Pictorial and polychromatic tattooing was born in Japan, the complex designs developed by Japanese tattooers of the Edo era has no equals in the rest of the world, they’ve inspired craftsman in the east and west, nowadays irezumi has a worldwide audience, with such a rich history someone would expect that tattooing in Japan would be celebrated as a national craft and master tattooers would be celebrated as living national treasures, a particular title that only in Japan exists for the living masters of a craft, for tattooing things are different.

Tattooing in Japan is still a taboo, the practice is basically forbidden and unaccepted among the establishment members. Many people already knows that having tattoos in Japan today will make you a discriminated person, forbidden access to onsen (Japanese hot spring), swimming pools etc, in general, showing your tattoos popping out from the shirt is considered bad manners and unaccepted in most regular jobs.

Left to right Eru Higa, Horihide of Gifu, Crez, Manekistefy
Left to right Eru Higa, Horihide of Gifu, Crez, Manekistefy

Eru Higa from Wizard tattoo supply, is a machine builder and an all around tattoo lover, I’ve had the chance to meet him in several occasions in Japan and in Europe, last time we were in Taiwan we’ve decided to make this interview to explain what’s the actual situation for tattoo artists in Japan.

Can you explain to us what is going on with the ban of tattooing in Japan? When does it started and where does it come from?
I think it started in 2001 or 2002 when the Ministry of Health of Japan declared that the act of inserting ink into the skin by means of a needle must be medical.

Was tattooing in Japan always forbidden?
The tattoo in Japan is very old, but in 1872 until 1948 it was completely banned by the government, after the Second World War and with the restructuring of the Japanese constitution this prohibition was abolished, but they did not make any law or regularization of this art. In the late 90’s they began with permanent makeup and there were many complaints of malpractice and the health ministry declared that you have to be a doctor to insert ink into the skin with needles.

Are you part of an association of tattooers fighting against the ban?
We are very late in this aspect, just this year we are going to make an association of tattooists to regularize the rules for tattooing and hygiene. At present time there is no entity that gives hygiene courses to tattooists.

What would be the ideal “roadmap” in order to put this problem out there with the authority?
The first step is to make an association of tattoo artists, in which there are rules specifically for tattoo artists, such as respecting hygiene standards, not tattooing minors, not using anesthetics of any kind, not making permanent makeup, paying taxes, etc. The second step is to talk with the government to make a law for the tattoo business. It’s a project for this year, for now we are few, a tattoo supplier, the former director of Tattoo magazine, a lawyer who is part of the trial lawyers in Osaka, a university professor( Law Research Division Law School Political Science Doctoral Course Post-secondary Course ), several tattoo artists, we are looking for a dermatologist to join the crew.

Many tattooists are against trying to regularize the tattoo business, but the vast majority agree with this project.

Is there any way to get a sort of license or a permission to practice tattooing?
There is no specific license for tattoos. The tattoo is not forbidden, you have to get a doctor’s license to be able to tattoo.

What are the legal consequences of disrespecting the ban of tattooing now for a tattooer?
In 2015 around 20 tattoo artists were arrested in Osaka and Nagoya, some were detained for 20 days and paid a fine of 300,000yen (around 2,800dollars).

Horikin’s workshop
Horikin’s workshop

Were they arrested because found guilty of practicing tattooing in a professional studio without doctor’s licence?
Yes, they were arrested for tattooing without being a doctor.

How many doctors in Japan practice tattooing then?
There are no doctors doing tattoos, but there are doctors doing permanent makeup. There’s something interesting, Acupuncture is a very old practice in Japan, after the Second World War, the Japanese constitution was modified and acupuncture was prohibited because its efficacy was not scientifically proven. The acupuncturists united to claim the government and got a law that protects them, at present, it is not necessary to be a doctor to study and obtain the title of acupuncturist

Does repression of tattooing increased in the last years?
Persecution has not increased , but nobody knows when we can be imprisoned, for this reason the Japanese tattooists need to understand and come together to talk with the government to regularize our situation in my opinion.