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Mike Castle grew up on the far southwest side of Chicago in a neighborhood called Beverly. The predominantly Irish neighborhood is known throughout the city as the home of the South Side Irish Parade, the raucous ne’er-do-well cousin of the city’s official St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The geography may not back this up, but there is no place on Earth farther from Beverly than Tokyo, Japan. Yet it wasn’t until Castle traveled to that distant locale that he found his true passion.

Castle is an unabashed shinnichi. Or, as we would call him in English, a Japanophile. Shortly after Castle started dating his wife, actress Lauren Lapkus, they talked about traveling to somewhere they had never dreamed of going. Almost instantly the two agreed on Japan.

“I’ve traveled to a lot of different places where I’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, this is basically America,’” Castle says. “You go to the U.K. and you look around and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I kind of grew up like this.’ I’ll always remember when I first landed in Tokyo and everything was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.

“It was so cool to feel so outside of the know,” he continues. “You just feel like a dumbass when you’re there. I kept saying to Lauren, ‘I feel more lost here than I ever have before.’ When we left I was immediately missing it. I started learning Japanese, in earnest.”

Photos by Troy Conrad

Photos by Troy Conrad

Learning the language was key for him; he wanted to be able to show the respect of at least attempting to communicate the next time he visited. Castle isn’t quite fluent in the language yet—“I can speak what I call ‘Taxi Japanese’”—but he continues to immerse himself in Japanese culture. He’s a little obsessed with a reality show called “Terrace House” and he even has a favorite chain of ramen spots despite calling Los Angeles home.

Japan has clearly stolen Castle’s heart, so it seemed fitting when he chose to wear his heart on his sleeve. The actor already had a smattering of tattoos, but it wasn’t until this fall that he made the decision to add some traditional Japanese irezumi to his collection.

To get the work done, Castle turned to Ken Sakamoto (@shingken), an artist from Tokyo who currently lives in California and works out of Black Diamond Tattoo. As the two started to collaborate on the sleeve, Ken made sure Castle had done his homework before diving into a lifelong commitment.

“I was trying to tell [Ken] I wanted to get one of those dolls with the red shawl,” Castle says of the Daruma doll he’d been thinking about. “He insisted that I not get it until I did a lot of reading about it. I read about it, and it’s this very cool aspect of Japanese culture. It’s a very symbolic character. It’s about setting an intention for yourself where you keep one eye all white until you finish that intention and you color it in. It’s this whole layered thing.

Photos by Troy Conrad

Photos by Troy Conrad

“To have the artist say, ‘No, not until I know you really know what this is will I do it,’” he continues, “I had to prove to him I knew what it was, that it was what I wanted. It was a very cool feeling. He vetted it or else I wouldn’t be allowed to get what I was getting.”

Together, Castle and Ken came up with a design that fit the actor perfectly. Castle has a special relationship with his 17-year-old cat, so Ken was able to work the cat’s face into the face of the Daruma. But the part of the tattoo that is most impressive isn’t anything Ken added himself, it’s the way he was able to organically work around one of Castle’s existing tattoos—a cartoon portrait of his late father.

“My dad died, and he hated tattoos, so he would have hated this,” Castle says of the tattoo on his chest. “Basically, my dad died very suddenly. And one of my close high school friends, his dad also died suddenly, so when we were hanging out around the funeral I did a doodle of my dad.

“I was talking about how he was such a hardass for my whole life,” he continues. “Very regimented, very serious and very humorless. Then in the last three or four years of his life he was suddenly really nice and easygoing. I was very skeptical of it because it was so strange to me.”

The two friends went back and forth for a while, each drawing caricatures of Castle’s dad. One of the caricatures drawn by his friend ended up becoming a tattoo, sitting on his chest, with the phrase “I’m bored of being mad.” It is a perfect tribute, encapsulating different aspects of his father, so it makes sense Castle wanted to work around the piece. “When I was getting this new tattoo and they started to do it over that tattoo, or sort of incorporating that tattoo,” Castle explains, “I hadn’t really told Lauren about it yet. She said she always felt like that spot wasn’t done. Which was an interesting thing, cause I was like, ‘I thought it was done.’ But then this happened.”

Prior to getting this piece, Castle had never had to sit for multiple tattoo sessions. So while he has grown accustomed to the pain from getting tattooed—his first tattoo was on his knee cap—the endurance required for long sessions was new to him. Add in to this the fact that his tattooer doesn’t speak a ton of English and Castle doesn’t speak a ton of Japanese, and some things got lost in translation.

“We were doing this one part on my clavicle and it really hurt,” he says. “I really wanted to keep taking breaks, but I didn’t know how to say, ‘I want to take a break.’ I knew how to say, ‘I want to take a drink of water’ or ‘I want to have lunch.’ It was this funny, kind of embarrassing thing where I kept thinking, ‘What’s something you know how to say that’s valid right now?’ I would fake drinking water because I kept saying I wanted water. I grabbed my water bottle and I’m shaking, in pain, but I’m like, ‘Sip the water, man. It’s what you wanted, it’s what you said.’”

In the end, Castle stayed hydrated and got the tattoo he’d been dreaming about. He has a permanent reminder of not just his love of Japanese culture, but the first trip he took to Tokyo, the reading and learning he did in order to “earn” the Daruma doll, and the many hours he spent with his artist getting the piece. Saying Castle is enthused about how things came out would be an understatement. 

“It immediately became my favorite tattoo,” he says. “It is the first time with a tattoo where I can’t stop staring at it. While I’m doing my nighttime routine, winding down for bed, I’ll just go, ‘Oh yeah, I should look at that. Japan and Japanese culture is something I can’t believe I love as much as I do.”

Photos by Troy Conrad

Photos by Troy Conrad