Putting a camera in a Yakuza member’s face would likely cost most people a beating if not their life, but through carefully parlaying with the crime syndicate’s bosses, Anton Kusters was able to infiltrate their ranks and capture their lifestyle through a brilliant series of photographs — Odo Yakuza Tokyo.
Kusters’ snapshots paint an enlightening picture of what these gangsters’ lives are like, opening up peepholes through which to peer behind the closed doors of their shadowy organization. From the vantage point of a tattoo enthusiast, the book is eye-opening in that it shows how Irzeumi is only a minor part of this notorious subculture’s way of life, and in doing so, it helps dispel the stigma associated with traditional Japanese tattoos.
Irezumi’s association with gang culture has driven it to the fringes of mainstream Japanese society, compelling most of the country’s populace, especially the elderly and those who hold seats of power, to look down on what is one of its greatest traditions of art. Because of this, before too long, tattoos could be driven back underground in Japan and most artists will have to leave their homeland should they want to continue working openly. This would be regrettable, to say the least, and is why it’s so important to remind people that Irezumi predates the Yakuza by centuries and is really more about appreciating the folklore behind body art than belonging to a gang.
Odo Yakuza Tokyo shows that the gang members are very reserved about letting their sleeves and back-pieces be seen by people outside of their inner-circle, typically dressing in business attire that makes them blend right in with the rest of Japanese society.
Kusters makes sure to point out the Yakuza's impulse to not flaunt themselves, especially their tattoos. “Everything is so subtle. The details I all see in the corner of my eye, cufflinks, groomed hands, perfect haircuts, scars, cars, tailored suits, leather shoes, missing digits, bodyguards, glimpses of tattoos,” Kusters writes. “Everything screams ‘control,’ and yes, if there ever were a scale for air thick with tension, this surely would be the epitome of it. And for those who don’t, there is always that place in the mountains, several hours away, from which one does not return.”
If you’d like to see more of what the Yakuza actually looks like, instead of buying into the popular misconception of them lounging around bathhouses, all covered in extensive bodysuits, make sure to pick up a copy of Kusters’ book on his website or through Kintaro Publishing. Also, check out their awesome prints by tattooists while you’re at it.