Ultimate Guide to Tokyo Tattoo Art & History

By The Japan Switch Team | July 18th, 2023 

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    Tattoos, whether bearing traditional significance, or a more modern aesthetic, have been part of Japanese culture for centuries. In this article, we explore what it’s like getting a tattoo while traveling through Tokyo, but also do a deep dive into the complex history of Tokyo tattoos and across Japan.

    This article is a part of our extensive series on Learning about Japan through Online Japanese Lessons at Japan Switch.


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    Before Getting a Tattoo in Tokyo

    Are you looking to get inked, while traveling in Japan? I've got more than a few myself and have had a couple done since living in the Land of the Rising Sun! Booking a tattoo appointment while abroad can be a fun, memorable experience, as well as a great, permanent souvenir to remember your trip by.

    As with tattoos everywhere across the world, you want to do your due diligence before booking a tattoo appointment in Japan. There are a few basic safety guidelines you want to observe before getting inked.

    Pick a reputable parlor/artist

    While traveling, it can seem like a fun idea to just wander into a random tattoo parlor off the street, and see what happens. But when the “tourist brain” has worn off, you risk discovering that you’re not so thrilled about this permanent design. Coupled with the safety and sanitation risks, it’s best to do a bit of research before selecting a tattoo parlor/artist.

    So go online, read independent reviews, and browse their portfolio on social media, or their store's website.

    Avoid: Parlors that look dodgy, don’t have a website, or of course, have more negative reviews than positive ones.

    Book an appointment beforehand

    Naturally, as per the above rule, you’ll likely want to get tattooed by a talented, reputable artist. The trouble with that is, good tattoo artists are in high demand, and may be fully booked over the duration of your Tokyo visit.

    So, if you’re determined to get inked while in the Japanese capital, we suggest that you contact the studio or the artist beforehand, and pencil in an appointment, to avoid disappointment.


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    Take into account Japanese views on tattoos

    While tattoos are a growing trend in Japan, many public places still take an old-timey, more conservative approach. Because of that, they may not allow you to enter their space if you have tattoos visible.

    It’s quite common for public workout or bathing areas, such as hot springs, public pools, yoga studios, tanning salons, and gyms, to actually deny people access because they’re tattooed. So while you should still follow your dream of getting tattooed in Tokyo, you might want to arrange your itinerary so that your new tattoo doesn’t prevent other activities.

    Finally, consider hygiene requirements for your fresh ink

    Naturally, after getting a new tattoo, you will need to take some special care, and make extra sure you keep the tattoo area clean for the next 7-14 days. After all, a fresh tattoo is an open wound, and exposing it to dirt, dust, or excessive sweat can lead to infection.

    Traveling with a fresh tattoo is a little tricky, as it requires regular access to a sink (so you can wash the tattoo, and more so, your hands before applying ointment), and keeping the area clean, and ideally uncovered.

    Another aspect to consider while scheduling your Tokyo tattoo appointment is your travel itinerary. For example, if you’re visiting Tokyo, then plan on doing a hike on Mount Fuji, it might not be a great idea to get inked. Experts recommend avoiding heavy exercise, swimming, and other physical activities while your tattoo heals.

    So, in order to guarantee a smooth tattooing experience while abroad, keep the above rules in mind.

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    Best Tokyo Tattoo Parlors – Where Do I Get Inked?

    Now that we’ve established some essential safety tips, let’s take a look at some of the best Tokyo tattoo parlors and artists currently working around the area. As mentioned above, the more prestigious an artist is, the higher the likelihood that they will be booked weeks or even months in advance. So if you’ve got your eye set on a tattoo celebrity, we suggest booking ahead!

    Mii Ink

    Mii Ink is one of the biggest names on the Tokyo tattoo scene, at the moment. Although she sometimes works in color, Mii is best known for the complex designs she can make out of a simple thin black line. From roses to lace patterns, even to Tarot cards, Mii’s style has been a staple of the Tokyo tattoo world for years, with tourists and tattoo enthusiasts from all over the world flocking through the doors of her little private studio.

    Mii is definitely the artist for you if you’re a fan of sci-fi, fantasy, dark academia, and generally more somber aesthetics. If you’re looking to book an appointment, your best bet would be to contact Mii through her Instagram account.

    Eiji Fujisawa 

    While Mii is known for her intricate use of black lines, Eiji Fujisawa is at the opposite end of the scale. Quite often, the lines are non-existent in Eiji’s designs, the artist relying instead on dusted blotches of color. He is particularly skilled with shades of charcoal, creating a seemingly simplistic, yet deep design.

    Like Mii, Eiji is best known for his dark, gray, and black designs, though he does also work in color, using the same lineless, smudgy art style. Eiji Fujisawa operates out of Studio Muscat in the popular Shibuya district of Tokyo.

    Shibuya, in itself, is a hugely popular tourist attraction, and if you’re spending a few days in the Japanese capital, it’s more than likely that your steps will eventually lead you here. While exploring the area, you might want to pencil in an appointment with this ink master.

    Getting a Tokyo Tattoo - person being tattooed


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    Shuka, also commonly known as Chunk Tattoo, is a very versatile tattoo artist, which also means he’s in high demand. While other artists tend to specialize in one style, Shuka does a bit of everything. On his Instagram page, you’ll find quite a few large-scale (full back, sometimes) designs, as well as small, minimalist-style linework.

    Shuka is known to work well both with black and white designs as well as full-color models, even dabbling in watercolor tattoo work. That being said, it’s highly unlikely that Shuka can’t do the model you’ve got in mind, so do make sure you check out his work and see if his style fits.

    An independent artist, Shuka works in the highly popular Takadanobaba neighborhood on Shinjuku, more commonly known as the commuting capital of Tokyo. Because of his versatile work, Shuka tends to be booked months in advance. At the time of this writing (May 2023), he was already booking appointments in July. So get yours early.

    Takadanobaba is very close to Ikebukuro, a well-known city centre for internationals living in Tokyo. Whether you're looking for a fun night out or a cosy bar that won't break the bank, check out Our Favorite Things to Do in Ikebukuro!

    Tokyo Three Tides

    Tokyo Three Tides is a tattoo parlor well-known all over the world, even to people who aren’t ink aficionados. Partly, that’s because it is the home of Matsuo, one of the biggest Japanese tattoo artists in history.

    What sets Three Tides apart from the competition, other than its rich and long-standing history, is that they are keeping alive the tradition of Japanese tattooing (as it used to be done). A big component of the style that has made Tokyo Three Tides renowned all over the world is the heavy focus on traditional Japanese motifs and designs. As such, they favor larger designs that allow room for more details. Here, you’ll find everything from Japanese myth symbols, traditional Asian pantheon, references to old legends, as well as geishas, warriors, and quite a bit of gut and gore.

    Located in the busy Shibuya area, Three Tides should be a stop on the Tokyo itinerary of all tattoo lovers, even if they’re not getting inked there. It’s that much of a cultural phenomenon.

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    WTS Tattoo Studio

    One thing that needs mentioning about WTS Studio, right off the bat, is that it’s actually located a little outside Tokyo, two minutes from Sagamino Station. It’s easily accessible from the city center, and well worth the trip, especially if you’re looking to explore a bit of Tokyo’s outskirts, anyway.

    Similarly to Three Tides, WTS also does quite a bit of work in a more traditional Japanese style, keeping the colorful flame alive. They are known for their fun, bright tattoo styles, and are a great choice if you’re looking for something traditional, or something modern alike, since their artists are quite versatile.

    Rainfall Tattoo Studio

    Rainfall Tattoo Studio is another excellent tattoo parlor right in the heart of Tokyo paying homage to the long-standing tradition of tattoos in Japan. At Rainfall, artists are dedicated to maintaining the inking customs of yore, often using techniques and styles that were popular long before everyone on the street was sporting a tattoo!

    Another fun fact about Rainfall Tattoo Studio is that they’re offering a blend of traditional Japanese art, including mythological symbols, characters, and motifs, as well as a huge catalog of Western-style American designs and characters. In other words, it’s highly likely you’ll find what you’re looking for with these guys.

    Rainfall has also created something of a trademark by their bold, daring use of thick black lines. By focusing heavily on black-line work and shading, Rainfall Tattoo Studio creates a tattooing style that’s both conservative and extremely sleek.


    One final artist worth mentioning is the one-of-a-kind Osakabe, who manages to blend the traditional “sailor-type” tattoo aesthetic with Japanese motifs. In other words, when you see Osakabe’s tattooing style, you’re automatically taken back to the olden days, when only ruffians, and sailors wore tattoos, and they were usually colorful, sometimes a little crude in detail. Osakabe’s work is a definite color pop that catches the eye, but rather than sticking to the sailor motifs, they opt for traditional Japanese cultural symbols.

    Osakabe’s portfolio is heavy with geishas and samurais, and maneki neko figurines. Operating on an appointment-only basis, Osakabe should definitely be your go-to studio, if you’re looking to get a traditional Japanese that catches the eye, or inked even with a Studio Ghibli character.

    Are Tattoos Considered Bad in Japan?

    Right, now that we’ve seen where you can go to get the best tattoos while visiting Tokyo, let’s talk a bit about tattoo culture, history, how it was seen, and how it’s still seen today.

    It is a widely-held belief that tattoos are a big taboo in Japanese culture. But the answer is a little more complex.


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    irezumi Tokyo tattoo on chest

    A (Brief) History of Japanese Tattoos

    According to historians, people were getting inked in Japan as early as 5000 BC. Unfortunately, not much written evidence survives to help us track the complex evolution of tattoos in Japan. However, what we do know, thanks to writings from around 720 AD, is that tattoos were often used as a form of punishment for criminals in Japan.

    It was quite a common punishment to have one’s crime inked across their forehead, thus informing the general population to beware of this person. Because of that, tattoos in Japan were associated for a very long time with criminals and wrong-doers, which may explain some animosity towards ink today. This custom of tattooing criminals lasted all the way into the 17th century (up to the Edo Period), when the Japanese government established other ways of marking and punishing wrongdoers. Still, nearly a thousand years of connecting tattoos with criminals and bad people can’t have made a good impression on the Japanese public.

    For a more comprehensive breakdown of Tokyo tattoos and getting inked in Japan, don't miss our Ultimate Guide to Getting a Tattoo in Japan here!

    Tattoos in the Edo and Modern Periods

    No part of history was more significant for the development of Japan than the Edo Period (1603-1868). Considered by many scholars a golden period in Japanese history, it was also during the Edo Period that tattoos started to become fashionable.

    Inspired by the Chinese novel (and cultural phenomenon) Suikoden (Water Margin), tattoos became a marker of status and a veritable fashion statement. The novel based on a traditional Chinese folk story that had been around since the 12th century, follows the tale of a band of outlaws, gathering in the mountains to oppose oppressive governance. The outlaws were described as heavily tattooed which, with them being the heroes of the tale, kind of flipped the narrative about tattoos.

    However, the Edo rulers of Japan at that time, were understandably unimpressed and wary of the novel, since it portrayed the ruling class as antagonists. In order to curb anti-establishment tendencies in their people, the rulers of Japan restricted and eventually banned tattooing, altogether. This ban would remain in place all the way until 1948, when it was lifted, under U.S. occupation.












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    Tattoos and the Yakuza Connection

    Adding the final nail in the coffin of this wonderful art form was the cinematic boom of the 20th century. A lot of films in that period portrayed Yakuza members as heavily-tattooed individuals, thus essentially cementing the link between tattoos and outlaws.

    Naturally, since these movies also glorified, to an extent, these outlaws, they inspired a lot of wannabe bad boys, and rebellious youngsters to get inked as a mark of “being tough”.

    So, what do Japanese people think of tattoos now?

    With tattoos having such a long and largely negative history, it’s no surprise they are still heavily associated with wrongdoing in much of Japan. This is why many public places forbid entry to tattooed individuals, and why tattoos, in general, are a less common sight than in Western society.

    However, as Japanese youth is more exposed to Western culture and influences, tattoos have been enjoying a kind of artistic rebirth. More and more Japanese young people are getting tattooed, and more and more artists like the ones named above are working to “clean the good name” of Japanese tattooing culture.

    As such, the older generations are still quite heavily opposed to tattoos. They’re still a matter of conflict in Japanese households and may invite prejudice. The narrative about tattoo art in Japan is thankfully changing, but it takes a long time to shift the negative connotations of more than a millennium.

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    Is there still a ban on tattoos in Japan?

    For a long time, after the U.S. occupation lifted the ban on tattooing, the Japanese government imposed very strict requirements on artists. For instance, no one was allowed to tattoo people without a valid medical license, which was difficult to obtain.

    But as Japan has become more and more globalized, and a bigger tourist and international business hub, these restrictions have been loosened significantly. Nowadays, tattoo artists no longer need a medical license to open up a studio, which probably accounts for the many new studios and parlors cropping up all over Japan.

    Man with back tattoo and long hair

    Can you work in Japan if you’re tattooed?

    While tattoos in Japan are no longer the object of public dismay, working as a heavily tattooed individual can pose a challenge, especially if you’re looking for employment in a hands-on position interacting with customers.

    Why? While most locals are accustomed to seeing heavily-tattooed foreigners walking the streets, a lot of Japanese establishments and businesses don’t want to offend their older, more conservative customers by employing such people. That being said, if you’re looking for employment in Japan, you may be asked to cover up any visible tattoos during work hours, particularly if working with clients.

    Then again, as mentalities shift, more start-ups and businesses targeting a younger customer base tend to have a looser attitude toward ink.


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    Know Your Terms: Horimono vs. Irezumi

    As you explore the fascinating world of Japanese tattooing, you’ll probably come across terms like horimono, irezumi, or horishi. It’s important that you understand these terms before throwing them around, during your visit, so as not to cause offense to your tattoo artist.

    Old photo of Japanese man showing back covered in tattoos

    First things first, irezumi (入れ墨) is a term literally translated as “inserting ink”, that is becoming quite popular within Western culture. A lot of tourists wrongly use it to refer to traditional Japanese tattooing, when in fact, irezumi defines the penal practice of marking criminals. As such, your tattoo artist won’t be too pleased if you ask him about irezumi, since it still carries a lot of negative connotations to this day.

    Instead, to describe tattoo artists with a deep love and respect for the traditional inking practice, we use the term horimono (彫物). Much less well-known, yet much more appreciated by Japanese tattooists, horimono essentially describes a deep respect for the ancient art of tattooing in Japan. The term is also often used in relation to full-body art. Horimono often refers to individuals who are tattooed from their shoulders to their ankles, the tattoo patterns blending into one another, and creating a complex canvas full of folkloric figures, references, and cultural symbols.

    An important aspect of horimono is having patience. Since it usually takes somewhere between 200 and 300 hours to get a full-body tattoo, patience is a keyword both for the tattoo artist, and the client.

    Finally, when you want to talk about a respected ink artist, especially one who’s honoring older tattooing traditions, you’ll want the word horishi (彫師) which essentially means “master tattooist”.

    A Final Word of Advice – Be Respectful

    Many cultures around the world have a long-standing tradition of tattooing. In many places, tattoos bore cultural, historical, and mythological significance, and the same is true of Japan. You will find that traditional Japanese tattoo art features a lot of folkloric symbols, and references to various folk tales, heroic songs, and so on.

    When coming to get inked in Tokyo, it can be fascinating discovering all these meanings but try to keep an open mind and remain respectful of the long-winding and complex cultural meanings of these tattoo designs.

    As we’ve seen in this article, Japanese tattoo artists are already prey to quite a bit of stereotyping, so try not to add your own preconceived notions into the mix. Instead, try to view your Tokyo tattoo session for what it is – a way of creating a beautiful memento, as well as a great opportunity to learn and immerse yourself in a foreign culture.

    To prepare for your tattoo appointment, try to gain a better understanding of the history of tattoos in Japan. While in Tokyo, feel free to drop by the Bunshin Tattoo Museum (bunshin is an ancient word for a tattoo!), hand-curated by Horiyoshi III, a renowned traditional tattooing master.

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