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Tattooist’s legal challenge could lift industry in Japan or send it underground

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Staff writer

Tattooist Taiki Masuda is challenging a law that makes him a criminal for practicing what he considers a form of art.

In a case that could lift or doom thousands of tattoo artists nationwide, the 27-year-old designer in Suita, Osaka Prefecture, has appealed an order by a summary court in Osaka to pay a fine of ¥300,000 for violating the Medical Practitioners’ Law, which bans anyone other than licensed doctors from engaging in “medical practices.”

His pretrial arrangement proceedings — where his lawyer and prosecutors discuss points of contention in the upcoming trial — begin at the Osaka District Court on Friday.

While the law says nothing further, a 2001 notice issued by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry lists tattooing, laser hair removal and chemical peel treatments as procedures that can be carried out only by licensed medical doctors, as they “could cause danger from the standpoint of public health and sanitation.”

Medicine is far from what Masuda thinks he is doing.

“I’m not committing crimes, and I’m not practicing medicine,” Masuda said by phone last week. “It’s a form of art.”

Masuda was introduced to tattoo art as a high school student, when he attended a music event at which tattooists were giving demonstrations. He had always liked drawing, but the idea of etching an indelible piece of art on someone’s skin captivated him.

Masuda taught himself tattooing from books and by asking a lot of questions while having tattoos done on his body by other artists.

After learning the basics, Masuda practiced by tattooing his legs.

“My legs are smeared with ink,” he said. “It shows the history of my practice. It’s something that I can look back on and call up memories of, like a photo album.”

He is attracted to contemporary designs, with motifs ranging from flowers to birds to caricatures of people.

Four years ago, he opened his own tattoo shop. Since tattoos may remain with a bearer for life, he has made it a policy to spend time counseling each potential client and introduces them to other tattoo artists before agreeing to carry out a tattoo.

To avoid trouble with the criminal underworld, which has long been associated with tattoos in Japan, Masuda asks his clients to sign a form beforehand that they are not members of the yakuza.

He also sticks to rigorous sanitation standards, using only disposable needles and ink containers. He wears gloves and a face mask during work and replaces bed sheets with new ones after each session.

Most of his clients are in their late 20s and late 30s, and many are hair stylists or workers at clothing stores, Masuda said. He said they consider tattoos a fashion statement.

“It’s a form of self-expression, just like choosing clothes to wear,” he said.

Police raid

He was forced to suspend operations after police in April raided his studio in connection with a criminal case involving a Nagoya pharmacy that sold disinfectants over the Internet and was charged with violating the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law.

Under the law, disinfectants can be sold only in person, with verbal instructions given to the buyer at the point of sale. Masuda was raided because his name was on the pharmacy’s list of clients.

In August, Masuda was charged with violating the Medical Practitioners’ Law and was slapped with a ¥300,000 fine. He wavered about whether to comply with the order, and decided to challenge it.

“It’s not a huge amount, to be honest,” he said. “But I wondered if it’s something I should settle by money. If I admit to the charge, I will no longer be able to see my clients, who have said they are happy with my tattoos. I want what I do for a living to be seen as a respectable profession.”

Tattooists in Japan have long operated in the legal gray zone. Police turned a blind eye to their activities, said Michiko Kameishi, a lead lawyer for Masuda’s six-member counsel.

Between November 2001, when the health ministry issued prefectural health authorities with the notice banning tattooing by nondoctors, and this spring, police took action against tattooists over suspected violations of the Medical Practitioners’ Law on only three occasions, Kameishi said. Each involved the yakuza as practitioners or customers, and two ended up without indictment, she said.

Growing crackdown

That changed this April, when the Osaka Prefectural Police started cracking down on tattooists with no associations with the yakuza.

In August, a popular tattoo studio operator named Chopstick Tattoo in Osaka was busted, resulting in the arrests of five members of staff.

In November, staff were arrested at 8Ball Tattoo Studio, a high-profile establishment in Nagoya.

Kameishi said her team of lawyers will contest the authorities’ view that tattooing is a medical practice. They will also question the legal basis for it, because a series of arrests and indictments, including Masuda’s, are based on the ministry’s 2001 notice, not the Medical Practitioners’ Law itself.

She believes such use of power against a centuries-old tattoo culture goes against the principle of no punishment without law, which is guaranteed by Article 31 of the Constitution.

Masuda’s friends are drumming up support for his case on Facebook, where they also are calling for a certification system for tattoo artists: www.facebook.com/save.tattooing (in Japanese) and www.facebook.com/savetattooingiverenglish/?fref=ts (in English).

“I want to correct the prejudice against tattoos in Japan,” Masuda said. “If the issue is left unattended, tattooing in Japan will go underground — which will make its already bad image even worse. I want tattooing to become a profession practitioners can be proud of.”

  • Joe Kurosu, M.D.

    This is ridiculous. All we need is a licensing/certification system similar to beauticians or cosmetologists with minimum training requirements to include principles of infection control, and registering with the local health department. I’ve seen tattoo studios that have better infection control practices than some medical/dental clinics…..