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Japan Ink: Growing tribe proudly defies tattoo taboo, hopes for Olympian boost

Tuesday, October 27, 2020, 09:24 GMT+7
Japan Ink: Growing tribe proudly defies tattoo taboo, hopes for Olympian boost
People with tattoos gather together for group photos at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

TOKYO — Shodai Horiren got her first tattoo as a lark on a trip to Australia nearly three decades ago. Now, tattooed head to foot, even on her shaven scalp, she is one of Japan’s most renowned traditional tattoo artists.

“Your house gets old, your parents die, you break up with a lover, kids grow and go,” said Horiren, 52, at her studio just north of Tokyo.

“But a tattoo is with you until you’re cremated and in your grave. That’s the appeal.”

Horiren belongs to a proud, growing tribe of Japanese ink aficionados who defy deeply-rooted taboos associating tattoos with crime, turning their skin into vivid palettes of colour with elaborate full-body designs, often featuring characters from traditional legends.

Banned from spas, hot spring resorts, some beaches and many gyms and pools, the enthusiasts hope the presence of tattooed foreign athletes at last year’s Rugby World Cup and next year’s Tokyo Olympic Games - postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic - will help sweep away suspicion.

“If you watch the All Blacks do the haka with all their tattoos, it makes your heart beat faster,” said Horiren, referring to New Zealand’s national rugby team and their pre-game ceremony.

“Basketball players are really stylish, too. But here, even boxers cover up with foundation.”

Author Hiroki Takamura, 62, shows tattoos on his palms at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Author Hiroki Takamura, 62, shows tattoos on his palms at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoos have been linked to criminals for as long as 400 years, most recently to yakuza gang members, whose full-body ink-work stops short of hands and neck, allowing concealment under regular clothes.

The popularity of Western rock music, though, with musicians increasingly sporting tattoos, has eaten away at this bias.

A court decision last year that tattoos were for decoration, and were not medical procedures, helped clarify their murky legal status and may signal a shift in attitude - perhaps leading the industry to regulate itself, giving it a more mainstream image.

Burlesque dancer Aya Yumiko, 40, who performs under the stage name 'Aya Mermaid' poses with her tattoos at a bar she performs at in Tokyo, Japan, April 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Burlesque dancer Aya Yumiko, 40, who performs under the stage name 'Aya Mermaid' poses with her tattoos at a bar she performs at in Tokyo, Japan, April 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Referring to them as tattoos rather than “irezumi” - literally meaning “inserting ink” - as is becoming more common, may also help give them a stylish, fashionable veneer.

“Some people get tattoos for deep reasons, but I do it because they’re cute, the same way I might buy a nice blouse,” said Mari Okasaka, 48, a part-time worker who got her first tattoo at 28.

Her 24-year-old son, Tenji, is working towards having his whole body covered in ink and colour.

Restaurant owner Hiroshi Sugiyama, 38, lies in the water at a Japanese public bath called a 'sento', as he gets together with tattoo artist Asakusa Horikazu to pose for photographs in Tokyo, Japan, September 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Restaurant owner Hiroshi Sugiyama, 38, lies in the water at a Japanese public bath called a 'sento', as he gets together with tattoo artist Asakusa Horikazu to pose for photographs in Tokyo, Japan, September 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo devotees are edging into the open as well, meeting at large parties to bare and share their designs.

“We may have tattoos but we are happy and bright people,” said party organizer and scrapyard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto.

Surfer and TV set-maker Takashi Mikajiri, though, is still stopped on some beaches and ordered to cover up.

Mari Okasaka, 48, and her son Tenji Okasaka, 24, pose for photographs at their home in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Mari Okasaka, 48, and her son Tenji Okasaka, 24, pose for photographs at their home in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Rie Yoshihara, who works in a shop dressing tourists in kimonos, said her shocked father has still not seen her full back tattoo, while Okasaka wears long sleeves to take out the garbage so her neighbours won’t talk.

“In America, if you have a tattoo, people don’t really care. There’s not really any reaction,” said Mikajiri.

“That’s the ideal. It’d be really good to just be taken for granted.”

Part-time worker Tenji Okasaka, 24, pets his cat as he poses for a photograph at his house in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Part-time worker Tenji Okasaka, 24, pets his cat as he poses for a photograph at his house in Niiza, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Office worker Hideyuki Togashi, 48, shows his tattoos as he poses for a photograph at a park near his house in Tokyo, Japan, September 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Office worker Hideyuki Togashi, 48, shows his tattoos as he poses for a photograph at a park near his house in Tokyo, Japan, September 7, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, tattoos her customer Rie Yoshihara at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, tattoos her customer Rie Yoshihara at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Truck driver Hideyuki Haga, 44, poses in front of his truck which is decorated with the same design as his tattoo on his back, in Hiki, Saitama, Japan, September 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Truck driver Hideyuki Haga, 44, poses in front of his truck which is decorated with the same design as his tattoo on his back, in Hiki, Saitama, Japan, September 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters

urfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, shows his tattoos on his back as he sits on the beach after surfing on Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Surfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, shows his tattoos on his back as he sits on the beach after surfing on Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Scrap yard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, takes off his shirt as he gets ready to pose for a photo showing his tattoos at the scrap yard where he works in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Scrap yard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, takes off his shirt as he gets ready to pose for a photo showing his tattoos at the scrap yard where he works in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Surfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, lies on his surfing board as he poses for a photo at Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Surfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, lies on his surfing board as he poses for a photo at Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Surfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, heads into the sea with his surfing board tied to his ankle at Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Surfer and TV set designer Takashi Mikajiri, 42, heads into the sea with his surfing board tied to his ankle at Onjuku beach in Isumi district, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, October 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Scrap yard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, poses at the scrap yard where he works in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Scrap yard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, poses at the scrap yard where he works in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Scrap yard worker Hiroyuki Nemoto, 48, poses at the scrap yard where he works in Hitachinaka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, prays in front of an altar before tattooing a customer at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, holds an umbrella as she walks in the rain in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, July 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, holds an umbrella as she walks in the rain in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, July 3, 2020. Photo: Reuters

People with tattoos gather together for group photos at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

People with tattoos gather together for group photos at the annual gathering of the Irezumi Aikokai (Tattoo Lovers Association) in Tokyo, Japan, February 16, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo model Yuki, 30, performs on set for French pop group Supernaive's music video in Tokyo, Japan, February 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo model Yuki, 30, performs on set for French pop group Supernaive's music video in Tokyo, Japan, February 18, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, shows her needles before tattooing a customer at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Tattoo artist Shodai Horiren, 52, shows her needles before tattooing a customer at her studio in Warabi, Saitama Prefecture, Japan, September 4, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Construction worker Hiraku Sasaki, 48, washes his body at a Japanese public bath called a 'sento', as he gets together with tattoo artist Asakusa Horikazu to pose for photographs in Tokyo, Japan, September 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters

Construction worker Hiraku Sasaki, 48, washes his body at a Japanese public bath called a 'sento', as he gets together with tattoo artist Asakusa Horikazu to pose for photographs in Tokyo, Japan, September 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters

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