Ben Hills, Tokyo

Professor Susumu Kato plunges his arms into a blue plastic bin and pulls out what looks like a soggy bundle of technicolour tripe.

Carefully, he spreads it out on the stainless steel surface of a dissecting table in the morgue, and gradually, gruesomely, it becomes clear what it is.

A human skin – but a skin like nothing on earth. A skin luminous with orange and green and dark blue dye, a skin decorated over every square centimetre with peony roses and maple leaves, with bolts of lightning, fire-breathing dragons, and, in the centre, the gorgeous bare-breasted Princess Tamatori.

“It is one of the finest examples I have come across,” says Kato, a professor of anatomy at Tokyo’s Jikei Medical University. “I am sure the owner, wherever he is, will be very proud that it is being preserved for posterity.”

Japan has been known for centuries as the land where tattooing has achieved the status of an art form; to quote the Kodansha Encyclopedia, it represents “the very highest level of artistic expression”.

What has, until now, been a closely guarded secret within the inner circles of connoisseurs of this macabre art, is that techniques exist, and are used, to save these living canvases from the grave.

Until a few months ago, this skin belonged to Kazuhisa Takahashi, a middle-aged bank-worker, who endured years of pain to have an amazingly elaborate tattoo impregnated across his back, buttocks, upper arms and legs.

He was obliged, as are most Japanese, to keep the masterwork a secret from all but his closest friends and family. Tattoos are associated with crime in Japan – its keenest aficionados are yakuza gangsters – and people who have them are banned from health clubs and swimming pools.

Before his death, Takahashi joined the “white chrysanthemum society” of people who leave their bodies to science (so called because chrysanthemums are the Japanese funeral flower), which meant he could have the work, by one of Japan’s greatest tattoo masters, removed and preserved.

Relatives came to Kato, one of the few doctors in Japan who knows the ancient technique of flaying human skin. The method, which involves peeling off the skin and pickling it in a mixture of rice-bran and salt, is not mentioned in the medical texts and was passed down by word of mouth from his old anatomy professor.

After Takahashi’s skin has been thoroughly rinsed, it will be stretched on a frame, dried, and hung in the university’s medical museum. Apart from a slight darkening of the pigment, it should last as well as any old master. About a dozen other works of tattoo art are on display in the museum – a number of arms, a back, and, in a display case stuffed with cotton, the complete, beautifully decorated body of a carpenter who died about 70 years ago.

“Just look at the technique,” says Kato, admiringly pointing to the line of sutures down the man’s chest. “The entire skin was removed with just one incision.”

The visitor is chillingly reminded of the suspected fate of the penniless beggar in the Roald Dahl horror story who, with an impressionist portrait tattooed on his back, vanishes one night after dinner with a wealthy art collector.

Indeed, though everyone denies it, there are persistent rumours of a trade in these tattooed skins among Japanese collectors. People are said to have willed their backs for money, and the author D.M. Thomas claims that a particularly glorious specimen sold a few years ago for $US50,000.

The finest collection of tattoo art is in the medical museum of Tokyo University, Japan’s premier university. Here, the skins of about 30 illuminated men are on display, amid an amazing collection of scientific oddities, including the bottled brains of five former Japanese prime ministers, the first man-made cancer and several Japanese human mummies.

These tattoo art galleries are not open to the public – students and visiting doctors are their usual audience, and photographer Mayu Kanamori and I were among the first outsiders allowed to see the collection.

This furtiveness underlines the ambivalence of Japanese to the art form, which has been in and out of popularity since the time of the original inhabitants, the ancient Ainu people. Until recently, older Ainu women could be seen with the anchipiri tattoo, the “black stone mouth”, which was thought to be sexually alluring.

There have always been undertones of criminality about irezumi, as it’s called, “injecting soot”. Tattooing was used until last century to brand and ostracise criminals – in Osaka, for instance, a criminal would have a dog tattooed on his forehead.

At the same time, during the “floating world” of 17th-century Tokyo, the practice became fashionable in court circles. Courtesans would have the names of their lovers – or, more subtly, dots corresponding with their age – tattooed on their elbows.

Tattooing had a revival in the 19th century among the so-called “naked classes” – Japanese manual labourers who traditionally wear only a loincloth. Today, among the 20,000 or so Japanese who carry a tattoo, there are carpenters, masons, firemen, and gamblers keeping the tradition alive.

Tattooing was officially banned (with little effect) for nearly a century on the grounds it was “deleterious to public morals”, although in the port city of Yokohama, studios were allowed to remain with signs proclaiming “Foreigners Only”.

Foreigners have always been fascinated by Japanese tattoos – and not only brawny jack-tars. In the days when it was more socially acceptable, both the future King George V of England, and the future Tsar Nicholas II of Russia – visiting Yokohama as midshipmen on navy goodwill visits – had dragons tattooed on their forearms.

And Yokohama still has some of the world’s most famous tattoo artists. Men such as Yoshihito Nakano, 49, who, like most tattooists, has adopted the name of the master with whom he spent an eight-year apprenticeship, Horiyoshi III.

Nakano comes from the classic tradition of Japanese tattoo art, many of whose themes are taken from the great 14th-century Chinese adventure classic the Suikoden (Water Margin), which became a smash hit in Japanese cultural circles when it was translated in 1805.
Nothing could be further from the crudely carved hearts, skeletons, nudes and knives that Westerners associate with tattoos. “It is like comparing a manga (comic) with a Rembrandt,” says Nakano.

His clients’ bodies are decorated with great feats of martial arts, fierce dragons, temple dogs, cherry blossoms, with Fudo – the fanged Buddhist guardian of Hell – brandishing a flaming sword, and Kannon – the goddess of mercy – riding a golden carp. Each carries its own symbolism of health, strength, wisdom, prosperity and bravery in the pantheon of tattoo mythology.

Nakano’s tattoos have been exhibited at competitions around the world, winning prizes in places as diverse as San Diego and Rome (although, ironically, not Japan, which has no tattoo convention).

In Bologna, Italy, and in Amsterdam this year, his prize-winning piece of living art was Genichiro Katsutori, 35, the proprietor of a kimono shop, who keeps his splendid tattoos – a dragon and a phoenix – a secret in Japan for fear of upsetting his neighbours and customers.

Kesao Shibata, 47, a construction worker and head of the Yokohama tattoo club, is another walking work of art who has spent most of the past 20 years – and thousands of dollars – having every part of his body decorated by Nakano’s needles. He even has a mouse, and a mallet, on his head.

“This is the best one,” he declares, yanking up his shirt to disclose a samurai in a battle scene, licking the blood from his opponent’s severed head, “this protects me from evil.”

Nakano’s tiny studio is on the second floor of an anonymous residential building – there is no sign, and he lists himself in the phone-book under “sculptor/engraver”. Tattooing is no longer illegal in Japan – but is not legal either, and there is no licensing or regulation.
To acquire a full-body tattoo can take 50 sessions over a year, and cost $7,500.

“I would like to see my work preserved,” says Nakano, “but I think the relatives would be upset if there was no body in the coffin for them to farewell at the wake.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 16 September 1995
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 43
Word count: 1192
Photography: Mayu Kanamori
1. Permanent exhibition: Kesao Shibata, head of the Yokohama tattoo club.
2. Points of honour:
a. traditionally tattooed men
b. artist Yoshihito Nakano
c. Susumu Kato with a piece of the tattooed human skin
Picture supplied by Yoshihito Nakano