How Tattooed Tokyoites are Challenging Stigma Through Their Ink
Traditionally a marker of crime and punishment, tattoos in Japan are a taboo yet to be broken. Often acting as a barrier between popular city spots and tourist attractions, tattoos can see you unable to enter most hot springs (onsen), public baths (sento), traditional inns (ryokan), pools and gyms. Yet rapidly growing numbers of Tokyo’s youth are resisting the connotations of crime and rebelling social constructs in an alternative fashion, making their bodies a site of art and getting tattooed in many of the underground tattoo parlours that populate the city. Through tattooing their bodies and wearing art proudly, a new generation of Tokyons are blurring the lines between public and private. Preventing to hide their inner self, the Tokyo underground is bringing tattooing to the foreground. Chef and Tokyoite Keem de Peralta, took us through a block of residential flats into Osa’s Tattoo Studio to find out where Tokyo’s inked generations are carving a new and care-free path.
The stigma attached to tattoos originates from The Yakuza, a Japanese crime syndicate, whose tattoos are symbolic of their gang membership. They later went on to be used as punishment during the Edo period for criminals and sex workers, isolating them from wider society for perceived wrongdoings. Although tattoos were legalised by occupying forces in 1948, tattoos are still widely considered inappropriate in Tokyo, and the lines between legality and illegality are blurred.
Embodying this dichotomy is Osakabe’s Tattoo Shop, a parlour located in the neighbourhood of Shimokitazawa in the home of Keem’s friend. Shimokitazawa, a pocket not far away from Tokyo old town, has its own vibrant subculture of second-hand clothing stores, music venues, bars and traditional eateries. It’s here, nestled among the activity, that exists a few covert tattoo studios.
In this sense, being tattooed in Japan constitutes an act of resistance to the mainstream, highlighting the importance of self-ownership and creativity, and though hidden away from the public, and widely inaccessible to those without a recommendation, Osakabe’s parlour is not a place of secrecy or shame. Having been tattooing for over 28 years, and himself decorated head to toe, the only thing hidden about this spot is the room itself.
Horiyoshi III, one of Tokyo’s godfathers of tattooing has recently spoken out regarding the battle to entirely legalise the process in Tokyo. Admiring their rebellious nature, Horiyoshi argues that ‘tattoos should have a dash of the outlaw about them’, suggesting then that their wearers are innately outlaw-like, never veering into the path of the mainstream.
These are people that are carving a new path for Tokyo in terms of independence and individuality. Keem suggests that the process of inking at Osakabe’s place serves as a “restart button” for him: “whenever I get outside of his house, I feel more energized and ready to take on Tokyo”. Osakabe’s shop is a touchstone, exposing people’s thoughts and emotions and exposing their body art, dismantling the idea that tattoo lovers should be locked up like the prisoners who once wore them. Tattooing offers catharsis, Keem notes, from the outside world, allowing him to express his creative freedom in Osakabe’s studio, where he would “gather all my thoughts here and put them on my skin”.
For Keem, and thousands of others like him, tattoos are both a personal and political statement: by wrapping himself up in his art, he is taking a stand and rebelling against society whilst pushing to silence voices who want tattoos banned.