Glomp, every one, because Japanese comic books and cartoons are filled to the brim with wildly inventive stories, dazzling colors, and some of the most fantastic creatures imaginable. If this sounds familiar to the stories told through the finest traditional Japanese tattoos, it should. The subcultures of Otaku — which means "geek" or "nerd" — and Irezumi have a ton of similarities, most notably an affinity for visual storytelling and a feeling of exclusion from mainstream Japanese society. It was only a matter of time before the two groups merged together.
The closing chapter of the fantastic Japanese Tattoos: History * Culture * Design by Brian Ashcraft and Hori Benny focuses on how contemporary designs and geek tattoos have recently burst onto the scene. The new trend is known in Japan as "otatoos" — a portmanteau of the words "tattoo" and "Otaku" coined by Hori Benny. In short, otatoos depict outstanding characters and figures from beloved Japanese cartoons and comic books. Here is a glimpse into the fascinating culture of otatoos. So, suit up, you cosplayers out there, and put on your cat ears, Nekomimi, because away into anime and manga inspired tattoos we go.
Though tattooing has been a significant part of Japan's history for hundreds of years, ever since the Edo period (1603-1868), it is still a largely stigmatized art form, and otatoos are at the cutting edge — Ryūko's Scissor Blades style — of this longstanding tradition. The art form has been legal in Japan ever since the end of World War II, but street shops only started popping up in the 1990s, as the industry gravitated away from a strictly apprenticeship-based system. Aside from servicing tourists, these parlors attracted members of the populace who didn't easily fit the mold of mainstream Japanese culture. Similarly to how the restaurant chain Anna Miller's became a bastion for Otaku, these shops became the holdouts where the art form could continue to be appreciated as well as evolve against the societal odds. And, boy, has it evolved, almost into Akira proportions.
In order to truly understand the radicalness of otatoos, it is necessary to recognize just how taboo tattoos are seen as by most of Japanese society. "The thing I respect most about Japanese tattooing is that against societal norms people not only continue to take up tattooing as a profession, devoting their lives to it, but people continue to get tattoos, too, even if that makes their life difficult," Ashcraft says. It's incredible that individuals there are daring enough to get in inked in the first place, but what's even crazier is that they are getting iconography that marks them as nerds and geeks. An illustration of a super-powered girl in a sailor fuku is quite different from a Fudo Myoo per se.
"People continue to get tattoos, too, even if that makes their life difficult." — Ashcraft
It's fascinating how Otaku's boom coincided closely with the growing popularity of Irezumi in Japan over the last few decades. Since members of the tattooed community and this nerdy subculture are both subject to stigmatization, however, it makes sense that they would come together in the form of otatoos. Hori Benny — who underwent a traditional apprenticeship, is a prolific tattooist, and is also an advocate of all things Otaku — instantly saw the connection between the cartoons and comics he loves and the body art his fanboy and girl clients have commissioned as of late. "Much like traditional Irezumi, Manga and anime are also full of folk heroes, deities, villains, magical beasts and legends, so they lend themselves to tattoo motifs," Hori Benny says. "Combine that with a bolstering of geek culture over the last couple decades and it isn't hard to see why they have gained in popularity. I see them as the most modern link in a longer continuum of Irezumi culture."
"I see [otatoos] as the most modern link in a longer continuum of Irezumi culture." — Hori Benny
"As tattooing becomes more open and accessible to more people, they're realizing they can choose designs from their beloved Otaku culture, not just symbolism from the Edo period," Hori Benny continues. "I feel happy seeing people be able to express themselves more openly and with confidence." This type of freedom of choice will be essential for changing the popular opinion in Japan toward tattoos in the years to come, but the fact that the Otaku community is so strong and still growing at this juncture in history is a good omen.
"They're realizing they can choose designs from their beloved Otaku culture, not just symbolism from the Edo period." — Hori Benny
"People are experiencing more personal freedom than in the past and the stereotype of what it once meant to be Otaku (alone, friendless and introverted) has been flipped on its head," Hori Benny says. "The boundaries have blurred, and I think otatoos are but one consequence of that." We think that this is a very progressive trend in the country and that the appearance of otatoos signifies a slight decline in Japan's more repressive societal impulses, as it not only suggests that tattoos are becoming more accepted in society, but also that people are no longer ashamed to identify as Otaku. This shift in values appears to be inspiring many of its citizens, especially those from younger generations, to adopt a more tolerant and open-minded worldview.
"The stereotype of what it once meant to be Otaku (alone, friendless and introverted) has been flipped on its head." —Hori Benny
Ashcraft and Hori Benny are not only incredibly knowledgeable about Japanese tattoos and Otaku, but from living in the country so long, they have seen enough to know to be weary of jumping the Trigun when it comes to predicting whether or not the taboo exerted on these subcultures will ever really go away. "I don't know if tattoos will ever become mainstream in Japan. There is so much engrained into society that will make that difficult," Ashcraft says. "Rather, what I'd like to see is a mutual respect between those who decide to get tattoos and those who do not."
"What I'd like to see is a mutual respect between those who decide to get tattoos and those who do not." —Ashcraft
"Without young people to force a cultural change, without the elderly willing to relinquish power ...
... I don't think attitudes are likely to change." —Hori Benny
"Japan and the world are changing so rapidly, but grassroots change is rare in Japan and the declining birth rate is a giant factor," Hori Benny says. "Without young people to force a cultural change, without the elderly willing to relinquish power, I don't think attitudes are likely to change." It is true. Unless there are reforms of other major aspects of Japanese culture, then it is unlikely that the bigotry toward tattoos will ever be fully defused. However, that doesn't mean that the tradition of the art form will ever go away either. It has survived through centuries of this sort of repression and is thriving more now than ever, thanks in part to its fusion with Otaku. Furthermore, as both subcultures continue to grow, the mainstream will eventually be forced to come to terms with them, even if it is the ultimate showdown of all time.
Make sure to check out Hori Benny's Instagram if you want to see more awesome anime and manga inspired body art. If you want to have your favorite anime or manga character tattooed on you, consider commissioning him to do it. He works at Invasion Club in Osaka. Also, think about picking up a copy of their book as well. It's a wonderful publication.