Tattoos in Shibuya

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Words || Amanda Burgess

People say that the worst thing you could do on your first overseas trip without a parent is get a tattoo. With that being said, it felt like I’d thrown all common sense out the window when I decided to get my first tattoo in a tiny apartment turned tattoo studio in Shibuya.

Growing up in the hardcore and pop-punk music scenes meant that I’d always been surrounded by people with tattoos. It was a sign of identity, a kind of alternative social rite. At every show, you’d see the moshers up the front of the venue with pigmented patterns snaking up their arms and legs, and I desperately wanted to have that too.

I’d often daydream about my first tattoo when I was younger, changing my mind as often as Australia changes Prime Ministers. In hindsight, I’m very glad that legally, you can’t get one at sixteen or else I might have an anchor and deer on my thighs with The Amity Affliction lyrics underneath them.

So it’s no surprise that when the first opportunity came, I took it. I was in Tokyo for five days to celebrate my nineteenth birthday with my friend, Kiara, and today was the day I’d been waiting years for. Armed with Bepanthen, the nipple rash cream turned tattoo aftercare saviour, we headed out of the hotel door and made our way to Shinjuku station.

It was a Monday morning, and the intensity of Tokyo’s peak hour rush made me question whether I really wanted to be getting stabbed in the leg with an electric needle for an hour and a half.

But it was too late to back out now.

Located in the heart of Tokyo’s shopping and subculture district and a quick walk from the chaos of the Shibuya crossing, THE PARLOUR is somewhat of an institution for the local hardcore scene in Tokyo. As a studio frequented by bands and music fans from all over Japan and the world, it was the perfect choice.

Well, it was the perfect choice until we arrived in Shibuya and had no idea where it was. I’d opened Google Maps and typed in the address, but somehow we ended up at the NHK television headquarters.

Exhausted from the growing heat, we headed to the nearest convenience store to get supplies for aftercare.

Arguably worse than the tattoo itself, aftercare involves sticky-taping cling wrap to your body after you’ve washed your swollen open wound that is probably oozing or peeling by that point. Basically, it’s two weeks of antibacterial soap and slapping yourself when the tattoo gets itchy because you can’t scratch the damn thing.

We’d realised on the way to the studio that we’d forgotten the Glad Wrap, tape and soap. This was a giant mistake. We needed antibacterial soap with no fragrance. We couldn’t read the Japanese labels.

Eventually, we found a bottle of body wash with a green plus sign on it.

We opened Google Maps once again, body wash and cling wrap in tow, and hoped this time it would take us to the studio. This time, I let Kiara take charge. I used to blame Google Maps for why I got lost all the time in Japan. But the reality was, I just couldn’t read a map.

We found the building just in time for our appointments. It was located on the upper floor of a white block of apartments: some homes, some businesses. We only found the studio because we spotted a heavily tattooed dude out the front having a smoke.

Kiara went first. It felt like it had only been five minutes before I was called over for my turn.

I was lying down, staring at the ceiling and questioning why I thought this was a good idea. Did I even really want a tattoo? What if the design was too big? Would my Mum find out when I get home? I grew sweatier and more anxious by the minute. I tried to relax and breathe. The intense and incredibly confusing sound of the Japanese hardcore band playing in the background only made things worse.

“Are you ready?” the artist asked me.

“Yes, I am” I said aloud, but the answer in my head wasn’t quite as confident. The tattoo gun started to buzz, and I’ll be honest, it didn’t even hurt. I’d spent all this time worrying about the pain and whether I’d be able to handle it, only for it to feel like nothing.

“This is way better than I expected,” I told the artist.

“It hasn’t even touched your skin yet,” he replied.

When the needle finally pierced my skin, I understood what people meant when they said that tattoos hurt.

It did.

It was the first and only time I have ever cried while getting tattooed. I couldn’t tell if it was the pain, the heat, or the fact that the studio I was cramped up in was literally smaller than my garage back home. Or maybe it was the fact that I’d have to hide it from my family as soon as I got home, keeping it away from the world for what could be almost my entire life.

I’d decided to get a globe tattooed on my thigh, with Japan in the centre and the words ‘Sick of Goodbyes’ around the outside. It was a homage to one of my favourite Australian hardcore albums by a band called Life Love Regret. I’d listened to it on the bus home from my last day of high school only a few months earlier.

An hour and a half later, it was done. My thigh was throbbing, red and raw with an intricate wound that would remain on my skin for the rest of my life.

I’ve done plenty of things I regret in my life. But getting tattooed in Shibuya isn’t one of them.

It’s been over two years since that day, and my Mum has not found out about it. Or the other four I’ve gotten since.

Before I go away for the weekend or on a trip, Mum will still jokingly say “don’t come home with tattoos.”

I always say I won’t.

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