Manami "Maki" Okazaki (writer),
Geoff Johnson (photographer)
When you were starting, who was getting tattoos?
Yakuza and [other] underworld types and artisans, not businessmen. Maybe 60 percent were yakuza, and the rest were craftsmen, construction workers, or laborers.
Why were they getting tattooed? I used to take a survey to ask what the impetus for getting a tattoo was, and 80 percent were like, “It’s cool!” If you asked, “Why is it cool?” then you would get replies like, “Because it is beautiful,” or “Because it is courageous.” But basically they start with the cool factor.
How do the yakuza treat you?
Now it’s not so much the case, but they used to really take good care of you because you are decorating their bodies. If you really improve them, they want to do good for you. Tattoos are permanent, and they have a job in which they have to appear cool. They really treated me well; they would invite me to meals and give me pocket money. I once got a tip that was more than the price of the back piece.
Do you still get yakuza clients?
Now it’s nearly zero. It’s a little sad. Matsuda Osamu, a tattoo researcher and Hosei University professor who researched Japanese traditional tattoo culture, said that Japanese traditional tattoos are something that is outlaw or counterculture in nature, that they shouldn’t be socially acceptable as it is a sacrilege to tattoo. I think that kind of theory holds true.
Now that tattoos have become a fashion accessory for some, do you think the fascinating elements have gone away?
Yes, if it is purely for fashion. It’s the same as putting spice in a bowl of ramen—or, say, if you are a woman, finding guys who are a bit dangerous attractive, rather than a guy who walks like a robot and has his shirt totally buttoned up. There is [still] that villainous aspect that is appealing.
What is the dynamic between the tattooing families in Japan?
Before, there was very little communication. Now there is a lot of cross-communication. Craftsmen usually kept things secret, the technique and materials.
How about now?
Are there still those secretive aspects? Not really, so it’s becoming less fascinating. [It used to be that] Japanese craftsmen really hid their techniques, so when … they died you didn’t know how they made their craft, as they didn’t write it down. They only taught by explaining [their techniques] to apprentices or their son.
What will happen with tebori, the hand-inserted tattoos? Are you worried that technique will die out because it’s so time-consuming to master?
The characteristic flavor of tebori can’t be replicated with a machine. Conversely, in the future, there are even more people who will want to do it; as things get digitalized, there are still people who want analog things, people who go against the tide. Think of paper. You can make as much as you like with machines—to do it by hand is really time-consuming and physically taxing, and there is little financial incentive. But there are still people who want to train to make handmade paper, and I think it will never disappear. There are people who seek out these kinds of thing—not everyone, obviously—but there are those who have a kind of resistance to plentiful things. They want something really fantastic. They cherish the positive aspects of doing it by hand.