Osaka district court ruling says tattooing isn’t art, it’s a medical procedure.

A legal appeal by Osaka-based tattoo artist Taiki Masuda, who was originally fined 300,000 yen (US$2,663) for operating a tattoo parlour without a medical licence, has failed in his attempt to have tattooing reclassified as artistic expression, and brought out of the legal grey zone in which it sits.

Since 2001, tattooing has been legally classified as a medical procedure, since the needle pierces the skin (though ear, nose or other body part piercing doesn’t require a medical licence). As such, in Japan tattooing can only legally be performed by licensed medical professionals. Since the government doesn’t issue tattooing licences, tattoo artists in Japan are actually breaking the law unless they happen to also be fully-trained doctors. Unsurprisingly, such individuals are few and far between, and Masuda was one of several tattoo artists in Osaka who found themselves subject to police raids after a crackdown in 2015.

The Osaka District Court ruling found that Masuda was guilty but reduced the original fine by half, to 150,000 yen. Masuda’s lawyers have said that the ruling threatens the livelihoods of over 3,000 tattoo artists working in the country, and have announced they will be taking their appeal to a higher court.

Masuda, and his advocacy group, Save Tattooing, have said that want to persuade the government to set up a special licencing system for tattoo artists to ensure standards of practice and hygiene as in other countries, and to prevent tattooing from being driven underground.

Despite a long history of tattooing in Japan, tattoos are most associated with the yakuza organised crime gangs or historically as criminal penance, and social attitudes have been slow to change despite more and more young people getting themselves inked.

In a recent survey, an equal number of men and women were asked what they thought about using public facilities like pools or onsen hot spring baths alongside those who had tattoos (multiple answers were allowed).

Over a third of women, and almost two-thirds of men, didn’t want to visit onsen or pools alongside other users sporting tattoos, and only 24 per cent of women, and 12 per cent of men would allow them if they covered up their tattoos with tape or bandages.

While tattooed non-Asian foreigners may have some more leeway in terms of being allowed into onsen and pools, many of which have an outright ban on tattoos, those visiting Japan should make sure to check beforehand, and taking some body tape might be a good idea. It’s also worth remembering that tattoos are also banned in some other places, including some commercial gyms.

While the appeal moves towards the Supreme Court, we hope that the ruling doesn’t stop some Japan’s fantastically talented tattooists from practicing their art.

Sources: The Japan TimesHamusoku
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