Tebori tattoos: can the Japanese tradition of “hand-carved” survive?

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNNTokyo, Japan

In a small, clinically lit studio in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, fearsome warriors and mythical creatures gleam from drawings on paper that line the perimeter of the space.

The tattoo artist here, who asked to be identified simply as Ryugen, specializes in traditional Japanese imagery – colorful cartoon-like shapes inspired by nature, religious iconography and famous “ukiyo” woodblock prints. -e” of the country.

Ryugen’s methods are also steeped in history. In fact, he is one of a small number of Japanese artists still practicing the ancient tradition of “tebori” (literally “hand-carved”) tattoos.

The earliest written records of tattoos in Japan date back over two millennia, and the use of needle-pointed rods like Ryugen’s dates back centuries. Tebori tools may seem primitive compared to modern tattoo machines, but the principle was much the same: artists used the rods to manually push ink under the top layers of skin, leaving a permanent mark for the decoration or punishment.

Italian photographer Felice Beato captured tattooed Japanese men with hand-carved tattoos in the 1880s. Credit: Yokohama School

Ryugen’s instruments, which he keeps in a simple cloth pouch, differ little from these age-old tools, though he uses disposable needle tips for hygienic reasons. Demonstrating his technique, he lays one of the rods along the crease of his thumb before moving it in a vigorous repetitive action – a sort of digging motion.

Modern tattoo machines feature a depth setting, which helps the artist pierce the right layers of skin, but tebori masters rely on the feeling of loneliness. Ryugen said the traditional method helps him tattoo “intuitively,” although he usually uses a tattoo gun to draw the outlines.

The benefit, he says, is that the colors are more vibrant, stronger and longer lasting. Manual methods also help him create smoother gradations, from dull colors to strong colors, using just one ink.

And while his technique may seem brutal, Ryugen thinks it’s “much less painful” than the electronic equivalent. One of his clients, Ryota Sakai, 34, agreed – although he noted that traditional tattoos take longer and therefore cost more (Ryugen, like most tattoo artists, hourly bill).

A man shows off his traditional style Japanese tattoos during the Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo.  More than 1.5 million people flocked to Tokyo's Asakusa district during the annual three-day festival, which heralds the arrival of summer in the Japanese capital.

A man shows off his traditional style Japanese tattoos during the Sanja Matsuri festival in Tokyo. More than 1.5 million people flocked to Tokyo’s Asakusa district during the annual three-day festival, which heralds the arrival of summer in the Japanese capital. Credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Sakai has tebori tattoos on his arms and chest, as well as a Three-Eyed Buddha on his back. His motivation for choosing traditional methods was only partly due to Ryugen’s ability to express subtle nuances.

“From an early age, I was interested in history.” he said a telephone interview. “And I especially love the Edo period, which was when these tattoo designs were developed.

“I’m not religious, but I like Buddhism, Edo period and samurai designs.”

The threatened tradition

The craftsmen who perpetuate the Japanese tradition of woodblock printing

Ryugen is as much a craftsman as an artist. Like many trades people in Japan, his career began with a long apprenticeship.

After following his master for a year, Ryugen turned professional and began accompanying him on visits to clients of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. It would take him another seven years of study before he felt ready to open his own studio in the early 2000s.

“It takes longer to master than (using a tattoo machine),” he said. “I think it’s because there are so many parameters, such as angle, speed, strength, timing and intervals between ‘hits’. You have to control them all.”

His profession seems threatened. Although social attitudes towards tattoos have loosened in recent decades, Ryugen said interest in tebori tattoos has been limited. He estimates that 70% of the customers are foreign, and even his apprentice is American.

Japanese tattoo artist Horiyoshii III tattoos a flower on a woman’s back. Horiyoshii III is a tattoo artist renowned for his full body designs, which can take many sessions over many years. Credit: TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

“Most Japanese (people) don’t care how it’s done – whether it’s by machine or tebori,” he said. “It’s more related to the design or the talent of the artist.”

The Japanese are also less interested in traditional styles, according to Mieko Yamada, a sociology professor at Purdue University in Fort Wayne who has studied Japanese body art.

“Laypersons – students or office workers – prefer to have a contemporary, westernized style, and on a smaller scale,” she said in a phone interview, referring to the Japanese tradition of covering large parts of the body with tattoos.

But there is another threat to Ryugen’s profession: the law. Tattoo artists have existed in a gray legal area since 2001, when Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare ruled that any act of putting “pigment on the tip of a needle and inserting ink in the skin” should be considered a medical procedure.
Without medical degrees, virtually every tattoo artist in the country suddenly found themselves operating illegally. Crackdowns have since taken place, with fines of up to 300,000 yen ($2,600) reportedly imposed on offenders.

However, tattoo studios are widely tolerated. Ryugen is easy to find online, although his studio is by appointment only and looks no different from other apartments. He called for a pragmatic solution to the precarious status of the industry.

“We need rules around tattoos (but why not) a licensing system, like in America or Europe?”

Permanent taboos

Japan has a complex and troubled relationship with tattoos. But despite the country’s long history of tattooing, it wasn’t until the mid-18th century that pictorial themes emerged, those that are still used by tattoo artists today, such as theater masks and figures. religious.

 "Unit of the three happinesses: the favorite actors in front of a white waterfall" (1863) by Toyohara Kunichika

“Unity of Three Happiness: Favorite Actors in Front of a White Waterfall” (1863) by Toyohara Kunichika Credit: Courtesy of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Body art became increasingly popular among the lower classes until 1868, when tattoos were banned by the new government, which, in its drive to modernize, sought to ban practices that might be considered primitive by outsiders.

The ban was lifted after World War II. But tattoos are still considered taboo, having grown to be associated with organized crime. (When Ryugen was younger, about half of his clients were Yakuza, though he now refuses to work with the Mafia.)

“Nowadays people in Japan seem to be more tolerant of people with tattoos because of musicians, basketball players – professionals who have tattoos,” Yamada said. “But if people have a visible tattoo, they may be very afraid of being fired from their job, so they tend to hide it.”

To this day, many bathhouses and gyms in Japan prohibit visible tattoos. Yet while this conservatism applies to all forms of tattooing, Ryugen thinks hygiene concerns attach an additional stigma to the antiquated tebori method.

“The way I do it is the same as a machine,” he said. “The needles are disposable and I wear gloves. But people think tebori is dirty, or not safe, because it’s very primitive.”

For now, the best he can do is raise awareness of the plight of his industry. On a ledge in his studio, a small box containing a handful of coins calls for donations with the simple message: “Save tattooing in Japan.”

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