On the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, approximately 39,900 years ago, a group of our ancestors stencilled outlines of their hands onto the cave walls in which they lived. These are some of the earliest examples, that we know of, whereby humans have created imagery.
A few months before the death of their revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, I was able to visit the island of Cuba with a friend. The idea was to experience the country, with its communist history and anti-West tendencies, before globalisation and capitalism changed it forever.
If we were speaking of any other topic, the issues of cost, permanence, and visibility would be seen as positive, but when we speak of tattoos, all of these, for some reason, become lines of attack.
When we discuss cars, jewellery, or technology, the price is often seen as a sign of quality, but this attitude is ignored when we talk of tattoos. The ink that we choose to put on – or should that be put under – our skin is dismissed or even criticised as a waste of money. People I speak to are shocked when I tell them how much money I have spent on this body modification – around the £4,000 mark currently – but in the same conversation they are more than happy to announce how much they spent on Friday night in a club, or on Saturday afternoon at the shops.
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.
Tattoos, or rather tattoo studios, are like nuclear weapons. And before you think I have gone completely bat-shit crazy and joined the likes of Katie Hopkins in vilifying ink, allow me to explain.
Tattoo studios being like nuclear weapons is of course an analogy, just to make that clear to any conservative grandparents in case they were preparing to come rushing in to say: “I told you so”. It is not because tattoos are expensive, unnecessary, and once used their effects ruin your life, though this may be completely true for nuclear weapons, it is not for tattoos.
Neither is the comparison because of the concern parents would show if their kid were to come home with one. Though some mums and dads are shocked by Callum’s first piece of permanent artwork, this would be nothing compared to the heart attack they would suffer if Callum were to walk through the door cradling a ballistic missile with a two-ton nuclear warhead.