Tattoo Church

Published: 12 February, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 136, August, 2006

Being able to say that you work out from Tokyo, Japans biggest city and capital is a big plus for most business minded people over here. Mention that you are running your trade in Osaka, the second largest city or in Nagoya or Kobe and people might be taken by surprise by the lack of knowledge or information from these places.

Of course there are great artists in all of these cities as well but to have Tokyo on your business card makes it easier to be understood on the international market. Tokyo has the biggest concentration of active tattoo artists operating either in the hub of the city or in it’s surrounding cities. The “Capital of the East” or like it would translate directly from the Japanese kanji, “Eastern Capital” is just what it is in more ways than one. It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Tokyo is the tattoo capital of greater Asia or “Far East” as we Europeans would call it. It’s here in this city that most visitors or expatriates feel most at home among all the unwritten laws and rules that the Japanese hold so close to their hearts. It is here in this city you can get by with a low level of Japanese language ability and it’s here you will find the more forgiving mentality towards the western, “new” or unknown cultures popping up with strong ties to the foreign market. If you travel to more remote areas you’ll find that a die-hard old school mentality still remains and keeps the local tradition alive. The contrast of life and lifestyles are huge between the few main cities and the rest of this small country made up by its hundreds of islands. The fast busy pace of these cities doesn’t really exist in the slow moving, tranquil lifestyle of the smaller local farming or fishing communities dotting the landscape and coastlines.

Tattoo Church is located a couple of stops by local train from the city centre of Shinjuku (one of Tokyo’s many city centers, Tokyo boasts over 12 million people so it’s big!) in the old neighborhood of Shimokitazawa. This once sleepy part of town has become the hub for the more artistic minded younger population of Tokyo and it’s surroundings. Theaters, secondhand shops lay side by side with trendy cafés, hip hair saloons and antique shops. The old train station is getting a face-lift and without doubt, this will be one of the more popular places for young professionals to be in a couple of years from now. It’s still a bit run down but rents are going up year after year and the once poor student clientele have soon swapped their bicycles to BMW’s and their backpacks to top brand handbags. 

I met Carlos, owner and tattooist at Tattoo Church a couple of years ago and thought his background was interesting. During the years in Tokyo I have got to know him very well and consider him a great friend and a great tattooist. Born and raised by his Japanese parents in Brazils industrialized core of Sao Paolo he told me he had a pretty bizarre introduction to the world of tattoos and tattooing. Carlos says “The first contact with tattoos was when in the rough neighborhood where I grew up, someone would come back from jail with tattoos on their bodies”, he continues “these tattoos was not of very high standard and we all thought it looked rather bad, it all had a bad feeling about it really!” 

At 19 he and his parents moved back to the homeland and new obstacles entered his life. The language for one thing but also the new culture was more present even though Sao Paolo had a huge population of Japanese immigrants and still has to this date. Carlos says “ It was when I was 21 I was studying Japanese by watching rental videos, T.V dramas and so on, and then I saw my first “yakuza” movie by mistake really and it had a huge impact on my view of tattoos. I really thought it looked beautiful and it was something that stuck on my mind for a long time.” He ads “I was playing in bands at that time and some people involved in the music scene had tattoos as well and I thought I should give it a try. I tattooed anyone that was willing to get a piece and the design was completely up to the person to decide. They were complete guinea pigs!” he continues “I learned everything by myself and by my own mistakes. It might not have been the best way to get started but that’s how it happened” 

So, here we have a self-taught Japanese/Brazilian tattooist raised in the Latino culture but practicing his trade in the very core of the Japanese society. I asked him what styles he does and why?  “Well, I would like to say that I focus on Japanese traditional and tribal styles. This is not something I decided on doing as my only styles, this is something that there is a demand for by the clients here and that’s what I like to do as well, and it’s what I think I do best so it works just fine. If the trend for some reason changed and another style would be on demand more than another I would have to learn this style and adapt to the requests by my clients. But so far these two styles are the two main ones” He says, “I’m not too eager to find a final style, the style will find me eventually” he ads “ I am still learning the traditional Japanese style and there are almost unlimited sources of information about this subject in the form of books and on the Internet. But some of the masters I have studied or are still studying are Hokusai, Kyosai, Kuniyoshi and Kanno Hogai.” 

Carlos told me he used to travel a lot more than he is doing nowadays and this also gave him a chance to meet and learn from various tattooists around the world, mainly the U.S.A and Europe. Carlos says, “Shad from Belgium and Ivan Szazi in Brazil are two tattooists focusing on the Traditional Japanese tattoo form and they have given me lots of influences. They really have the right soul about the traditional Japanese tattoo form.” “This is something we who speak the language and are living in Japan can easier adapt to. So to be an outsider and still be able to do great work is a very good thing!”

He continues “ Among the active Japanese tattooists I have visited to work with and sometimes learn from are Shiryu from the Ryu family, Hiro at Back In Black, master Horikoi in Aichi prefecture and Horihiro in Gifu prefecture.” “I consider myself lucky to have visited the countryside of Japan where the old school Japanese traditional style is still very present. There is a big difference in how people are tattooing and how clients are seeing the process of getting tattooed as well. In the big cities the client and the tattooist are rushing to finish a piece, time is money so to say while in the countryside both parties are enjoying the process, the procedure of getting a tattoo and to tattoo more. The clients and the tattooist can work in a more relaxed style and the money factor isn’t hanging over you like a dark cloud”

So how is it to be a Brazilian tattooist living and working in Japan? 
“Well, I have had no problems so far. I feel welcomed but of course you get a slight different treatment for not being 100% Japanese, but I take this is a good challenge. Also I will try not to copy the traditional Japanese style but doing it with a more personal touch, my own way so to speak. I work only with machines and will continue to polish on my skill with this instead of getting in to the traditional tebori or hand poked style.”

This is something I have noticed during my 6 years here in Japan as a freelance working photographer/writer. It takes time and you have to really work hard to earn the trust and respect from your fellow client, friend or what ever it might be, but as soon you get it will be paid back thousand fold. To gain this respect or acceptance in a so traditional and often closed world like the Japanese traditional tattoo world is not an easy task and will not be reached by many even if the talent and will is there. The more you learn about whatever topic you are focusing on you will in many cases first be classified as strange gaijin with too much interest in “their” culture, but if you show your true colour or who you really are you will gain everything and have nothing to lose. If you look back in history you can easily understand that Japan is a new country but with a very old traditional background and history. The Japan we see today goes back around 150 years from when Commodore Perry with his four Black ships “opened up” Japan to foreign trade. But the Japanese tattoo culture goes back all the way to the Jomon period which begun sometime in 10,000 B.C!

I asked Carlos about the future and where he plans to take his tattooing career?
“I’ll go with the flow, I’m not really out to reach this goal or that. But traditional Japanese and tribal will play a big role in my tattooing even in the future” he continues “ I also would like to review the Latino culture in tattooing. With so many Latino workers coming in from central and South America to Japan there will be a boom of styles originated in these part of the world. A traditional Japanese body suit suits a Japanese body best, shapes of the body and postures and so on are different from various people. And when the Latino culture grows bigger here in Japan it will be a bigger demand for that in tattooing as well.” He ads “Younger people here in Japan as well as other places all over the world today have easy access to Internet and cable TV and cultures like the Latino culture is growing here as well as tribal tattoo cultures. Mostly the younger generation thinks it looks cool and doesn’t know the background but it is a culture that is growing no matter what” he also ads “When I first came to Japan I learned about the culture through others, now I feel it’s my turn to give back some of my heritage and knowledge to the Japanese”.


Text & Photography Mattias Westfalk (


Skin Deep 136 1 August 2006 136