Tattoos — still a controversial topic in Japan? It’s a country known around the world for unequaled hospitality, with the exception of the inked. And while Japan continues to increasingly open itself to international tourists and Western culture, it can still be difficult to navigate the world of being tattooed.
There’s plenty of information already out there on what to expect when traveling in Japan with a tattoo, but what about getting one? Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to find an English-speaking tattoo studio in Tokyo with $150 in hand to see what it’s like.
This is a part of the article series “Dark Side of Tokyo” that covers deep, uncovered dark side of Tokyo.
Rachel Gets Tattooed in Tokyo
One of the biggest hurdles of getting inked in Tokyo (or anywhere in Japan) is communicating with the artist if you don’t speak Japanese. Fortunately, another friend of mine in Tokyo knew just where to send us. You can also check out some Tokyo studios here, here, and here.
My roommate Rachel from London eagerly volunteered as the guinea pig for this challenge, and we headed over to a tattoo studio just outside of central Tokyo.
Mukie (mu-kee-eh) is a tattoo artist at Detroit Diesel Tattoo Works. She speaks fluent English, and welcomed us with a warm smile when we arrived at the studio in the afternoon. She works alongside the studio’s owner, Mica. (check out her Instagram here)
The studio has enough space for two customers being tattooed at the same time. Whereas in Europe some places have several rooms to serve several customers at once, in Japan, it’s not common to have much space, especially in Tokyo.
Another difference to Western countries is that the youngest legal age for getting a tattoo in Japan is 20 years, although Mukie said she would tattoo 18- and 19-year olds if they bring written permission of the parents, a copy of their parent’s ID and their signatures.
Rachel sent her tattoo design to Mukie beforehand and Mukie had prints ready to go in various sizes when we got to the studio. Normally, the consultation process is more interactive at Detroit Diesel, but since Rachel is a graphic designer herself, she did the design on her own.
In most cases, the customer comes with ideas and Mukie draws and modifies the design until the customer is satisfied. She placed the prints on Rachel’s back and shared her opinion on which size and position looked best.
Once Rachel decided on the size and position, she signed a consent form and showed her ID. Mukie got out the black ink and began preparing the tattoo machine and needle.
Meanwhile, Rachel became more and more nervous as she remembered how painful getting a tattoo can be. She laid down on the lounger where Mukie placed the tattoo design as a stencil on Rachel’s back.
Mukie got close to the stencil lines on Rachel’s skin and hyper-focused as she started following the lines with the needle. The whole tattooing process took about 30 minutes and Rachel was relieved that it didn’t hurt as much as she anticipated.
Afterward, Rachel checked the result in the mirror and felt happy with the results. Mukie cleaned and disinfected her skin and taped a plastic film on top of the tattoo. She explained the aftercare which involves a disinfection cream that could be picked up at a drugstore. Rachel also got a printout of the aftercare tips.
The total price came to ¥15,000, plus a ¥2,000 tip.
Rachel’s new tattoo has healed well and will be proudly shown off in the upcoming summer months.
How Much Does a Tattoo Cost in Japan?
To visualize the cost of a tattoo in Japan, Mukie compared it to the size of a Japanese business card (5.5 x 9 cm).
Detroit Diesel Tattoo Works
|½ Business Card||¥10,000|
|Full Business Card||¥15,000–30,000*|
|Double Business Card||¥30,000–60,000*|
|Larger Tattoos||¥10,000 / hour**|
|Consultation||Free of charge|
|Tip||Optional, but appreciated|
* Tattoo rates slightly vary from artist to artist. The more experienced artists typically charge more than newer ones. Other than that, the price depends on the size, design, and detail of the tattoo. Pictures and faces are pricier than simple geometric line art like what Rachel chose.
Mukie also explained that certain areas of the body, like the knee, cost more because of the consideration of stretched skin when the leg is angled versus a straight leg. Similarly, scarred or wrinkled skin increase the price slightly.
**Mukie said this price is comparatively cheap in Japan’s tattoo scene but she considers herself fairly new with only 3 years of experience.
Some studios, like Detroit Diesel Tattoo Works, provide consultation free of charge. You can come in and discuss your ideas and concerns regarding a new tattoo. Mukie will even negotiate the size and detail if she knows your budget.
Once you make an appointment the artist will ask for a deposit, which is deducted from the final price. The rest is paid after the tattoo is finished. While tipping in Japan isn’t common, artists like Mukie are happy to receive tips for their work.
What’s the Hangup with Tattoos in Japan?
For a long time, tattoos have gotten a bad wrap in Japan, and until World War II, the laws backed up that stigmatization. It’s only lately that the negative view of tattoos has slowly been declining with the globalization of Japan’s youth who are rebelling against the idea that only gang members get inked.
In the West, tattoos are socially accepted fashion statements and personal expression. Where I come from, in Germany, tattoo studios can be found everywhere and a small tattoo can be as cheap as €30 (less than ¥4,000).
Living with Tattoos in Tokyo
While younger generations are evolving on tattoos, the culture still frowns upon them. This goes as far as prohibiting tattooed people from entering some public places like swimming pools, gyms, or onsen (which are Japan’s famous hot springs).
Even some restaurants or bars have signs that say “No Tattoos” in their entry. This social lack of acceptance stems largely from the association of tattoos with the Yakuza, Japan’s mafia, whose members often have their whole body covered in Tattoos.
She’s hesitant to tattoo very visible areas like the face, hands, and neck, especially when it’s the customer’s first tattoo. She doesn’t want someone that hasn’t experienced negative reactions to tattoos before to have one located where it’s impossible to hide.
Final Advice for Getting a Tattoo in Japan
Because getting a tattoo is such a personal activity, it’s important that you feel absolutely comfortable with everything before the ink hits the skin. Be sure to contact the studio before stopping in to make sure the artist understands English. Besides that, it’s important to have your ID with you and never arrive drunk or hungover.
Mukia took great care of my friend throughout the process, so if you’re shopping around, we highly recommend checking out her portfolio along with the studio owner Mica’s portfolio.
Access to Detroit Diesel Tattoo Works
#204 Shimoyama Bldg.
By Train: Chitose-Karasuyama Station (Keio Line)