Tattoos in Japan have long moved on from the kind often romanticized by the West — that imagery of flamboyant yakuza that so many seem reluctant to relinquish. But a brief glance at the policies of Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto reveals a nation still unwilling to allow tattoos into mainstream society — no-matter how many end up on the bodies of the younger generations.
Yet, for all the red faces this will likely to cause when tattooed Olympians find themselves turned away from public pools in 2020, the function of a tattoo defining oneself as outside mainstream society is not only accepted, but also welcomed by many already disillusioned by conventional norms — even if the placement and size of the piece makes the tattoo a very selective passport to temporarily opt-out of society.
There is a constantly evolving group of outsiders for which tattoos are a mainstay. But whether it is the aforementioned yakuza, or bikers, punks, rockabillies and rappers, reasons for getting a tattoo is the same, and it has become a remarkable counter-culture that was never meant to be appreciated by everyone. Nonetheless, as culture’s tribes inevitably become gentrified, the search for true outsider status continues, and the current muse is divisive, even among the tattoo community.
Otaku (geek) tattoos, also known as ota-tattoos or otattoos, are the logical visual progression of the invisible army of anime, manga and idol fans who, until recently, rarely showed their colors in public. It was the disillusioned yankī (youth gangs) in the early 2000s, however, that originally turned away from the traditional Japanese imagery that adorned the neon trucks, bikes and bodies of bōsōzoku (biker gangs) and moved toward otaku icons, such as those on ita-sha (cars decorated with manga and anime characters). And that switch paved the way for a new wave of extroverts in the otaku community. This otaku self-exposure is now coming to fruition via a whole host of visual mediums that are all the more eye-catching when conveyed through the human body.
The first landmark in this new wave of otaku tattooing was in April this year at Ota-Tattoo Night:Z, the first otaku-tattoo convention, held in the heart of Osaka’s fashion shopping district, Amerika-mura. Focusing on otaku tattoos as a new genre and supported by a very young and mostly female crowd, it was clear at the convention that this was not only a new chapter in Japanese tattooing, but also one in otaku culture itself.
Hori Benny, tattoo artist and driving force behind Ota-Tattoo Night:Z, played an important role in marrying the extrovert tattoo culture with the usually introverted otaku.
“I was aiming for a festival atmosphere: Live music, (anime song) DJs, idol groups, six otaku tattooers, otaku sweets and food, live Gundam-model building and, of course, a team of cosplayers. The response was beyond my expectations,” he says, as he works on a client at Chopstick Tattoo in Osaka. “Formerly shy otaku were exposed to the art of tattooing. Tattoo and subculture aficionados in turn were able to relax and dive headfirst into a range of otaku traditions. It was a delightful cross pollination and I plan on shaking things up with it again next year.”
The mix of customers and attendees was noted by Aki of Yokohama studio Diablo Art, a forerunner of the movement who tattooed his first otaku piece, an image from the anime series “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” as early as 2000.
“When I first started doing this I saw a lot of shy men, but steadily more and more company employees came, and now my clientele is mostly young and very cool,” he says. “They are not asking for light things either, we are talking bishōjo and bishōnen (beautiful young girls and boys) and moe (ineffably cute) characters — real otaku culture.”
The latter point is clearly key according to Benny, who notes that otaku culture still carries a “geek stigma.”
“It takes a different kind of courage to really want to be part of it,” he says. “The sort of person who isn’t easily rattled by the ridicule of their personal taste.”
For the clients, Benny goes on to explain, it is not about pretending to like something, choosing something randomly or appealing to strangers for acceptance by relating to something as tenuous as pop culture.
“I think it is more of an honest celebration of their own wholehearted acceptance of the otaku culture and their fellow otaku’s values. Every generation is a natural product of all those that came before and so the things that they identify with will not be static,” he says. “As the otaku aesthetic permeates popular culture, kids will naturally breathe new life into it and change it. That change is what keeps things fresh and interesting.”
It is that attitude, he continues, that “invigorates those previous generations instead of making them bristle.”
Benny believes that otaku tattooing is an emerging cultural standard that’s here to stay. “So don’t discount the Heisei (current era) kids, they’re full of all sorts of great ideas,” he exclaims. “I might not have thought so a decade ago, but anime and manga stories and characters are now a mythos for our age.”
He uses the idea of a tattoo of virtual pop-idol Hatsune Miku as an example: “She, her friends, songs, outfits, traits and habits, are now part of a cohesive worldwide culture — transmitted not as fables through oral tradition, but digitally by thousands of collaborative creators via the Internet. A tattoo executed in the Edo Period would be more likely to depict a Suikouden warrior or a Buddhist motif,” he explains. “And while our past traditions will endure as long as we treasure them, new generations will no doubt have new aesthetics. I believe that ‘otaku’ encompasses a current, modern canon of Japanese art.”
The idea of otaku culture being the voice of this generation is explored by Mica, who tattoos at Detroit Diesel Tattoo Works in Tokyo.
“Otaku culture used to be more segregated and isolated from the rest of culture. I think I first realized I was an otaku back in elementary school, but it was stigmatized, so I kept it a secret,” Mica says, describing her own experience. “I was only ‘out’ about it from high school onward. I think in the last couple of years we have seen more cool and credible people who are open about being otaku, and that has helped the culture develop into something more like an art form.”
Thinking of tattooing as art is the approach Mica also takes with her work: “I do tattoo characters from otaku culture, but I try to create original anime-inspired illustrations for each customer,” she says. “That way the art style will progress.”
If otaku tattoos are now evolving beyond the kind of gag fodder that might have been shared online via message boards such as the infamous 2channel, the question is, how will society react to them?
“Tattoos in Japan still carry a heavy stigma. In the decade that I’ve been directly involved in the world of Japanese tattooing, it has relaxed somewhat,” Benny says. “Otaku tattoos, however, cut both ways. Because they are more fun and free spirited, in some ways they have the power to disarm the average tattoo detractor. On the other hand, there will always be haters, trolls and curmudgeons whose sole joy is to usurp it from others.”
The real question any potential client has to answer themselves, Benny went on to say, isn’t whether or not their tattoo will be taboo, but what it means to them: “After all, otaku can’t be what it is without a little taboo mixed into it — it’s ingrained into our very essence.”