The Proud Tattooists of the Tokyo Underground

Monday February 17, 2020 Written by Kate, photo by Manuel Chillagano

Though it feels  like every creative professional under 40 has a sleeve or two, tattoos are still somewhat stigmatised in Japan, says Tokyo-based photographer Manuel Chillagano. Since moving there, Chillagano has been fascinated by irezumi, traditional Japanese tattoos, which were long associated with yakuza gangs and characterised by motifs like dragons, koi fish and cherry blossoms. They're also hand-poked onto the skin in a lengthy process made all the more impressive by their size and intricate detail. In the final installment of our four-part 'Story Behind the Photo' series with Stocksy, we spoke to Chillagano about this photograph of a young apprentice and his impressive body art.

Hello, Manuel. Tell us about your photography. Before I permanently moved to Japan about three years ago, I travelled Japan once or twice a year since 2011, when I first picked up a camera. I was dead-set on getting a job in the Japanese music business, so I started associating with metal and rock bands in the Tokyo underground. Some of the artists sported intricate Japanese tattoo designs on a level I had never seen before. I was completely enthralled by this form of art, and began connecting with traditional Japanese horishi (tattoo artists) and their clients.

Where was this photo taken? This was not my first time shooting a Japanese person involved in the underground world of irezumi, but I was still very much at the beginning of my project and tried to figure out what I wanted to do with it.
After an initial shooting at the workplace of an artist who specialized in tebori – traditional hand-poked tattoos – I was invited to a drinking event at a Japanese drinking place, where he gathered about ten of his clients. The man in the photo is the artist’s personal apprentice.

How did you end up photographing him? It was a rather informal shooting, as I was not necessarily attending the event in a professional capacity, but to enjoy the food, drinks and conversations with these people of various backgrounds. I brought a speedlite and a softbox, but decided not to use any other light aside from the bulbs that were illuminating the room. When the master saw me taking the first shots, he asked all clients to remove their clothes – starting with his apprentice. The tattoos covering most of the apprentice’s body (even his armpits were tattooed) were done by the master himself.

Was the apprentice happy to pose for you? As he joined his master at tattoo shows and conventions, and went as far as having his head decorated in irezumi, he was very experienced in showing off his body art. He became an entirely different person when he undressed.

We spoke a bit about the hardships and benefits of being an apprentice in Japan; he also worked at a bar, and had very little time off.

What have you learned about irezumi? Japanese tattooing dates back many hundred years, and has undergone different technical, historical and cultural developments that contributed to making it the form of art we know today. Most irezumi are ridden with complex symbolic meaning; only a few masters still know how to incorporate all of the original knowledge passed down for generations.

To me, the most unique aspect of irezumi is how they almost look like a second skin or a patina.

How are tattoos perceived in Japan? Throughout history, irezumi have always been a phenomenon that mostly existed in a grey zone. Even the harshest critics have to admit that they are beautiful pieces of art.

Yet they are still prone to associations with organized crime or other outsiders of Japanese society, which is why many public baths or hotels still enforce a strict ‘no tattoos’ policy.

While tattooing is not officially prohibited in any form, police started cracking down on tattoo parlours a couple of years ago. Performing tattoos, they say, is a violation of the Medical Practitioners Act, as only medical professionals are allowed to perform medical procedures. A young tattoo artist from Osaka refused to pay a fine, which resulted in a trial. The Osaka High court ruled, in the end, that tattooing is not a medical act. That ruling could change the overall perception towards the art of tattooing in Japan.

Many tattoo artists, however, would prefer their craft to stay underground. That’s how they have been working for many decades.

What do you like about the image? In many ways, this photograph marks my first step into a certain direction for my project about irezumi. Rather than focussing on the gang aspect or just taking tasteful close-ups, I wanted to tell individual stories about these people and about how they fit into this complex world.

To my knowledge, this is also the last photograph that has been taken of this tattoo apprentice. One day, he just packed his things and left. No one knows where he is or what he’s doing.

This interview was created in collaboration with Stocksy as part of our four-part series on the stories behind incredible photos. You’ll find even more of Manuel Chillagano’s work at Stocksy’s highly curated library of stock photography and video footage.