Books

‘Yakuza Tattoo’: Inside the secretive world of the yakuza’s tattoos

by Oscar Boyd

Staff Writer

Preserved in a glass jar on a wooden table is a fingertip. The skin is oddly translucent and the nail slightly discolored, the kind of bruised, off-green you’d associate with trapping your finger in a door.

Yakuza Tattoo, by Andreas Johansson.
112 pages
DOKUMENT PRESS, Photography.

The table — and the glass jar atop it — is in the home of a yakuza boss and the fingertip’s previous owner sits nearby, candidly explaining yubitsume (literally “finger-shortening”), the act of removing part of a finger that has come to be associated with Japan’s criminal underworld.

“It was actually kind of funny since it was hard to get it off,” says the yakuza. “I used a hammer, and while singing the Super Mario song I slammed down the hammer and the finger flew away, just like Super Mario.”

It’s a striking scene, one that is captured in full, gory detail in Andreas Johansson’s 2017 book, “Yakuza Tattoo,” an exploration of the artistic symbolism of yakuza members’ skin art and the culture that surrounds the gangs.

“I’m a trained historian of religion and I became interested in organized crime and its use of religious symbols in general,” says Johansson. “I was in Japan for a conference and when I finished, I went out and had a beer with a friend. I knew that yakuza existed in Japan and had tattoos with religious figures, so I asked if anyone in the bar knew any that I could interview.”

That question, asked after a couple of drinks, was Johansson’s first foray into a project that would eventually allow him to intimately photograph members of Japan’s underworld.

“All of a sudden one person in the bar said he knew a guy — Ken-san — and said that he was a ‘good guy,’ whatever a ‘good guy’ is in the yakuza world,” Johansson continues. “Very quickly I was told, ‘You can have an interview tomorrow.’ This was around 3 o’clock in the morning and I said, ‘Yeah, of course, I’ll be there.'”

Following that first meeting with Ken-san, a senior member of the Masuda-gumi — a gang connected to the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza family — Johansson immersed himself in the world of the yakuza, photographing and talking to around 30 different members, but concentrating mostly on Ken-san and his immediate “family.”

“I thought it might be awkward at first in the sense of me being an outsider, but they were extremely friendly and very inviting,” says Johansson. “So inviting that at one point I thought, ‘This is too good to be true, what do they want back?'”

In total, Johansson spent 2½ weeks in the company of the yakuza. “It took a couple of days before the guys really took me in,” he says. “But then it became more and more relaxed. Because I did my work mostly using my camera, I just became the ‘guy with the camera,’ I had a job to do. In the end, I was just a part of the gang, in that sense. I went in there thinking I had to approach topics like cutting off fingers in a very respectful way, but they were joking about it. They had a very relaxed relationship to these rituals. It was relaxing for me as well, we laughed a lot when we talked about those things.”

“Yakuza Tattoos” is broken down into chapters structured around Johansson’s own stories of meeting the yakuza, and also thematically around the tattoos: “Heroes & History,” “The Dragon & The Carp,” “Gods & Spirits.” Each chapter combines evocative imagery with contextual information and quotes from Johansson’s conversations with gang members to build a detailed and informative picture of the different tattoos and their symbolism.

“In my mind I had this idea that if you have a dragon on your arm you were a leader — like the Russian gang tattoos, which have very strict meanings — but with the Japanese I found the tattoos to be much more personal,” says Johansson. “The relationship between the tattoo master and the customer is extremely interesting, you have to go through interviews before your tattoo is decided. It has to fit your personality. Some of the tattoos aren’t even related to yakuza life. One grew up poor so he had (images of) old Japanese money tattooed, because he didn’t want to become poor again.”

In the latter portion of the book, Johansson delves into the less traditional styles of tattoo that are becoming more prevalent among younger gang members.

“Some of the most interesting things I saw were the modern, Western-inspired tattoos being drawn on the younger guys, and learning that the older members don’t like the departure from tradition,” says Johansson. “The old guys didn’t even want me writing about the shift in style, they see tattoos not as tattoos but as irezumi, with a clear distinction between the two. When I was naming the book, ‘Yakuza Tattoo,’ Ken-san was concerned because he didn’t like the word ‘tattoo.’ He looked at my tattoos and said ‘That’s fashion, you have fashion tattoos. I have rich tattoos, based on my personality.'”

And this is Johansson’s main takeaway from his research: That, whatever their skin-deep appearance, the tattoos take on a significance that runs far deeper in the minds of their owners, into the realm of the spiritual.