For the first time in history, the Supreme Court of Japan has ruled that it is not illegal to tattoo without a medical license. The case at question involved a 32-year-old tattoo artist named Taiki who had been fined 150,000 Yen (a little more than $1,400) after tattooing three people. The case had been working its way through the courts for quite some time, but Wednesday's ruling came out of the blue.
We spoke with Travelin' Mick, the photographer and adventurer known throughout the tattoo world, about the case. His wife, Sana Sakura, was involved with the legal team working on the case. "Actually, about a year ago, the second-highest court in Japan had ruled that tattooing without a medical license is no longer illegal," he says. "The state’s attorney appealed to the Supreme Court because they didn’t agree. We have been waiting for the Supreme Court to set a date, but to everybody’s surprise, they called the lawyers yesterday and told them that they won’t accept the case, basically throwing it out."
Prosecutors had argued that tattooing was on par with a medical procedure, but in the ruling the court stated, "Tattoos require artistic skills different from medicine, and that it cannot be assumed that doctors do the act exclusively."
This is huge news, but it's not quite time to pop the champagne and celebrate. While the ruling effectively legalizes tattooing in Japan, the ruling by presiding Justice Koichi Kusano also states that new laws would need to be crafted in order to regulate the potential health risks involved with tattooing. This seems to hint at the possibility that future regulation may be on the way.
"This does not effectively change the social stigma that is attached to tattooing in Japan," Travelin' Mick says, "but it can help remove obstacles for tattooists, because they can now practice tattooing without having to fear that suddenly they will be stigmatized as criminals."
Requiring a medical license is a common way for countries with a stigma against tattooing to limit the practice of the art. Both Japan and South Korea have crafted laws that require a medical license for anything involving needles, including tattooing. But, as any fan of tattoos knows, this has done little to curtail the art form. There is a sort of wink-and-nudge practice when it comes to the legality of tattoos in Japan, not unlike what was seen in New York City prior to the legalization of tattooing in 1997.
A press conference is scheduled for tomorrow to shed more light on what this ruling will mean for the future of tattooing in Japan.