I want to correct the prejudice against tattoos in Japan. If the issue is left unattended, tattooing in Japan will go underground — which will make its already bad image even worse. I want tattooing to become a profession practitioners can be proud of.[1]

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You do not have to be a tattoo expert to know the immense tradition and impressive imagery of Japanese tattooing. Comparing the popularity globally, the island combines a prior position of the past and present in the industry. But, if you include surveillance from state and police in the equation of art and tattooing, the freedom of creation might not only be endangered, but risks the vanishing of the whole subcutaneous tradition, which is most probably much older than any of those oppressive institutions.

I’m not committing crimes, and I’m not practicing medicine. It’s a form of art.[2]

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The discrimination found one of its climaxes on the 27th of April 2016, when the police in Osaka started investigating against tattoo artist and shop owner Taiki Masuda, who was introduced to the field during his time in High School. Not only that, the studio has been searched and desolated by the officers, but also a massive penalty and summary prosecution were imposed under the suspicion of the so-called Medical Practitioner’s Act. Due to that law and its interpretation of the officials in Osaka, every tattooist has to prove a doctor’s license to execute their profession.

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Every tattoo artist is a licensed doctor. True Or False?” While almost everyone will answer “False”, the Japanese Police decided the correct answer has to be “True”. (…) In April 2015 a distributor handling disinfectants, used for tattoo tools, came under the suspicion of violating the Pharmaceutical Affairs Law and was investigated by the police. After finding the names of tattoo studios on a customer list the police requested their co-operation in further investigations. However, in a recent turn of events, the police arrested tattoo artists on suspicion of violating the Medical Practitioner’s Act. Though these tattoo artists did not only fulfill their duties in hygiene management, but were also not recipients of any sort of complaints, the police forced these artists to comply with a legal regulation meant to apply only to permanent cosmetic treatments.[3]

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As we all know, knowledge of the human body and hygiene are a must to work as a tattooist. But expecting an additional doctor’s degree besides the years of learning the profession itself and gathering practical skills seems more than unrealistic. Instead, like in many other countries, a licensing system could be introduced to guarantee the standards. More than representing a concern for the safety of clients, the whole story of Taiki Masuda and the indirect ban of tattooing in Japan through unattainable regulations seems to follow the bigger picture of stigmatization. This might have its roots in the traditions of the Yakuza, but cannot be justified within the contemporary situation. It seems more a step towards the normalization when it comes to individual decisions towards the body and a look.

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The fear which has been created with the police raid in Masuda’s and other studios and furthermore the tremendous fees of approximately 2600 USD, surely will keep new artists away from entering the scene or even opening their own shop. This stagnation and lack of followers within the field might create the opposite outcome of what the law and the executing institutions seem to aim: A disconnection from criminal contexts and the most secure environment for the clients. With this kind of law, tattoo artists will be forced to work underground and illegally, if they are not willing to give up their profession. It does not seem necessary to explain, that this not only dangers the access to safe material and instruments, but draws again the connection to the criminalisation of tattooing and its reputation. Long story short: People, who love what they are doing and want to keep up with that, are forced into the illegal underground.

Additionally to the impact on the profession itself, the display of tattoos in public gets more regulated in Japan. Not only nationals will be affected by this – more than 15 million tourists visited the country this year. In 2020, the government even hopes to increase this number for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

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How will regulations be prosecuted facing this amount of possibly tattooed people? How viable will the laws be then? Or is the law in the end just the creation of fear, which should keep people away from becoming a tattooist or getting a tattoo?

The global noose of normalisation and stigmatisation gets tighter these days. The case of Japan represents another step towards criminalisation of individual body creations and images and neglects a history, which has been written in skin for centuries – all over the world. The demand from the group “Save Tattooing in Japan” does not only stand out in the whole discussion, but should be projected to any other place and field, where institutions try to dictate our way of life:

By joining forces with Tattoo enthusiasts from all over the world, we hope that the Japanese tattoo culture will not only be accepted but respected as an independent art form.[4]

Sign the petition here:

[1] Taiki Masuda, in:

[2] Taiki Masuda, in:

[3] Excerpt from the petition: Save tattooing in Japan, in:

[4] Statement of Save Tattooing, in:

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