When Hori Benny moved into his brand new business premises in 2014 near Nipponbashi in downtown Osaka, there was an unwelcoming committee waiting for him. A neighboring business owner had gathered over 1,000 signatories for a petition to get him to move back out. The message was clear: The tattoo artist was not welcome.
If there was a list of undesirable neighbors in Japan, tattoo artists would probably come close to the top; for many here the industry is inextricably linked to the yakuza. Many others see tattoos as unsavory — they mark you out for things you can’t do, like visiting hot springs and swimming pools.
But Benny stood his ground; he also proffered his hand in friendship. Americans from the Midwest are like that. They’re polite, proud and cordial. His neighbor didn’t know that. All he knew — needed to know — was that he was in the company of a tattoo artist.
In the years since Benny set up Invasion Club, a tattoo studio and clothing store, he has gone out of his way to make friends in the neighborhood.
Osaka-based writer Brian Ashcraft, who co-authored “Japanese Tattoos” with Benny, said that his compatriot might be one of the politest people he’s ever met. “Even by Japanese standards, he’s very polite.”
Invasion Club, by design, is a long way from the seedy image of tattoo parlors of yore: Huge glass panes allow passers-by a clear view into the shop. Two petit mounds of salt in saucers are placed either side of the door. Manga and anime feature prominently in the shop: Busty female figurines mix with trolls, posters of Benny’s favorite manga and anime line the wall (especially posters of”Urusei Yatsura”). Shelves filled with books cordon off an office space. Even the animal skull that hangs on a beam is filled with flowers. If anything, Invasion Club feels like a quirky design studio, which in a manner of speaking it is, except that designs are inked on a human canvas.
The design of the shop is a segue to “otattoo” (a play on otaku, meaning nerd), the type of custom tattooing that Benny pioneered and is becoming increasingly known for, which bridges the worlds of pop culture and tattooing.
Benny, now 38, first came to Japan under a different name from Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a teacher, in 2002, and worked as a teacher on the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) program in Kagoshima. He was hoping for Osaka but landed “down range” on Nagashima, an island just off the Kagoshima coast.
He stayed put for two years until he wound his way to Osaka, in search of an apprenticeship at a tattoo studio. For a decade he learned the craft of tattooing. He’s in the position of a teacher again, mentoring his first assistant, but admits to being still a student — a first-year student.
“One of the things they teach you about the shokunin class is that after 10 years you’re a finally at the level of an ichinensei (first-year student).”
If it sounds like a straightforward journey, it was anything but. To secure an apprenticeship Benny had to fight through the initial laughter, mockery and disbelief. That was just to get his foot in the door at Chopstick Tattoo, one of Osaka’s best-known tattoo studios.
There he had to quickly acclimatize by mastering formal Japanese and adhering to a rigid social structure, which is “harder when you’re a loudmouth American and you think you can tell the whole world what to do.” Benny is hardly that American, but he was coming from a system that “bucks trends and ignores the rules,” he says half-jokingly.
He was three years into his apprenticeship at Chopstick before he touched a needle. His pay was meager, and it wasn’t long before he was cutting into his savings for a full-body tattoo featuring Benzaiten, the only goddess among the otherwise all-male Seven Gods of Fortune.
However, the needle wasn’t the only pain he was inflicting on his mind and body. Benny recalls times at the shop when he would announce he was going to the bathroom, which they had to do. However, he wasn’t going to answer the call of nature. “I would go in to the bathroom and sleep on the toilet for two minutes to recharge.”
He slept rough (stairwells in winter, beside air conditioning units in summer), ate badly and existed on the kindness of others. By his own admission it was traumatizing and he was naive. But he learned the business side of the operation, of managing a shop of half a dozen artists, and crucially for anyone planning on opening a business in Osaka, learning to hustle.
Benny credits his experience at Chopstick for getting his street-wear clothing label up and running inside of a year.
“I was managing of team of six or seven (at Chopstick),” he says. “I was learning to get things done. I was learning to hustle and I was getting a lifelong skill.”
Chopstick is also where he picked up his name: Hori Benny. Hori, which means carving, is an honorific given to tattoo artists. When it came to tattooing, there was very little, if any, guidance. He learned by observing, by being silent and bearing witness. And gritting his teeth through the frustration of being at arm’s length for so long. When he finally did get his hands on a needle, he first had to find a friend, or guinea pig, and cajole them into being tattooed.
He has his own ideas about mentoring: “I’m not going to throw the cub off the cliff and see if she comes back.” While he has set the bar high, he doesn’t see the need for yelling and shouting. Rather, guidance is something that features in his female apprentice’s education, something that was sorely lacking in his.
“I’m not of that ‘you just shut up and watch me and figure it out,’ school,” says Benny. “I’m trying to set her up for success from the start. I’m not saying I know how to do that, but I’m figuring it out.”
He also has a great degree of empathy, not just for his assistant — who is nearly 20 years his junior, a female working in a male-dominated society — but for the yutori (breathing-space) generation in general.
“Reality is hard enough,” he says, pointing out that Japan’s looming population crash is something millennials and the successive generations will have to figure out. His empathy for millennials is driven by his anger at baby boomers and Gen-Xers who were responsible for policies (such as yutori kyōiku, the more relaxed “education with breathing space”) and who subsequently blamed the failures of these policies on a younger generation.
And then there’s the existential crisis that tattooing in Japan faces. Beginning last year tattoo artists were back in the firing range. Several in Osaka were shut down for violating the Medical Practioners’ Law, which was initially set up to regulate cosmetic surgery but is now being used against tattooers.
Interestingly, in the culture wars surrounding tattooing, petitions are being used on both sides.
One of the tattoo artists has taken his case to court, while others have banded together and are fighting back with petitions. They have collected enough signatories that their plight will have to be discussed in parliament. The tattoo artists behind the petition are calling for better regulations and have disavowed mafia connections. Essentially, they want to get on with their livelihoods.
Benny is ambivalent about being drawn into an activist role — something which he has given a great deal of thought to — not because he disagrees with his fellow tattoo artists, but rather because of the drain the fight would take on his time and energy. To illustrate this he highlights Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist and Oxford professor, who has been drawn into a never-ending social media battle with American evangelicals.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s a mantle he wants to wear as it’s a distraction from his work,” Benny says, “but he’s fighting to keep science at the forefront.”
For the time being, Benny’s focus lies with his family and business. Tattooing, as he points out, has a long history of repression in Japan, and his hope is that the current travail is a bump in the road.
There will likely be more bumps ahead, particularly when thousands of tattooed sports fans arrive in Japan for the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and the Olympics and Paralympics the following year. Will Japan pull back the noren curtains and allow tattooed visitors to enjoy the country’s famed hot springs?
Benny thinks authorities might have to — and they should.
“What I hope will happen is that the Olympics are a wake-up call.”
Tattoos, after all, only run skin deep.