Tattoo in Japan

By Xeni Jardin


tatj.jpg Fans of Japanese culture and of tattoo art will find much to enjoy in this large format photobook exploring the diversity of Japan's tattoo scene.

Tattoo in Japan is divided into four chapters dedicated to different geographic regions: Tokyo, Chubu, Kyoto, and Osaka. Each area is known for a distinct style of ink art. They are presented here in rich color images accompanied by essays on the history of tattoo art in this country, and its contemporary expression.

The book profiles traditional tebori artists (and the rituals of respect that surround them), along with street shop inkers (for whom Western musical influences like punk and rockabilly reign).

After the jump, an exclusive Boing Boing image gallery of favorite photos from the book.


In Japan, the choice to adorn your body with ink is not without stigma: for instance, you're not allowed to enter a public bath (onsen) in Japan if you have tattoos. Boing Boing's resident Japan expert Lisa Katayama blogged earlier about a book on a yakuza boss' daughter and her tattoos over at Tokyomango. For the woman whose life was the subject of that book, tattoos were a way to reconcile her difficult childhood experiences with a self-determined identity. That same melding of history, culture, and individual spirit also manifests throughout Tattoo in Japan.


The volume contains some 250 photographs, on more than 300 pages, and weighs nearly seven pounds. It ends with notes on how and where one might go about getting a really nice tat in Japan, and by the time you reach the end, you'll be tempted. My coveted review copy will be occupying prime real estate on the living room table, right next to a related title also published by Edition Reuss -- Black Tattoo Art: Modern Expressions of the Tribal.

Tattoo in Japan: Amazon Link | Publisher website (Thanks, Marisa, images courtesy Edition Reuss)

Update: Colin from Last Gasp says,

We are the US distributor of Tattoo in Japan. For whatever reason, Amazon doesn't have the book listed as "available" from them although we regularly ship them this book. Unfortunately we're closed for inventory for the next few days. We can ship this book beginning Jan 4. If you like, you can order directly from Last Gasp online here, or by phone: 1-800-848-4277 M-F, 9am-5pm PST. Or special order through your local independent retailer. The book is $165. We'll give you free ground shipping (Continental US) if you mention you heard about it from BoingBoing.



Published 10:00 am Tue, Dec 22, 2009


About the Author

Boing Boing editor/partner and tech culture journalist Xeni Jardin hosts and produces Boing Boing's in-flight TV channel on Virgin America airlines (#10 on the dial), and writes about living with breast cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. @xeni on Twitter. email:

33 Responses to “Tattoo in Japan”

  1. Anonymous says:

    There’s a fascinating cultural dichotomy over tattoos in Japan – on the one hand, tattoo art in is a respected, even revered tradition.

    On the other hand, my full sleeve art blocked us from being allowed into public pools in Kyoto (apparently due to the Yakuza’s penchant for tattoos – I might upset the other guests).

    And I often found myself being stared at on the Yamanote line in Tokyo (and even flinched at once or twice), even though I never went out in any thing more revealing of the art than regular t-shirt sleeves and I was with my kids, looking pretty harmless-white-family-tourist-y.

    At one museum, we learned that upon sentencing, Japanese criminals in the Edo period (and perhaps beyond)were often tattooed with their crimes, which I guess led to the modern-day Yakuza connection.

    • Freddie Freelance says:

      Anonymous, full sleeves are never “harmless-white-family-tourist-y”, even in the US, and Yakuza rise the train with their kids, too; how else do they get around the country?

    • Boba Fett Diop says:

      I was thrown out of a spa in Kobe for a smallish tattoo on my calf (if only they could see me now). The funny thing was that the attendant who threw us out used such a polite register of Japanese to do so that my friend (who was nearly fluent) had difficulty understanding what he wanted.

  2. technogeek says:

    One of my favorite random-conversation-starter questions, from a few decades ago: “If someone offered to give you money if you would get a tattoo — your choice of design and location, executed well, but permanent — how much of a bribe would it take, and what would you select?”

    I’ve seen very little that I would consider wearing for the rest of my life, but I can admire good work.

    • MCM says:

      “I’ve seen very little that I would consider wearing for the rest of my life, but I can admire good work.”

      I hear this a lot, but it’s not really about finding a design you want to wear for the rest of your life. After a few years, you don’t really see the “design” anymore, you see what your life was like at the time you got it, you remember whatever good or bad things were going on at the time, and maybe think about how different things are now.

      Some people get really hung up on “but what does it MEAN?” like every little detail is supposed to have some sort of mystical story behind it, for some parts I just say, “I don’t know yet, ask me again in a few years.”

      • Karl Jones says:

        [tattoo is] not really about finding a design you want to wear for the rest of your life. After a few years, you don’t really see the “design” anymore, you see what your life was like at the time you got it, you remember whatever good or bad things were going on at the time, and maybe think about how different things are now.

        That’s my experience.

        I got my tattoo when I was twenty-eight. I wasn’t looking for or thinking about a tattoo, but I happened to worked with a guy who was an aspiring tattoo artist, and the guy kept at me with “When are you going to let me do your tattoo, eh, then, Karl?” until I gave in. (He worked under the guidance of a master tattooist — it’s not like I let a rank amateur needle my skin.)

        What really made up my mind was this line of thinking:

        I was, at the time, twenty-eight years old. I thought to myself, I can do this or not, no big deal. But I imagined myself not getting a tattoo at twenty-eight; time passes; by the age of thirty-five, I would (I imagined) no longer have the youthful derring-do to go ahead and get the tattoo. Better to take the chance at twenty-eight, before I got old and cautious and regretful.

        I’ve never regretted it (I’m now forty-eight). I don’t actually think about it much, but I don’t regret it either.

        Oh yes — getting the tattoo is painful — but after a the session there’s an enormous all-day high. You sit there and take the pain for the duration of the session, but afterward you’re totally buzzed on your own endorphins. Looking back on it, sometimes, I find that I miss the pain ….

      • Anonymous says:

        I would also like to add that the meaning of a tattoo isn’t always as easy as explaining it in a few sentences.. or even easy enough to explain to someone else, and as your life gains new perspectives so too does the way you see your art.

        in short, the tattoo should be it’s own explanation

  3. BebopAlulah says:

    Great art! Chris Trevino of Perfection Tattoo in Austin, TX is of the school of Japanese tattoo. His website has some great photos.

  4. Clay says:

    While of course it is entirely possible he’s a peaceful guy with a longstanding love of body art, the middle-aged guy in the fundoshi looks like a made man you would not want to cross.

  5. fasterpussycat says:

    This looks so cool, and so well done.

    My wonder (not being tattooed) is the obvious one: how well does this age, as the skin stretches and the body sags? And then what do you do?

    • Antinous / Moderator says:

      how well does this age, as the skin stretches and the body sags?

      The answer can be found by spending a few hours at the Folsom Street Fair. Some body parts hold up better than others.

  6. Eli says:

    I did a cultural study of irezumi – traditional – tattooing in Japan as a part of a college course. The Yakuza wear ink as a way to show their defiance of the norm and their individuality, as well as their strength, pain tolerance and mark of honor. The longer they’re in, the more ink.

    There are plenty of bath houses that will let you in with ink – and there are yakuza frequenting them.

    Irezumi tattoos were given to cultural heroes in Japan: bushi, firefighters (for luck and protection) and beloved bodyguards. This is what the yakuza wish to hearken back to.

  7. Anonymous says:

    The first poster pointed this out but as cool as yakuza Japanese tattoos are they are just that, a mark of organized crime. Get any kind of tattoo in Japan and you will not be allowed in onsen (hot springs) because you’ll scare all the other customers away since they will assume your tattoo represents your connection to organized crime. You will also not be able to get a job at most companies for similar reasons.

    • secretagentmoof says:

      I think this is overstated. I (admittedly, a pasty white person) have been to several onsen with not a word spoken about my back tattoo. I’m rather dubious about the “job prospects” thing, too; for instance, the clerk at the drugstore by my house has a rather obvious hand tattoo. Perhaps things are different in Kansai, where they still obsess over things like the burakumin.

  8. 8-9-3 says:

    There is something of a renaissance in Tattoos in Japan with the younger generation, who differentiate themselves from the Yakuza by having their tattoos highly visible, ie. the neck and hands, whilst Yakuza are typically Tattooed so that their art can be concealed beneath a business sort or other smart casual clothing. In most cases you will pass a Yakuza on the street or train without seeing his tattoos. The stereotypical Yakuza has a punch perm (tight perm),is missing his left pinky and wears a green shirt.

  9. teapot says:

    There is a reasonable history of Japanese tattoos here:

    Some things I would like to add/correct-

    In the Edo period the body suit developed amongs lower classes as during this time there were strict limitations on what clothing colours and patterns could be worn by various classes. By getting a suit inked on, lower classes could wear whatever colour and pattern they wanted (albeit permanent)

    In the later Edo period tattoos were used to identify criminals, but this is not where the connection to the Yakuza came from. When the Meiji period came around Japan opened up to the outside world. The government of the time outlawed irezumi (literally translated “insert” “ink”) as they thought tattoos would look barbaric and uncivilised to Europeans.

    The irezumi artists continued to work on whoever wanted them (however there is a subculture of non-yakuza irezumi bodysuit enthusiasts, btw) but it just so happened that pretty much the only people who wanted them were the Yakuza.

    Perplexingly, getting a tattoo was only illegal for Japanese people – meaning that foreigners could and did get irezumi tattoos in Japan during this time. Two famous examples are King George V and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia who both got inked in Japan.

    During US occupation of Japan in 1945, the Meiji law banning tattoos was removed, but the social stigma against tattoos has managed to persist, resulting in some of the modern-day exclusions some commenters refered to.

    As to how extreme these exclusions are, it really depends on the person who is operating the company. If you have modest tattoos, you probably wont have much trouble. My friend (not Japanese) has 2 very obvious tattoos, but she never had any trouble getting into any hot springs. That being said, another person I know (Japanese) was recently denied access to her local bath house because of her tattoos. The worst part? Because of the narrow-minded business owner she was not able to bathe her 1 y/o child there.

    It is hard to emphasise how much the older generations of Japanese people (generally speaking) hate and fear tattoos. This hate and fear merely demonstrates ignorance as they dont properly understand the history of their own country’s artistic heritage, and instead just follow the leader and repeat what the government (at one point) said. The young generations in Japan embrace change, but the old ones (who control what goes on) are insanely resistant to it.

  10. RenM says:

    I bought this book last February, as I’d seen it briefly mentioned in a British magazine. The quality of photography is amazing, and there are some interesting designs.
    I was more interested in the more traditional examples, than the modern punk-y ones, but it was definitely worth the purchase, for ideas, to learn a bit, and just to look at.

  11. benher says:

    I’m a tattoo artist working in Osaka, Japan. I entered into a traditional apprenticeship years ago and continue working at my present studio to this day. (Chopstick Tattoo)

    While there are many great books covering tebori artists in Japan, I have seen very few that have gone out of their way to give credit to the immense amount of talent in the younger generation of modern Japanese tattooers. Though I haven’t seen the full contents of this book, I recognize the signature style of friends and studios in the photos above. (Catclaw, Eccentric, etc.)

    There’s so much talent over here ranging from traditional tebori practitioners to western style tattoo artists that unfortunately the west misses out on. Hopefully this book will open a few more windows and allow a better glimpse into the work of so much yet-unrecognized skill and beauty.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’ve been to Chopstick Tattoo (2nd shop) many times–4 of my 5 tattoos are Chopstick tattoos! Just want to say that you all do great work, and I’ll definitely be visiting in the future! :)

  12. spoonyfork says:

    I went to both rural and urban onsen back in 2002 with my tattoos blazing and was never kicked out. Sure I got funny looks but that’s probably because I look funny. Maybe there were other reasons you all were ejected?

  13. Boba Fett Diop says:

    Actually, I never had a problem in onsen or sento- only the Kobe spa.

  14. Rob says:

    Yeah, these days living in Japan, with tattoos, you do find the occasional onsen that’ll give you a hard time. But far less common these days than in years past, and as a foreigner, far less likely you’ll have a problem, as there’s no way you could be yakuza. Even my father-in-law with his tatts was able to talk his way into onsens 35 years ago in Japan. Though he had some Japanese friends interceding on his behalf. There is a bit of a resurgence in smaller, non-yakuza style tattoos amongst the youth these days as well. They’re still a bit frowned upon though. I’d say comparable to how they were looked at in the US maybe 30-40 years ago.

  15. colin says:

    Hi Colin from Last Gasp here. We are the US distributor of Tattoo in Japan. For whatever reason, Amazon doesn’t have the book listed as “available” from them although we regularly ship them this book. Unfortunately we’re closed for inventory for the next few days. We can ship this book beginning Jan 4.
    If you like, you can order directly from Last Gasp online here
    Or by phone: 1-800-848-4277 M-F, 9am-5pm PST.
    Or special order through your local independent retailer.
    The book is $165.
    We’ll give you free ground shipping (continental US) if you mention you heard about it from BoingBoing.

  16. BastardNamban says:

    Hey benher (#15),

    Which Chopstick Tattoo shop are you at? I know there were a couple back when I lived outside Osaka from fall 2005 to summer 2006- I vividly remember the one in Shinsaibashi, right there in America-mura. It was right next to my friends’ store, Hifumiya, Infumiaikumiai’s (韻踏合組合) place. You guys still have that shop? The one with the girl in the cowboy hat sign out front?

    If you’re the guy I met that year at PURE for the Halloween party, you had some pretty cool stories. If you work next to the Hifumiya shop, tell Yuugi or Hida Andy says hello. They’ll know who you’re talking about.

    As for the onsen problem, yes, if you are living in the Kansai region anyone, you will get hassled more, just because Kobe & Osaka in particular have a huge amount of Yakuza there. I lived up in Sapporo the last couple years- I can say that the more north you go, and the further from major city onsen you go, the better your chances are of getting in with ink- and the Chopstick guy way back then told me pretty much the same thing- his advice was spot on.

    After I moved to Sapporo, and became friends with more rappers, 2 years of G-Spa paradise shows in Jozankei showed me entire hotels full of heavily tattooed b-boys in the spring, and they got away with everything- mostly mexican gangland style stuff, but everywhere. These are young Japanese we’re talking about, with mostly western style ink, much of it black and white.

    I still have no ink, even after returning to the US, just because I love onsen so damn much. But anymore, I realize that with my level of Japanese, I could talk my way out of trouble anyway. I’m getting some ink soon, and I’m thinking of getting Benkei across my back (I look a lot like him- big and very hirsute).

    The point is, you can enter onsen with ink (sento public baths much harder), if you get the right combo of language ability/someone to cover for you, and regional choice (country much easier than city, northern Hokkaido much easier than central Honshu).

    • benher says:

      Regarding tattoos and onsen, awhile back I wrote a FAQ for tattooed persons in Japan who wish to visit onsen and ryokan if anyone’s interested (scroll down a bit, it’s there):
      (Not sure if this violates the BB don’t-link-your-site policy, but it’s pertinent to the discussion so I leave it up to fate/moderators)

      BastardNamban: Yeah, that was me mate! I tattoo over at the Chopstick Horie location. The IFK guys are all great; sure they’d be psyched to see you back in O-town!

      For the Kansai record, the Shimizuyu sentou in America-mura welcomes tattooed folks.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Good art!

  18. pato pal ur says:

    dunno, I used to live in a really rural part of Japan and there was no way that the local onsen in my town would stop tatooed folks from using the facilities. Who wants to fuck with these guys out in the sticks? Once I saw a heavily-tatooed dude at this onsen breeze right in and without showering first(!!) step into the pool. This a major breach of Japanese etiquette, and he could only do it because the tats clearly broadcasted the fact that this was not someone to mess with. I didn’t feel very comfortable with him in the pool with me, though.

    • EliZ says:

      I am reminded of the awe-struck, wide-eyed, slack-jawed gaze that my chest and arm ink received from a 30 something nihonjin at my local pool in New Jersey.

      Thankfully I knew enough to say, “watakshi wa yakuza nai,” with an amused smile.

  19. Anonymous says:

    “how well does this age, as the skin stretches and the body sags? And then what do you do?” Exactly. We’re all going to age and its not going to be pretty even if you’re not tattooed.

  20. Gilgongo says:

    Washi no horimono wo misete ageoka??

    Incidentally, it’s totally false to say that you’re not allowed in a public bath if you have tattoos. I’ve been in plenty of baths in Tokyo where blokes with full body tattoos are washing. Perhaps if the only baths you frequent are posh ones, but I’ve not been to many of them.

  21. Anonymous says:

    Long term resident of Japan.

    I consider it telling that someone commented that “employment opportunities” weren’t limited by tattoos because the clerk at the drug store has a tat.

    You can’t pretend that a job at a drug store will allow you to afford to raise a child in Japan. The plain truth is, drug-store-tat-guy’s prospects for moving up the business ladder are close to zero. Tattoos are not for respectable folk, and for the most part, neither are the onsen that allow tattoos. Once you take one step away from the foreigner-friendly rock and reggae clubs, you stop seeing tattoos or people that consider them any thing but trashy.

    Japan is, thank gosh, not America, and Japanese don’t usually look at a beautiful body and think “what could I draw on this to make it better?”.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Ello! well I have a tatto on the back of my neck and it’s not big neither very small… flower -like and I’m planing to live in japan … I mean my question can seem very obvious… but does that mean people will not come close to me because of that? D: .. I mean im 19 so i have no idea.. can someone please who lives in japan explain these to me? …. D:

  23. Anonymous says:

    thanks for covering this
    does anyone know the name of the artist who did the new school tattoo? im referring to the fourth tattoo from the top on the guy with the blue pants and yellow band around his wrist