me were all classic Americana style, his specialty, but many of them had Japanese motifs. Another artist specializes in irezumi (traditional Japanese tattoo) looks using modern electric equipment. Yet, a third of what they do is kawaii art. The talent is on par with reputable tattoo studios abroad. The artists have clearly taken the time to develop their skills and sensibilities.

It’s mostly just normal people that come in. The stories they tell me are far more interesting than any story I have about them.

Although Ken says many foreign customers come in and request a flash, they also work by appointment to develop and offer original work. When I asked if he had any wild stories about guests wanting some offensive or absurd Japanese thing, he said it does happen, but usually only by misunderstanding. One example was “馬鹿” (baka, meaning idiot, in kanji).

“When guests come in requesting kanji or something that might come off as weird or miss the mark meaning-wise, we make sure to tell them and offer suggestions for something that would be more appropriate.”

Ken says it’s not hard to convince guests since no one wants to make a fool of themselves. Especially not by getting a tattoo in a foreign country!

“It’s mostly just normal people that come in. The stories they tell me are far more interesting than any story I have about them.”

From Taboo to Trend: Changing Views

Tokyo Tattoo: My First Time Getting Inked in Japan© Photo by Sydney Seekford

During our chat, I also asked why Ken felt it was getting more popular for people to get tattoos, even here in Japan, where it is traditionally taboo.

In his opinion, it has nothing to do with copying the West, even if his sailor tattoos tell a different story. Rather, tattoos are getting more visibility. Young people with tattoos are not only growing up to be normal members of society, but they’re posting about their ink on social media and normalizing the culture. With a growing association of tattoos with youth, instead of criminal activity, even Japan is gradually becoming more accepting.

When I asked him why he decided to be a tattoo artist, the reply was equally profound and simple. “I like tattoos, I have tattoos, I wanted a job where that would be ok. And I figured, if I were a tattoo artist, it would definitely be okay.”

Why I Recommend Getting Inked In Japan

Tokyo Tattoo: My First Time Getting Inked in Japan© Photo by Sydney Seekford
My finished tattoo!

Compared to the tattoo salons I visited to hold my friends’ shaky hands in the West, the facilities in Tokyo were cozy yet pristine. It was easy to feel completely safe and at ease. The atmosphere was professional, but not doctor’s office austere. In a word, because tattoos aren’t taken as lightly here as abroad, it’s easy to feel the care taken by tattoo artists for both their craft and their space.

Getting inked remains relatively rare in Japan, but it is a legal practice, especially since as of 2020, tattoo artists have been approved to practice without requiring a medical license. Japan has as much a reputation for good service as it does for being uptight about tattoos. This translates to safety, comfort and a commitment to making sure I got exactly what I wanted, even with a language barrier.

Living With A Tattoo In Japan

tattoo stickers© Photo by Foundation Tape, Tattoo Masker, Suhada Seal

Now that I’ve committed, I decided to do my homework to make sure I don’t have to compromise between my ink and my life. Hopefully, these products can help me avoid trouble when I head off to bathe with strangers:

Changing attitudes and expanded privileges have come a long way in making tattooed folk feel welcome. Yokohama offers a look at Japan’s ink culture at the Bunshin Tattoo Museum. Here curators are still working to help dispel the prejudice surrounding Japan’s rich but controversial tattooing history. It’s a great place to visit to do some real studying on the matter, but as for me, I’ll learn from experience.

What was your Tokyo tattoo experience like? Let us know in the comments.

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