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Photography Chloé Jafé

Japan’s tattoo community celebrates move towards legalisation

TextAlex Peters

In a landmark case, the country’s Supreme Court has ruled tattooing is an art, and not a medical act

Japan’s Supreme Court has ruled that it is not illegal to tattoo without a medical license, in a historic moment for the practice and community.

The landmark decision, handed down on Wednesday, concerned a 32-year-old tattoo artist named Taiki who had been fined 150,000 Yen (roughly £1,100) by a district court for violating medical practitioners law by tattooing three people without a medical license. 

The Supreme Court overturned this ruling stating that “tattoos require artistic skills different from medicine, and that it cannot be assumed that doctors do the act exclusively” and therefore concluding that the practice is not a medical act.

This decision by the high court is huge news for the tattooing community in Japan as it effectively legalises tattooing. Presiding Justice Koichi Kusano also stated, however, that new laws would need to be crafted in order to regulate the potential health risks involved with tattooing, suggesting future regulations may be on the way.

Travelin’ Mick, a photographer well known in the tattoo industry whose wife Sana Sakura was involved with the legal team working on the case, says although the ruling won’t immediately affect the social stigma that is attached to tattooing in Japan it will make a big difference for tattoo artists. “It can help remove obstacles for tattooists, because they can now practice tattooing without having to fear that suddenly they will be stigmatised as criminals,” he told Inked magazine.

Countries with a social stigma against tattooing often limit the practice through the requirement of a medical license. Both Japan and South Korea have laws that require a medical license for anything involving needles, including tattooing.

Many institutions in Japan still ban tattooed customers. “You can’t go to public baths,” photographer Chloé Jafé told Dazed in 2018. Jafé spent time with the Yakuza, documenting the women associated with the group including their “irezumi”, a Japanese tattoo that usually covers part or most of the body. As a result of these bans, tattoo artists are often assimilated to the gang members that they tattoo, she explained. “They’re considered outlaws.”

In South Korea, tattoo artists who get caught without a medical license can face more than two years in prison or a fine of 100,000 to 1,000,000 Korean won (about 70 to 700 pounds). In an effort to have their work recognised as art and fight the stigma, many Korean tattoo artists have taken to Instagram to raise awareness of the issue, sharing their work and asking “does this look illegal?”

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