East Meets West In The Eye of a Needle
It is estimated that about 15% of the American population, and no less than 36% of those between 25 and 29, sport at least one tattoo. America being America, that is a fairly reliable indicator of how popular getting a tattoo is anywhere in the world at the moment. Japan, with its own venerable tradition of tattooing, is no exception.
However the way that tattooing developed in Japan means that until very recently it was something that stigmatized and alienated the wearer, perhaps even more than in the West.
Apparently tattooing began in the 17th century in Japan as a reaction against laws that sought to lock society into a rigid class structure by prescribing and proscribing certain ways of behaving, eating, dressing, and styling oneself.
Since then, and in spite of being the high art form that its practitioners raised it to, wearing a tattoo has been considered the mark of a gangster, or yakuza, and, as such, blatantly anti-social.
But old prejudices are slowly dying, and a walk through the hip sector of any big Japanese city is enough to prove that for the ordinary young Japanese getting a tattoo no longer has the criminal associations that it had for the generation past.
Chopstick Tattoo is an Osaka tattoo studio that opened in 1998 and already has three branches in the city. The main branch is in the middle of Ame-mura (i.e. "American Village"): the "street" quarter of Osaka teeming with shops selling grunge and hip-hop clothing, cheap food, records, jewelry and piercings, and smoking gear, and with no one over 25 in sight.
I entered the old concrete Down Town Building through a corridor stacked with trippy goods from India being sold to the blast of psychedelic thrash, up a couple of flights of graffitied stairs past a couple of record shops, up to the third floor to Chopstick's reception counter. I handed over my name card and was told to wait in the next room for the owner.
Kazumi-san came in a few minutes later. Stocky, unaffectedly stylish, somewhat taciturn but with an easy, down-to-earth manner, he sat down and told me about the business.
The studio began 6 years ago, before which he'd worked as a tattooist at another place in Osaka. He combined his first experience of getting a tattoo and doing a tattoo when he needled an eagle onto his own thigh at age 16.
He continued practicing on himself until he was confident enough to try it out on his friends, who were clearly as confident about his skills as he himself was! His professional tattooing career started ten years later, during which time he had continued practicing, studying, and acquiring skills from others.
Asked what has changed the most about tattooing since his teenage years, he replies: "Today it's more than just a yakuza thing." Indeed, the shop gets an average of ten people a day coming in for a tattoo—none of them yakuza, who go to their own tattooists.
To illuminate the break with the old tradition, Chopstick regularly sponsors famous foreign tattoo artists to come and work in the shop for anything from a week to a month.
Foreign artists are eager to acquire ideas from Japanese traditions, and conversely the Japanese artists at Chopstick seek exposure to ideas and trends from overseas. Some of the more famous artists who have spent time at Chopstick are Guy Aitchison and Cory Kruger..
The most arresting thing about Kazumi-san's office (besides a huge tarantula crawling around in a tank on the floor!) is the enormous number and range of books that line the walls.
You'd be hard pressed to guess his profession just by scanning the spines: architecture, illustrated volumes of literature, books about bands, painting, graphic design . . . the variety is overwhelming. Asked what inspires him most when it comes to designing tattoos he finds it very difficult to answer, eventually saying that, as with life itself, variety is the spice.
Customers come in with an infinite array of requests, which Chopstick refines or responds to with design ideas. Most designs are approximately palm-sized for an upper arm, shoulder or thigh.
However requests for much larger, more ambitious designs are not at all uncommon. The most unusual request ever catered for was the guy who wanted his arm, from shoulder to wrist, done totally in solid black. "Whatever for?" "Just to be different."
As for Chopstick's philosophy, Kazumi-san is not really enthused about any theories. "It's more about confidence and passion than philosophy; knowing that what you want is what you're always going to want; committing yourself to wearing a design you like."
With three shops already in the space of six years, Chopstick is healthy. When asked about his ambitions for the future he says without a hitch, "Studios throughout all of Japan." Before we part I show him the plain little tattoo I have on my arm and ask if anything can be done to liven it up. His smile alone is enough to liven the idea up, and we agree to get down to business.