Tebori: Traditional Japanese Tattooing

by Bob Corlett

Tattooing in Japan is unlike tattooing anywhere else in the world. In the West, it is getting to the point now where the tattooed will soon outnumber the tattoo-less, and it is a common site to see tattoos on full public display. In Japan however, the stigma still held by some people forces the tattooed to the outskirts of society. As a Westerner with a tattoo I do not get the concerned, “he must be yakuza” stares. I do get the inevitable bans from onsen and the odd old woman who will not stand behind me at the supermarket or sit next to me on the train, but this is a tiny minority. The teachers who know about my tattoos have no problem with them as long as I don’t show the students in school. I even have one teacher who asks me all the time about when I am going to get a new one and loves them.

This article is about my experience in getting a traditional Japanese tebori-style half sleeve/chest piece of a samurai. [Note: Tebori is a traditional method of tattooing using non-electrical, hand-made tools.]

Upon my arrival in Tokyo in the summer of 2008 I set about scouring the ‘net looking for any and all tattooists I could find and emailing them; I am English, I don’t speak Japanese, I want a tattoo, can you help me? Within a day about seven of the twelve I’d emailed had gotten back to me. Some said they could help me and some said they could not; all of them were extremely polite and offered their advice on other studios if they were unable to accommodate me. The other few who didn’t reply I assumed had not understood my English.

The one master I had wanted to reply, one of two traditional guys I had emailed and whose work had impressed me the most, had replied. He could do it, and his English was excellent. I remember being in the Comfort Inn Hotel lobby and seeing this email as we were on our way out for the welcome party and bouncing around all the new friends I’d made telling them he had replied. Needless to say, it made my year.

We spent the next couple of weeks emailing back and forth, throwing around ideas until the specific character and story were decided on and I made an appointment to go to Tokyo. It wasn’t necessary to go to Tokyo for the consultation, but I wanted to do everything the traditional way and get it done the way I thought it should be. So off I went to Tokyo… for a twenty minute appointment.

The residential building where Ryugen-senseis studio, Ryugen-Dou, is located

When Ryugen-sensei opened the door to his small, residential studio in Roppongi he looked every inch the Zen master of tebori that I had read about. He was a little shorter than I had pictured, but with thick, long black hair tied back, small spectacles, and that rare Japanese goatee. He was composed, calm and absolute in his humility. His voice was barely above a whisper and I had to consciously force myself to lower mine. Later I would discover his amazing sense of humour and knowing smile which would make the actual process so much easier. The studio itself was unlike anything I had seen before. There were no shiny metal surfaces, no haze of sweat, no people waiting, and no flash books. There were some tattoo magazines, a truly amazing collection of hand-drawn designs hanging on the walls, a small sofa with a stove next to it, and a four tatami mat room to the left. He gestured for me to sit down and gave me some freshly made tea. It was as though I had walked into his home.

He looked at the size and shape of my arm and chest and made some notes. I had brought some ukiyoe woodblock print-offs from the Internet and we discussed what elements I liked and what he thought. For the most part, though, I let him design it. From my research and knowledge of Japanese tattooing culture I knew that the master/client relationship had very specific codes and ways of practice. To put your faith in the master and to trust in his craft shows your respect for him and for the tradition. In respecting the culture, Ryugen-sensei saw that I believed in what he was doing and understood the deep history embedded within it.

After the consultation, I made my first appointment. I’d sent my first email at the beginning of August, had my consultation in September, and then booked a six hour appointment for the end of October (post-payday of course). So, October came and off I went to Tokyo. The obligatory tea was served beforehand and then Ryugen-sensei brought out a big A3 sheet of paper and showed me the design he had drawn, “Is this ok?” It was by far the most impressive and stunning rendition of a samurai I had ever seen. I thought that if he could transfer that onto my body and it looked only half as vibrant and vivid then I would be ecstatic.

I sat as Ryugen-sensei drew the design free-hand onto my arm and shoulder using a marker. He had a selection of heavy metal and Beatles music in the background (this would later serve as my clock as I would refuse to look at the time unless two Metallica tracks had passed). This took maybe 30-45 minutes and involved sitting absolutely still and not making a sound. Then, for the actual outline, Ryugen-sensei used a machine, which has now become the custom for tebori. This hurt. I will be the first to admit that of all the different types of pain the body can experience, I have the hardest time with burns and stings. This burnt. And stung.

I was used to my tattooist in Manchester who made maybe a 5cm line and then wiped the area down with a cool cloth. Ryugen-sensei would draw huge arcs with the machine, not wipe as often, and the cloth was certainly not cool. I had a minor meltdown in my brain as my body promised me that it would get its revenge. I pictured my friends at home standing around me, telling me to just man up and deal with it. I knew I couldn’t ask him to stop, since that would be a sign of disrespect to the master and to the craft. This experience was the most intense thing my body has ever undergone. When I stood up to stretch I was sweating profusely and, even though I had eaten a major 7-eleven bento only two hours before, I was absolutely starving.

Ryugen-sensei’s tattooing tools

After two and half hours, with two five minute toilet and water breaks in-between, the machine was turned off and a calm came over me as excitement and anticipation overwhelmed my central nervous system. Ryugen-sensei packed and cleaned the machine and took out his tools for tebori. I saw a small, polished bamboo cane, around 25cm in length, with a tiny tip made of twelve razor sharp needles that looked like they had been ripped from the mouth of a miniature titanium shark. I was in awe as to how he was going to use this tiny little thing to create the images that I had seen.

Tebori-style tattooing

When he started I was surprised at how quiet it was. I didn’t feel like I was getting tattooed. For the first ten minutes or so I felt no pain whatsoever and was overwhelmed with relief. Then, when my adrenaline rush had worn off, the pain began. This came from the fact that I seen the individual heads of the needles and could actually hear them tearing into my flesh.

For tebori, the bamboo is held at the tip furthest from the needles and the free hand is pressed flat with the fingers together and the thumb spread, almost like when lining up a pool cue. The bamboo shaft is rested near the base of the thumb and the needles are then inserted in a sharp or soft poke (depending on the grade of the shade required) in a fast and meticulous fashion. Sometimes the tip is twisted so only half the needles are used. Darker areas require heavier and repeated stabs; some small area that would take maybe 15 minutes with a machine can take an hour with tebori.

Ryugen-sensei was so clearly a master at this craft that he could alter his original marker drawing as he went. He would make instant decisions and I could see him occasionally stop and look at what he had done, think about something, and then just go straight back in. The speed with which he worked was what amazed me more than anything. I also felt a deep sense of gratitude that this master of an art I loved, of which there are maybe only thirty in the entire world who can truly be called “master,” had allowed me to be tattooed by him. I thought of the possibilities of other tattoos I could get and debated in my mind about whether to get a full back piece. Then, after those six endless hours were up, I washed myself and bade Ryugen-sensei farewell, literally shaking with nerves and the thought that the unbelievable had just happened.

The healing began and it was nothing like my other tattoos. Tebori heals a lot quicker than a tattoo done with electrical tools because it involves less irritation and thus less inflammation of the skin. Also, there is no burn from tebori. Though I did have a lot of machine work done, it healed very quickly. Over the next few months I went back three more times for two four-hour appointments and one two-hour appointment. On my last visit I told him I would be back again and thanked him as many times as I could.

A few months after my last appointment, I received an email from Ryugen-sensei saying that he had submitted a couple of photos of my tattoo to a tattoo magazine that had subsequently published them. He gave me the name of the magazine and the page number the photo was on. After school, I went straight to FujiGrand and ran to the book store to ask if they had the magazine. They looked at me a little funny, but managed to find it. On page seven there were pictures of various interpretations of Watanabe no Tsuna, the legendary samurai I had chosen. Sure enough, at the bottom there was a gaijin-white, glossy picture of my upper torso with my newly finished tattoo.

Bob’s finished tattoo

Two years later and I am currently getting my other half sleeve/chest piece done, which should be finished by February (no six hour appointments this time). It was so good to see Ryugen-sensei again and catch up. He even remembered all the things we had talked about before. I had to cancel an appointment with him recently, so he sent me an email asking if everything was OK and told me that if I needed any help then he would do anything he could; truly a remarkable man.

Ryugen-sensei embodies the best of the Japanese. He completely respects the importance of tradition and yet he knows that the world is changing and we must adapt. He is humble and will never, ever claim to be an artist (I once argued with him that tattooing is an “art,” while he insists it is only a “craft”). He is accommodating to a fault (knowing that I can only come on weekends he once used his only day off to work on me, and would not hear my protests) and he’s the type of person who will give his opinions on many things, but does not argue or talk down to you if you do not agree with him. The life he has chosen as a tattoo master is something that he embraces and something which, I feel, permeates into every aspect of his being.

Ryugen-sensei works out of Roppongi, Tokyo. His website is http://www.ryugendo.jp/

If you are interested in the why behind my tattoo Bushido: Legacies of the Japanese Tattoo by Takahiro Kitamura is a book that contains all the information you would need.

6 thoughts on “Tebori: Traditional Japanese Tattooing

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  3. Thank you, a very interesting read! Makes me want more curious about tebori than i was before!

    I am currently doing research for a university project – why exactly is tebori less traumatic to the skin? On a cellular level I mean. Im finding it very difficult to discover any information more detailed than this.

    Thanks 🙂

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