I was in the second grade when I first realized that I would some day be tattooed. It wasn’t a particularly big deal to me at the time; just something that I knew I’d eventually get, kind of like a driver’s license. It’s been a few years (okay, over a decade) since my very first tattoo, and I’ve slowly accumulated a bit more ink, though I’m nowhere near finished–something you’ll likely hear from most of the tattooed people you’ll meet.

Naturally, when I became interested in Japan, one of the things that caught my attention was the beautiful art created by the country’s talented tattoo artists, though circumstances have largely conspired to prevent me from collecting any “traditional” Japanese tattoos. However, I recently got the opportunity to get something a bit more “Japanese” and decided to share the experience in order to help you get an idea of what tattooing is like in Japan in case you’re thinking of getting some ink of your own.

Join us after the break for an original, needles-and-all close-up look at what it’s like getting a tattoo in Japan.

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Before we really get into things, though, there are a couple of questions that we should probably address. First, the infamous “but aren’t you barred from hot springs and spas in Japan if you have tattoos?” Well, the answer is that it really depends. There are plenty of establishments that won’t let people in if they have visible tattoos, though the rules aren’t the same everywhere. For example, this website, Tattoo Spot, has a list of hot springs, saunas, spas, gyms and the like that don’t have any rules barring tattooed individuals. Personally, I don’t have much interest in hot springs, spas, or swimming in general, so I’ve never had a problem–but it is something to keep in mind if you’re a hardcore onsen lover.

“But what about getting a job? Aren’t tattoos considered taboo over there?” This isn’t really a question specific to Japan–there are plenty of companies across the world that have rules against visible tattoos. Of course, the operative word here is “visible.” Just like the many inked professionals working in New York who simply wear long sleeves to cover up their ink, there are many Japanese folks with hidden tattoos. In fact, Key, the tattoo artist I’ll introduce in a moment, told me that she’ll often get comments from strangers saying that they’re happy to see her showing off her ink on the train, since they have to keep theirs hidden. So if you’re worried that having tattoo will mean you can’t be hired in Japan, just follow this advice: Out of sight, out of mind.

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Also remember that Japan is not the monolithic society many believe it to be. While you can easily find people who think tattoos are bad or the mark of societal degenerates, there are also plenty of folks who find them fascinating or even beautiful. As with anything in life, you really need to use your best judgement in each situation.

Now let’s talk about getting inked!

When choosing an artist and studio, the feeling is as important as the skill. I went to Herring Bone Tattoo Studio in Tokyo’s Nakameguro for the simple fact that I’d been there before and respected Key’s work. It has a very inviting atmosphere and both of the artists working there are easy to talk to. Everyone will have different criteria, but whether you’re covered in tattoos or this is your first and you feel like commemorating your time in Japan with some fresh ink, there’s one thing I’d beg you to keep in mind: Never go for the cheapest work you can find! You get what you pay for, and while having a crappy tattoo is not the end of the world (despite how it may feel), it is a bummer.

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Key has been tattooing for roughly 10 years and started at a fairly young age. As she explained: “From the time I was a child, I loved drawing, and when I was 17, I started looking for a future job that would involve art, and I eventually came to tattooing and became an apprentice. Since I was still underage, I actually did my own first tattoo as practice.” As for her favorite tattoo style, she said that while she really like traditional tattoos, she also likes new, colorful designs or anything that shows a person’s individual character.

We asked Key if she had any advice for first-timers looking to get tattooed, and she had lots of great things to say. First, don’t rush: “If you can’t nail down an image of what you want after consulting with an artist, I think it’s good to wait until you find something you know is perfect. It’s with you for life, so you don’t need to force anything. You don’t want any regrets later.”

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Another great piece of advice she left with us was that you don’t have to have a specific thing in mind to talk to an artist. She explained that whether you have a general idea or a very specific image in mind, a consultation will help you figure out what will work and won’t. And if you’re not exactly sure what you want, working with an artist can help you come up with the design that best suits you. But remember: You can leave any time you feel like it. Never let anyone talk you into getting a tattoo you don’t actually want!

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As for me, I’d had a general concept in mind for the last five years. Since studying classical Japanese poetry in graduate school, I’ve been in love with the Kokin Wakashu and Ki no Tsurayuki’s kana preface. Even so, I only had a simple idea of what I wanted: the first line of the preface running between my shoulder blades with some sakura petals blowing on the wind.

I described what I wanted and set the schedule via email, so I didn’t actually get to see the design until the day of the appointment, but I can safely say that this was light years beyond what I’d ever imagined. I immediately fell in love with it, and only a few modifications were need to fit it in place on my back. (For any classical literature geeks, yes, I know the “Yamato” is missing at the beginning–I thought it worked better this way.)

▼Seriously, is that not gorgeous?

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Once the design was finalized and we’d discussed colors–the wind would be the same blue as my current tattoos and the sakura would be the traditional pink/red–it was time to apply the pattern. This is the same for everyone–first the drawing is transferred to carbon copy paper and then the carbon paper stencil is transferred onto the skin.

▼Aligning the pattern…

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▼After rubbing the stencil on with a stick of deodorant. (Yes, deodorant!)

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▼Fixing up smudges.

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Once the stencil was applied, it was time to get started pounding ink into skin! Here’s the basic set up–bright light, hygienic needles and gear, and ink. Another thing to keep in mind when looking for a studio is cleanliness. It’s one thing if they’re messy (all artists tend to be disorganized, right?), but you definitely want the equipment and environment to be clean. For example, Herring Bone, like any reputable tattoo studio, uses an autoclave to sterilize any equipment that will be reused (like the tattoo gun) and disposes of used needles with a registered biological waste service.

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And let the fun begin! Key decided to start with the black areas first–which is fairly common, especially if you’re getting a large design with lots of outline work. My piece was small enough to finish in a few hours, but for larger pieces, people will often do the outline one day and then finish the coloring over subsequent sessions.

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One of the first things non-inked people ask is “Does it hurt?” That’s always a difficult question to answer, since everyone experiences pain differently and certain areas are more sensitive than others. If you’re getting a tattoo directly over a bone or a particularly delicate area, it will obviously hurt more. Personally, I enjoy the experience–this tattoo took roughly three hours to finish, but it only seemed like an hour to me…though I suspect Key felt a bit differently!

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▼Pausing to assess the situation.


Once the black areas were finished, we took a break for some coffee and to stretch. It’s already looking pretty good, if you ask me!

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▼Back to work! Time to fill in the sakura petals and wind.

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As you can see, the wind has no outline and is actually done in a gradient. I can’t tell you the exact technique used, since I’m not a tattoo artist, but it felt like a simple matter of going over the darker areas more than the lighter areas.

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And here’s the final tattoo! I am extremely happy with how this turned out–Key did a stellar job with everything from the design to the beautiful coloring work.

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The final step was applying a protective film. Key told me to keep it on as long as possible–one to two weeks ideally. The film is to protect the tattoo, since it’s basically a shallow wound, like a scrap. She also emphasized that “as the tattoo heals, it will get very itchy, you need to avoid scratching it, or you might dig out some of the color and the tattoo won’t heal properly.”

In my experience, you’ll also need to pay special attention to tattoos on joints–the constant movement will make healing difficult and the skin might dry out and crack. If you’re having trouble, be sure to talk to your artist.

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It’s been just over a week since the tattoo was done, and it’s healed beautifully! The itching is mostly done, and the color is still looks great!


If you’re looking for a tattoo artist in Tokyo, I would obviously recommend heading down to Herring Bone Tattoo Studio! But wherever you go, you’ll need to brush up a bit on your Japanese language skills–don’t assume the artists will speak English. Obviously, the vocabulary you’ll need will be different depending on what kind of tattoo you’re getting, but it would be good know the body part, design, and colors you want.

If you’re not sure about the design yet, then it would be helpful to know the style you’re interested in–for example there is 和彫り (wabori), the traditional Japanese style, while オールド・スクール (ohrudo sukuuru) is “old-school” and refers to the sort of traditional Western tattoos. On the other hand, ニュー・スクール (nyuu sukuuru) is “new-school” and refers to the modern, more colorful or hyperrealistic designs popular today. There’s also トライバル (toraibaru), meaning tribal, as well as ブラック・アンド・グレイ (burakku ando gurei), which is black-and-grey, and ポートレイト (pohtoreito), meaning portrait.

▼A wabori-like tattoo from Herring Bone Tattoo Studio

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If you’re not feeling confident with your language skills, I would recommend going with a Japanese-speaking friend or at least a looking up the words you know you’ll need in a dictionary beforehand. While tattoo artists are happy to talk through a design, we also need to respect their time! Of course, if you ever find yourself at a loss for words, there’s always the tried and true method of pointing at a body part and saying “ここ!” (“koko!”) or “Here!” If you’re feeling a bit nervous about just waltzing into a tattoo studio, you can always check out studios’ websites. Most of them will post photos of completed tattoos and artwork to help you get an idea of their strongest styles. This is a great way to find an artist whose style matches what you’re looking for.

In addition to design and location, you’ll also need to know the size, which will also determine how much your tattoo will cost. For example, a tattoo the size of a B5 piece of paper will cost 35,000 yen (about US$350) at Herring Bone, and anything larger is 10,000 yen (about $100) an hour. As I said before, don’t go looking for the cheapest place you can find, but do be aware of how much you’ll need to have in your pocket when you show up!

▼Ghost Rider perhaps?

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Finally, on the day of your appointment, there are a few things to keep in mind. You’ll want to be well rested and hydrated, so get a good night’s sleep, eat a healthy meal, and drink plenty of water before heading to the parlor. Also, despite what you may see in the movies, don’t even think about drinking alcohol beforehand! Most studios will send you home if they suspect you’ve been drinking, and you’ll want to avoid drinking after the tattoo is finished as well to promote healing.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. Whether you’re planning to get tattooed or not, I hope you enjoyed see how the process works!

References: Herring Bone Tattoo Studio
All photos by RocketNews24