In The Land of the Rising Sun, not everything is as it seems. A place known for its rich ancient history, its cultural delicacies, and more recently for its superb standard of life, Japan also has a darker claim to fame. A secret that I was told is “very, very underground.”
With the writing of my (non-tattoo related) first book out of the way, I have found time to return to the topic of ink on skin, and an issue which I have been wanting to write about since the moment I heard about it almost exactly 12 months ago.
Whilst walking around The Great British Tattoo Show last year, my cider in one hand, and my notepad in the other, I came across a stall and an artist who we shall call Barratt (he wanted to keep his true identity a secret for reasons that will become clear later). He was working out of Scandinavia at the time, but he had been an apprentice in Japan for a number of years, and it was he who told me about the shady world of Japan’s human canvas industry.
Unlike in the UK, where there still appears to be some debate on the issue, I was told that tattooing in Japan was considered an art form. The traditional method of tattooing, and the name given to it in Japan, is irezumi. It is a method of hand-poking the ink under the skin without the reliance on stencils or machines, and some say that it dates back as far as 10,000 BC.
Throughout Japan’s extensive history tattoos have been used for a variety of meanings and identifications. At one time criminals were marked on their arms as a means of identification. This was done as a warning to society; if a man had a tattoo on the arm he was to be avoided, and refused service and employment. At the turn of the 20th century the ruling Japanese government, in a move to make a positive impression on the West, outlawed the practice of tattooing completely, forcing the artists and consumers underground.
According to Margo DeMello’s book Encyclopedia of Body Art, it was not until 1948 that tattooing was legalised again. By this time though, after 30 years of being outlawed, and due to its history of being used to mark law-breakers, tattooing had been associated with criminality. And the most notorious of Japan’s criminals were known as the yakuza.
RT state that “the Japanese yakuza is considered one of the most feared criminal syndicates in the world, as well as the richest.” Though many of its members hold positions in media organisations and in public office, support and membership appears to be falling. The Guardian reported that “the number of people belonging to Japan’s notorious yakuza crime groups fell to an all-time low in 2013, slipping below the 60,000-member mark for the first time on record.”
Despite this, yakuza members are still able to greatly influence Japan’s society, culture, and politics. And their apparent love of crime seems to be matched only by their love of tattoos.
Though hidden away in public, underneath long-sleeve shirts and high collars, yakuza members sport some of the largest and most intricate body suits in the world. Many are almost completely covered from their neck down to their ankles. Yakuza still use the traditional methods of tattooing, visiting experienced irezumi master artists in order to achieve their body coverage. It was whilst tattooing was illegal that the yakuza adopted the practice as their own, and it soon became, in the words of Horitoku Shorai, a Tokyo-based master artist, “an inseparable part of their lifestyle.”
This lifestyle of crime and tattoos inevitably merged.
As we all know, tattoos can be an expensive addiction. In Japan this price is magnified due to the limited number of artists that are available, and the relative privacy (or should that be secrecy) of the shops. Writing for Japan Times in 2014, Jon Mitchell states that the country had only 3,000 artists. The exquisite work produced, and the limited number of people able to produce it, means that tattoos can cost big money. However, I was told that in Japan, yakuza don’t just get tattoos for themselves.
Barratt had told me that “there are some families in Japan that invest in you getting a tattoo.” He said that “they pay for the tattoo and a further £60,000 on one condition.” This condition, as he has heard it, is that “on death they are permitted to take what is theirs.”
“Tattooing in Japan is considered a highly-prized and valuable art as it can make millions as a stretched canvas in underground black markets.” As Barratt understood it, a yakuza member or criminal family would pay for someone to host artwork on their body, paying for the ink, and giving a little extra to the host. The host, for want of a better word, would continue with their life as usual, with the artwork on their skin increasing in value year after year.
The idea of a human canvas, and a host subject, is perhaps a little disturbing, but what is more worrying is that Barratt says these families are not always the most patient of characters. Many families may have to wait 80 years in order to collect their artwork for selling, but 80 years is a long time to wait for the millions of pounds it can make on the black market.
Barratt says that “greedy family members in strong families with a lot of underground connections could easily stage an accident to collect earlier if they are impatient. At any one time” he says, “a family can have around 100 people waiting to be dissected at death.”
Though amazed, I was also sceptical about what Barratt had told me. Could there really exist an underground black market for tattooed human skin? After endless amounts of time trawling through forums, websites, and academic papers, I found evidence that Barratt was not misleading me.
In the Jikei Medical University there is on display an almost intact body suit taken from a yakuza member in the 1930s. Richard Slater wrote a thesis in 2011 titled Hung Out To Dry: A Multidisciplinary Analysis and Recording of a Preserved 19th Century Tattooed Human Skin. In this he features the yakuza canvas and states that it is “believed to have been bequeathed by its occupant in return for free medical care during life.”
Inna Rosca is another who has stumbled across the grizzly practice. In a paper entitled Pain for Pride she also comments on how “body suits have been removed from their owners after death”. She continues by saying “rumours persist that collectors still buy tattooed human skin even though the practice is illegal.”
With tattooing on a seemingly endless rise in popularity, perhaps it will not be too long before you too are approached by a wealthy family with a briefcase full of money. Be sure to keep your wits about you though, as the world can be a dangerous place, and accidents seem to happen more often when there is money to be made.
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