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Meet Noko, Japan’s 10-year-old tattoo artist

Based in Amsterdam, the daughter of world-renowned Japanese tattoo artist Gakkin already has 20 clients

Tattoos aren’t usually known as the best way to make your parents proud, but for 10-year-old artist Noko Nishigaki, it’s a different story. Originally from Japan, but currently based in Amsterdam, Noko has been tattooing since she was six years old – starting after her dad, world-renowned Japanese tattoo artist Gakkin, gave her a silicon piece of skin to practice drawing on.

“I tried it and it was fun!” says Noko, over email. “I was very glad that my parents and friends complimented my work. They said (that) to start tattooing from a young age is unusual, so I thought it was very interesting. That's why I started.”

Despite still being an apprentice, Noko is amongst some of the youngest working tattoo artists in the world, alongside 12-year-old Panamanian Ezra Dormon. However, what makes her special is not just her age – but her genre-defying work, which often combines cutesy subjects, such as cats with flowering tails and heart-shaped penguins, with bold lines and colour-blocking that would not be stylistically amiss in woodcut artwork from the Japanese Edo period.

Her unique pieces often reference nature, much like her father's. She cites the birds drawn by 1800s ornithologist and painter John James Audubon as an inspiration. On Instagram, her parents keep a dutiful tally of clients and artwork – the number currently sitting at 20, as well as the tattoo apprentice’s most recent designs including a circle-themed cover-up and a black cat with yellow eyes on someone’s leg

Her first ever official piece, however, was on her father – a portrait of their pet, a Java sparrow called Komajiro, which Gakkin still considers to be his favourite piece, out of the many designs he has had done by his daughter. “Her drawings are so lovely. I really love them,” Gakkin explains, every bit the proud dad. “(It was a) big surprise for me that she can do very well at such a young age. Especially (since) drawing and tattooing are totally different things. I'm very proud of her.”

Tattooing out of her dad’s namesake studio in Amsterdam, Noko often sports temporary tattoos featuring flowers on her arms, but isn’t sure what she’ll get for herself once she reaches the age of eighteen. “I want birds on my body,” she says, “maybe”.

Gakkin and Noko’s mother, Megumi, manage their daughter’s Instagram account and support her passion for tattooing as a budding apprentice, but there is no grand marketing plan or pressure behind sharing her work on the platform. Their approach towards their daughter’s journey as a tattoo artist is serene, allowing her the space to be a child, but also to explore the art form as much as she would like, for as long as she would like.

“We think [that] to find (a) dream – what she wants to be, what she wants to do in the future, is not easy at a young age,” explains Gakkin. “So she might change her mind in the future – but (for) now, she is interested in tattooing and enjoying it so much. We want to do our best to support her. It's normal as parents, we think. She is only 10 years old – we want her to see many things. We want to give her any chance. We are looking forward to seeing how she grows.”

When asked if they ever worry about the public’s potential negative perceptions of tattoos as parents, it’s not something they’re too concerned about. “Actually I really don't mind if people see this under a negative light,” her father explains. “This is their choice and I have my choice. I don't want to spend my life trying to change the public image of tattoos. I just want to work on people who love my works. So whatever!”

The father-daughter team often work together, and Noko mentions working alongside her dad at the London Tattoo Convention as an artist as a future dream, but quickly adds that she needs to practice a little more before that can become a reality. "I like shading work better than lining work,” she explains. “I get nervous when I do lining work because I can’t make any mistakes. But when I can make a good line I am very happy!”

I ask for her advice on getting started as a tattoo artist. “My father says that to draw many times is the most important thing, and I think so too.” She says. “And also to make friends with tattoo artists. It's the fastest way to learn to tattoo. I am very lucky because my father is a good teacher and he has everything that I can use.”

As for when she’s not tattooing? 10-year-old Noko likes dancing, playing with friends, gaming and hunting mushrooms. But mostly, it's tattooing.