It was the day of my thirtieth birthday and the first morning we’d experienced sunshine in Tokyo. We stepped off the train at Roppongi and made our way to Tattooist Ryugen‘s private studio where I would get my first traditional, hand poked tattoo.
Tattooist Ryugen greeted us with matcha tea to sip while he prepared the studio, we flicked through photos of his work and were in awe of some of the incredible amour style pieces he has worked on over the years – a true master!
All healed and catching some rays!
Careful consideration was given to the position of existing tattoos.
A close up of Tattooist Ryugen’s work.
Next up we discussed the sketch, its size and placement. I experimented by holding his sketch to different parts of my leg to see what would fit best with my existing tattoos and also my natural muscle shape. Then Ryugen showed me a few different petal styles for the peony he would tattoo, we had visited the Peony Garden in Ueno Park just a few days before and I has quite taken with the ‘streaky’ petals I had found on some flowers, so when I saw that he could represent this effect it was an easy choice.
The final stage of the consult was selecting colours, using the photos of examples of his previous work I was able to point out what colours I was attracted too. Due to risk of allergy I had to avoid the natural pinks and purples peonies usually are. Ryugen then carefully labeled his sketch with the different colours we selected and took me into his studio.
The studio was set out in traditional tatami style, no chairs and Ryugen’s artwork on the walls. First, he asked me to sit on a stool while he drew his sketch freehand on my skin, first roughly with an orange marker so we could check the shape, then a darker one which actually detailed the line work.
Tattooist Ryugen at work in his Tokyo studio.
Next up I lay down on the matt and it was time to ink the outline, this took about half an hour and he used a machine. As expected, having your shin tattooed was fairly uncomfortable as the vibrations from the machine rattled up my whole leg.
Finally it was time for him to start on the shading and colouring by hand. Ryugen prepared the tool, which is about 30cm long looks just like a paintbrush, I braced for the sensation but was relived to feel that the discomfort I had experienced previously from the machine vibrations was gone.
Warning, skip the next paragraph or two if needle talk makes you queasy!
In terms of how it felt, it was different to being tattooed by a machine, the drag that you usually experience from a machine isn’t there which means your skin feels less ‘raw’ during the process. As mentioned earlier, the vibration from the machine on my shin bone was pretty awful and there was no way I would have been able to sit for three hours of needlework there if it wasn’t done by hand. However there was a scratching sound which began to disturb me once I realised that was the sound of the needles flicking in and out of my skin. I had my earphones so I just listened to some podcasts to help block this out, luckily Ryugen was a man of few words and focussed on his work, rather than making small talk.
Some of the deeper ink work felt a bit more brutal then normal machine work would because he needed to used his own strength to push the needles in, this meant I felt myself being shoved around as he manipulated my flesh. Overall, it wasn’t too bad but three hours was probably as much as I could take in one sitting, if it was a machine I would have bailed much sooner.
As soon as he had finished I was relieved to see that the swelling and redness was significantly less than my previous tattoos which suggests this traditional style of tattoo was definitely more gentle than what I was used to.
The healing process
Post care instructions from a horishi (irezumi master) are a lot more simple than other tattoos I have seen. After cleaning the tattoo Ryugen covered with a special gauze (it had a film over it that meant the wound wouldn’t scab into it, yet it was able to absorb all the usually oozy business). His instructions were simple, wait 4 hours, remove the wrapping, shower and don’t touch it. No soap, no cream.
Three days after.
Six days after.
We left the studio and headed to Ginza for a simple meal at a Gyoza house. I skipped a beer just in case. I was a little bit sore walking around but it only slowed me down going downstairs. I got home, showered and it looked fine, by now it was 9pm and we had to be up early for a 6am Shinkansen to Hiroshima so I headed to bed, taking ibuprofen as a precaution and elevating my leg slightly (previous tattoos has swelled to uncomfortable levels and I didn’t want to risk this one ruining my holiday).
Waking the next morning there was no redness and it just felt a little bruised, I was able to stay off it for the next few hours on the train which probably helped too. Following this I climbed a mountain two days after having it done and road 25km on a bicycle four days after having it done and I didn’t feel restricted at all.
I lasted five days before I cracked and put some cream on it, it had just started to peel and as I usually moisturise twice a day I figured I better ease back into my usual skin care regime in case my leg dried out to a husk. For the next five days I applied the tiniest bit of After Inked to help with the itching, it peeled normally and the colours underneath look brilliant.
If you are in to tattoos and want to try something different when you visit Japan, getting a hand poked tattoo in Tokyo is certainly one way to experience the culture. Tattooist Ryugen did an amazing job and I would confidently recommend him to anyone planning on doing something similar. If you can’t make it to Japan, be sure to check out his website, he often travels so you may just be able to catch him in your home town!