The Rise of Otaku: From Subculture to Global Tattoo Phenomenon

The Rise of Otaku: From Subculture to Global Tattoo Phenomenon

What is an Otaku? Let me introduce you to the awesome world of otaku tattoos inspired by the best animes and mangas ever!

My name is Katy…And I am an anime addict or an “otaku”: a person who is obsessed with anime, computers, video games, or other particular aspects of pop culture despite it being a detriment to their social skills. It’s true, my love for anime started at a young age running home from school or to my friend’s house to watch Card Capture Sakura, Dragon Ball Z, and Tenchi Muyo! It was what I preferred rather than engage with kids my age. Fast action, funny, with relatable characters including strong females who are more than mere background characters or constantly waiting around for a man to save them, and unlike anything I’d ever seen on TV before, anime captured my attention.

Anime introduced me to a world that was a created reality; it introduced me to a world of war, friendship, sacrifice, love, and much, much more. However, amongst raised eyebrows, the “You watch cartoons?” comments said, in that patronising tone, that grownups shouldn’t enjoy such things. For the haters: it’s anime - not a cartoon. There’s also the instant assumption that I enjoy Cosplay. I can’t sew to save my life and can barely knit a scarf. The nightmarish flashbacks of mandatory Home Economic classes bring back painful memories of terribly made t-shirts, blood, and tears…My teacher’s, not mine. She cried when she realized she had failed in her duty to teach the utterly unteachable, or that I was single handedly contributing to crippling the school’s budget through the need of band aids.

It felt like a dirty secret, a stigma of sorts, that 90’s anime cult classics such as Ninja Scroll, Akira, Princess Mononoke, Gundam Wing, Vampire Hunter D were some of the most watched films and TV series in my life. Until one day, in a coffee shop, I realised I wasn’t alone. There stood before me was a man with a half sleeve of Major Motoko Kusanagi, the main protagonist of Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell. It was beautiful, thought provoking, sexy and empowering. Despite my number of tattoos not once did I think of combining the two. For the anime nerd in me – it was like a wet dream come true.

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Fast forward over a decade and Oktau tattoos or Otattoos have become a global and cultural phenomenon as seen in the work of Hori Benny, Kimberly Wall, Simon K Bell, and Brando Chiesa to name a few. Post after post of anime and manga themed or inspired tattoos from Satoshi Tajirin’s Pokémon, Studio Ghibli’s movies, and Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon. Anything is fair game – so where did this phenomenon begin?

Following World War Two, many tattooists around the globe began taking a keen interest in irezumi (入れ墨, lit. "inserting ink") including one of America’s most influential tattooist Sailor Jerry, trading the more traditional style of American tattoos with their strong dark lines, and flat colors, for the fine lines and gradual shading seen in irezumi, adding dragons, tigers, and geishas to his patriotic repertories of pinups, eagles and ships. Following in his master’s footsteps Mike Malone, colleague of Don Ed Hardy and protégé of Sailor Jerry, continued this American Japanese fusion with an enormous irezumi themed back piece during the 1980’s, yet instead of a traditional deity or hero, it featured Godzilla as the subject. This bizarre fusion quickly inspired others and eventually Japan followed suit. Hiroshima based tattooist Hori Hiderow unabashedly incorporated otaku influences into his art showing the current and future generation of tattooists that it was ok to embrace the manga, anime, and video games they loved. This helped path the way for the otaku introverts to come out into the open and simply be themselves.

A revelation of sorts for this subculture came in 2010 when Yokohama tattoo artist Aki-Bonten of Diablo Art, was asked by a client for a back piece of Fate Testarossa - a character from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. After posting a photograph on the internet forum 2channel it went viral, giving birth to the otattoo. A word coined by the infamous Hori Benny that combined tattoo and otako, a term which quickly became a visual progression of the invisible fans, as their self-exposure came to fruition, covering all mediums including the human body. But what is it makes the otaku culture so popular?

The rise of otatoo hasn’t happened overnight, nor in a vacuum, steadily replacing the Mickey Mouse and Disney characters mirroring the passions and interests of modern life. The universal themes seen in anime and manga of good fighting evil, the rise of an antiheroes (Alucard from Hellsing I’m looking at you). And who doesn’t love an underdog? The themes in this animes and mangas resonate with everyone while giving the world a taste of Japanese culture; a taste of creativity and love of play. 

The innovative way characters are drawn, and presented into stories with universal themes is an addictive; it's mesmerizing cocktail of action and humor. This world of colors and heroism is helping to alter the perceptions of tradition tattooing seen to many as a dark, scary and intimidating to cute, colorful, and non-threatening - a world away from society’s ingrown stigma towards tattoos, its relationship and association with organized crime, and in Japan, a nation's unwillingness to accept tattoos into mainstream society.

Suikoden heroes and religious deities of old replaced by this wave of modern-day Japanese myths that provide courage, inspiration, and ideals making them the perfect media to be immortalized as tattoos. And the future? Hori Benny, tattoo artist and one of the driving forces behind Ota-Tattoo Night: Z; he played a monumental role in marrying together the extroverted tattoo culture with the introverted otaku because he believed otaku tattooing is an emerging cultural standard and is here to stay. “As the otaku aesthetic permeates popular culture, kids will naturally breathe new life into it and change it. That change is what keeps things fresh and interesting.” With rising stars gathering global superstardom through social networking, and pages upon pages of otaku tattoos groups, these tattoos aimed at otaku and done by otaku, are turning a shy subculture into an art form.

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