Under The Skin
by Charles Choi
Photography by Hitoshi Tsuda & Annie Watson
The basement of the Roseland Ballroom was dim and red like a David Lynch dream that morning and suffused with the heady stench of stale pot smoke as the short Japanese man disrobed, lowering his baggy bleached jeans below his waist, to just above his crotch. Nearly everywhere on Satoru Saito's skin under his jeans and back-turned baseball cap were tattoos: purple chrysanthemums and black waves curling on his back in the bold lines and solid colors of the traditional Japanese style and red flaming skulls on his chest meticulously inked in the detailed American manner.
With the heavy-metal bass from the fifth annual New York City Tattoo Convention upstairs thudding around them like a heartbeat, the tattooed man's companion, Ryu Watanabe, pointed at the living mural as if it were a map of East and West for a lesson in artistic geopolitics.
"Here is the difference," he said, twirling his finger in the air over the tattoos as if he were an artist directing a brush or a magician waving his wand. "The Americans, when they get a tattoo, will be very specific, 'I want so-and-so here and here.' But in Japan, you would point at your back and say, 'Here _ my body is your canvas.'"
"I love the art of the Japanese tradition. Nowadays though, Japanese youth prefer the American stuff." Watanabe dismissively waved his hand. "If I had to do all my tattoos over again," he said, tapping at his own body, "I'd do them all Japanese."
The art of tattooing is a strange kind of alchemy, where under a cruel knife painted with jealously guarded secret inks one ends up with skin that almost transcends race _ almost but not quite. Here amidst this sensual parade of intertwining colors in the realm of physical graffiti, East has met West for more than a century. Chatham Square was the most widely respected tattoo center in the world at the turn of the century and was where New York's Chinatown now is. The district shipped in Japanese tattoo artists because sailors liked what they had seen overseas. In New York that May morning, the tradition seemed to continue with the crowd of New Agers and metalheads, short buzzcuts and long ponytails, all sporting ink: red flames and leopards, the Virgin Mary and Celtic knots, many of which were incorporated into full-arm tattoos or sleeves, which are Asian in origin.
But do the colors go more than skin deep? Or are Asian ideograms and imagery simply a fad in the West and American tattoos a passing trend in the East?
Under a psychedelic oil painting of a bodhisattva, Californian Brian Kaneko mulled the question over as he drew a dragon in purple ink on a customer's arm in preparation for tattooing amidst the humming swarm of dozens of needles buzzing in tattoo machines. "There's a fine line when it comes to kanji and other Asian-influenced tattoos. Is Asian art being bastardized or honored?" he asked rhetorically. "Who knows? A lot of people genuinely don't know. There are so many layers of meaning in this."
There are no clear lines of love and hate when it comes to how East and West interact via tattoos _ only the swirling push and pull of ambiguity and ambivalence. Many Japanese tattoo artists fiercely reject Western influences now, but when Japan was Westernizing during the Meiji period, it banned its own ancient tradition of body art as culturally backward. Ironically, tattooing was reintroduced to Japan after World War II due to the insistence of American occupation forces.
Perhaps what unifies tattooing in both East and West is how it marks its practitioners as outsiders. Chatham Square was once known as "The Thief's Highway," where the first electric tattoo machines were born amidst opium dens and cathouses with conmen and cutpurses for midwives. While in Japan, tattoos emerged as brands stamped on convicts, the rebel art of the lower classes and the infamous trademark of the yakuza crime cartels.
"Just to get my view across, I just really like Japanese tattoos because they have so much subtle power," sayid Kaneko's customer, a drummer who introduced himself as Jon Osterman. "It's not a lot of bells and whistles. It's like the difference in rock and roll between a guitarist like Stevie Ray Vaughn and Yngwie Malmsteen."
"Yeah, exactly," Osterman replied. "Yngwie's some guy who plays too many notes. It's like Miles Davis said about jazz: 'Sometimes it's the notes that you don't play.'"
"I think the blending of cultures is a testament to Japanese art. It's the simplicity that's so powerful." Kaneko added. "In Asian art and in the mentality as a whole, really, a lot of times you go for simplicity. And at first glance, simplicity is easier to achieve. It isn't; it's harder."
"That brings tears to the eyes," Osterman said.
"There's soul to it," Kaneko said.
Ascending past the carnival atmosphere of the rest of the tattoo convention in the upstairs of the Roseland Ballroom, around a makeshift tattoo parlor, a painted crowd gazed on reverently at a Japanese master, Horihide, as he practiced the ancient art of hand tattooing. Surrounded by emptied Starbucks boxes, the old man worked the needle into his customer's leg, the art of creating a spectacle itself becoming a spectacle before the silent onlookers.
"Tattooing is an art unlike any other," Horihide said, sitting on a blue plastic sheet, the ink at the needle's tip staining the outline of a koi on the calf. "It's like creating a living creature that moves."
For Horihide and his audience at that moment, tattooing was something nearly magical that cut past the trends of the moment, perhaps tapping into why tattooing has withstood the ravages of time in so many cultures. Before recorded history, tattoos were more than just markers on outlaws; tattoos were markers of the holy. On some of the oldest men and women discovered _ a 2,500-year-old woman from a tomb in Siberia, a 5,300 year old man dredged from a glacier near the Italian Alps, ancient mummies from Egypt _ are tattoos, marks believed to distinguish shamans and priests of secret sects.
Tattoo puts color under the skin, but it's not where people necessarily put aside their differences. Horihide has worked for 50 years in the Japanese style and resists any American influences in what he draws. But the old master says he will later ink in the colors of the carp using machine techniques he learned from Americans in Hawaii.
"Theirs are better," he flatly stated.
Charles Choi freelances for Science magazine, New Scientist and Scientific American from New York, N.Y. In the last three years he's visited Tibet, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and traveled the rainforest canopy of Costa Rica by wire. He also plays a mean harmonica.