"I used to be into video games during the PS2 era," Benny Her says, as he buys a green tea espresso at convenience store in Osaka's fashionable youth district, Americamura. "But then I started apprenticing and didn't have any free time. "
That apprenticeship was a huge gamble. And Benny Her didn't look like a gambler. He looks like a guy I knew at uni — comfortable clothing and puffy hair. And when he pulled up on his pink bicycle, wearing an anime sweatshirt and carrying a messenger bag, he could've easily passed for a foreign exchange student, maybe studying to get a masters or a PhD.
And then you notice a red ink peeking from underneath his sweatshirt. Red link that leads to a dragon. A red dragon that covers his arm. A blue dragon covers his left. It doesn't stop there: His chest, ribs, both sleeves and legs are covered in Japanese tattoos. Benny Her sports a "zenshin irezumi" (全身刺青) or a tattoo bodysuit.
Benny is a student alright, he's committed to get a doctorate from the school of hard knocks in Japanese tattooing. And so far, he's emerging as one of the Japan's most promising — and daring — tattoo artists, aiming to take tattoos to the country's geek masses.
In the west, there is a vibrant geek tattoo culture, with gamers adorning their bodies with 8-bit characters. This same geek subculture is still in its infancy in Japan. I ask Benny why, and he replies, "Tattoos are just not socially accepted here."
Public baths, swimming pools and even hot springs prohibit individuals with tattoos from using their facilities. In Japan, the connection with tattoos and organised crime is still strong — even through there was a Western style tattoo boom at the turn of the century that tried to separate itself from traditional ink. The country has a long tattooing history, but it's not necessarily a proud one. Tattoos have existed in Japan since way before the birth of Christ, but it wasn't until the Edo era (1600-1868) that they began to be used on a decorative adornment much like today.
As Japan opened itself to the west during the Meiji Era (1868 to 1912), tattooing fascinated westerners who visited Japan. Along with topknots and carrying samurai swords, the Meij government banned tattoos as old-fashioned relics that would impede modernisation. It wasn't until after World War II that the US Occupational Forces decriminalised tattoos. Yet, by that time, tattooing has become something that covered the backs of Japanese yakuza.
"There's this notion in Japan that tattoos are only for yakuza and not for regular people," says Benny. "It's a sad stereotype." Yakuza still get elaborate tattoos — some of Benny's customers are yakuza. But regular Japanese people cover their bodies in hidden tattoos, too. "All my customers are good customers," he adds. "No matter who they are, I treat them with respect, and they do likewise." While he comfortably navigates Japanese traditional tattoo culture, he's also hoping to help it expand like it never has before.
"I'm trying to introduce otaku to tattoo culture," Benny says. We've come to Chopstick Tattoo, the Osaka tattoo studio where he works. "And I'm trying to introduce tattoo people to otaku culture."
"I'm trying to introduce otaku to tattoo culture."
Benny's office is tangible proof of this intersection. The shelves are stacked with Squid Girl (Ika Musume) merchandise. "I kind of like Ika Musume," says Benny, decked out in a Squid Girl shirt. "I think I have all her merchandise." I ask if it's because of the ink connection, and he says it's because she's so moé. He even has the non-official stuff. Benny pulls out a bottle with Ika Musume barfing up blue ink. The ink is for work. The shits and giggles are for fun.
Other shelves feature items from schoolgirl rocker anime K-On!, Dragon Ball figurines, and then stacks upon stacks of comics. It looks less like a stereotypical tattoo studio and more like an anime geek's bedroom.
Then you look at his bulletin board, covered with drawings of tattoos he's done or will do — there are anime heroines like Rei Ayanami next to snakes, dragons, peacocks, and sumie style mountains. I compliment Benny on his art, and he genuinely seems flattered.
The juxtaposition between the country's traditional and modern cultures isn't jarring, it's utterly fascinating. And that contrast doesn't stop on Benny's bulletin board: it's evident on Benny's living canvas of flesh, where dragon's and koi mingled with Takaya Noriko from 1990s' sci-fi anime Gunbuster.
Benny, who is 33, was first exposed to Japanese anime, like so many were in those dark, pre-internet days of the late 1980s and early 1990s: via a VHS tape that was being passed around. "It was a copy of a copy of a copy," he recalls. The tape was a mishmash of shows and movies, and it had some Macross on it as well as a movie that was just released in Japan. That movie was Akira. Benny's mind was blown — he had never seen anything like it. Benny, who described himself as the kid sitting at the back of the class drawing, immediately took to Japanese animation. Benny wanted to know more about the country that produced these wonderful images and moving stories.
But studying Japanese at the University of Minnesota took an unexpected turn when his tattoo artist housemate asked him to translate for a visiting Japanese tattoo artist from Osaka. At that time, Benny had yet to get inked, and he thought it was cool just hanging out in a tattoo artist's studio, speaking rudimentary Japanese. It was the late 1990s, and tattooing was exploding in the US. It still had an edge to it; it still felt somewhat underground, especially to how mainstream it's become in the last decade.
Benny visited Japan, stopping in Osaka and falling in love with the city, before getting an English teaching gig, which shipped him off to the boonies in Kagoshima in 2002. Benny felt like his future was in Japan, but just not necessarily in the teaching field. A chance encounter in Hiroshima with a tattoo artist named Hiderow convinced him of that. "His studio was unlike anything I'd ever seen — it had a huge TV running anime and all these anime figurines," Benny says, gesturing. "It totally went against stereotype." The studio was a mix of traditional Japanese art and modern day manga and anime creations. Hiderow, who tragically passed away in his late 30s, was a pioneer and one of the first to meld traditional and otaku motifs. It was that chance meeting during which Benny decided what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to be a tattoo artist.
Benny saved every yen he earned. The instant his teaching contract was up, he sold all his possessions and headed to Osaka, where he hoped to get an apprenticeship with the tattoo artist he had translated for while a college student. "I basically showed up and asked for them to allow me to apprentice," says Benny, sitting in the studio at which he desperately wanted to apprentice. "And they said no."
Benny came back every single day for about a week, until finally the boss called him into his office and said they'll allow him to learn. Everyday Benny, who's entirely self-taught, came into the studio and worked on his drawings and tried to pick up what he could. Everyday for four-and-a-half years without pay.
"Look, I'm a shokunin."
"Look, I'm a shokunin," Benny explains. "Shokunin" (職人) is a craftsmen — an artisan. In Japan, craft is, and always has been, highly valued. Whether that be making swords or even cutting hair, apprenticeships can last years, with little to no pay. Instead of salaries, the apprentices are paid in experience and skills — and if they make it through their often-grueling apprenticeship, they are paid in loyalty. The apprentices then become master craftsmen, and the cycle continues.
"It's a bit like being thrown off the cliff and seeing if you're able to climb back up," says Benny. There's a notion in Japan that if you give up on the third day, then you weren't serious. If you give up in three months, then you're heart wasn't really in it. If you give up in three years, then you gave it a good shot, but it didn't work out. If you make it through all that, then you've found your destiny.
Benny was gung-ho from the start. He was taking all of his chips and placing them on becoming a tattoo artist. With all the money he saved, he began having his full bodysuit tattoo inked, starting with an enormous orange koi on his ribs, tattooed by the Osaka artist he translated for in Minnesota. In Japan, when people do things right, they go all out. Benny was leaving permanent marks to reflect the field he had entered.
"Getting tattooed like this takes years off your life," he says. "All that ink has to go somewhere, and it goes to your liver." He adds that there, of course, are elderly tattoo masters, like Horiyoshi III — who no longer takes appointments, but recently did a peony on Benny's knee. Benny wasn't going into this half-assed. Though, he didn't know how long the apprenticeship was going to last.
"I thought the apprenticeship was going to be a few months," says Benny, as he looks at one of his dragon sleeves — which was completed only recently. Full body suits can cost over US$10,000. Benny was burning through his money, and without a steady salary, he ended up on the street, homeless for just over a year. He was sleeping on rooftops and next to air conditioners. And when he got lucky, Benny would squat in random buildings. While he's sure that his employers knew that he was out on the street, Benny is quick not to lay blame.
"I'm the one who begged and begged for this apprenticeship," he says. "I'm the one who didn't have a place to stay anymore — it wasn't their fault." Other apprentices could always crash at their parents' house, but Benny could not. He didn't want any special treatment — and already felt like he was getting it.
"My Japanese isn't 100 per cent perfect," concedes Benny, who speaks and writes fluent Japanese. "There are things I don't know — things my bosses and co-workers would let slide that they never would for others." And when things started to get really rough, other tattoo artists would bring him food. One tattoo artist at the studio, Wataru, finally decided to take Benny on as his "deshi" (弟子) or "student", working directly with him to help him become a tattoo artist. Benny's skills were improving, and the other tattoo artists were helping him get a tattoo machine and ink to practice on himself — and willing friends. And after four-and-a-half gruelling years and over a hundred practice tattoos on folks for free, Benny was finally allowed to tattoo a customer.
"Boy, the first time you tattoo someone... for money," he recalls; he was talking their money, and he wanted to be damn sure not to screw up and leave behind unacceptable work. And then there was the next customer, and the next customer and the next. Benny was finally a shokunin — a craftsman.
Across the yellow strip, in ornate, stylised script, it reads: "Keizoku wa chikara nari".
On Benny's desk, underneath his sketches, sits his messenger bag. Across the yellow strip, in ornate, stylised script, it reads: "Keizoku wa chikara nari" (継続は力なり). Literally, it means "continuation is power", but it's often translated as "Whatever doesn't kill us, makes us stronger" or "Persistence pays off" — two English translations that Benny prefers.
Benny's studio is spacious by Japanese standards, and he's free to decorate it however he likes. In the reception, two paintings Benny did of Noh masks hang. On the magazine rack proudly displayed, there's the current issue of Japan's biggest tattoo mag, which has an interview the American-born tattoo artist. His studio has autographs of the celebrities he's inked. Though, Benny seems more excited talking about the Ika Musume stickers and t-shirts he makes for Comic Market than bragging about who he's inked — or just talking about the Japanese art of tattooing.
"I think I was right to put all my chips on this," he says. "I'm not going to go be an insurance salesman or something." Not now, not after taking a gamble and becoming a member of the shokunin class. Benny Her from Minnesota is a Japanese tattoo artist.