Singapore Contemporary Young Artists

Playing With & For The Community

urban body speaks/ Lost In Translation

Aron Luangphinith
Hawaii / Tokyo

Born and raised in Hawaii, I noticed that tattoos have always been accepted and admired as a cultural entity and lifestyle. The beauty behind the art form is celebrated. But crossing the seas changes everything, consciously and physically.

I had previously visited Japan after high school. But this time, post-college with a more mature outlook, and a whole new set of tattoos, the game was different. This time, I rented an apartment and stayed long enough to feel as if I actually lived there. My everyday routine had to adapt to the local culture, an assimilation which I was more than happy. I have been fascinated with the Japanese lifestyle since grade school.

So I gladly participated: catching five trains to get to my next destination, standing on the ‘correct’ side of escalators, and using my Japanese language skills daily. Yet one change that made me self-conscious was that I felt like I had to hide my tattoos.

Compared to the hours of traffic on freeways back home, public transportation in Tokyo is very convenient, such as the easy train rides home at 5am after a night of drunken fun. However, with such high public interaction, wandering eyes can turn into uncomfortable gazes—people get up and move away from me, and my tattoos. This typically happens with older generations. I would be seated, headphones on. The next stop brings a crowd, and an older woman sits beside me. If I wore short sleeves, something that exposed my body art, it would be more than obvious where her glances are fixated on. She would, quietly, scoot herself away, as far as possible without having to give up her precious seat. It did not bother me too much. My initial reaction was of embarrassment but also amusement. In ultra-modern Tokyo, this was a culture shock for me since the trains are also packed with intoxicated businessmen and punk-rock teens in the most outlandish clothes.

My tattoos consist of pictorial Buddhist references and other cultural scripts that pay homage to my multi-ethnic background. I did not think they would offend much. However, in Tokyo, a tattoo remains a tattoo to some no matter how beautiful or special they are to the host.

Not every tattoo-bearer is ostracized though. My own observations—confirmed by native Japanese friends—are that Caucasians (especially Americans) are not looked at twice. It is assumed that they are “obviously” a tourist/visitor. The title “gaijin” associated with them means “non-Japanese”. It can also hold a negative, so the more courteous “gaikokujin” (foreign-country person) could be used instead. (In Hawaii, we have a similar word for Caucasians: “haole”. As with “gaijin”, it can also be misused.) Yet, for someone of Asian orient with visible tattoos, like me, we’re assumed not to be unwitting visitors. Indeed, a Japanese person with tattoos could be associated with a “dirty” lifestyle or the Yakuza. A common example: you will be denied entry into publiconsen (hot springs) and bathhouses if you have visible tattoos, no matter who you are.

All this was only a minor setback for me. It did make me rethink my wardrobe, but winter meant warm layers was no problem. I respected that I was a visitor amongst their world. As with any place, they are going to have their own expectations of what is and isn’t accepted, even if they have some of the world’s most renowned tattoo artists.

That’s where I think Japan is a beautiful double-edged sword. Though known for being one of the world’s most forward hotspots truly original fashions and inventions, there still remain taboos that cross their lines of honorable behavior and respect. While Hawaii is similarly rich in culture and history, our cultural etiquette is far more laid-back and relaxed. As I did my best to mold myself into the everyday routines of a Japanese lifestyle, I repeatedly rediscovered how self-aware and different I was in simple mannerisms: respectful bows, slowing down to enjoy my meals, and even grocery shopping.

One incident was atypical. It was a surprisingly pleasant encounter that turned into an eventual friendship. Walking alone through Shibuya, I entered a giant record store. I wasn’t wearing a jacket so my tattoos were visible. I was minding my own business when two fashionable Japanese guys about my age stopped me and started speaking to me in the language, asking if they could see my tattoos. I was surprised by their abruptness, but quickly realized their friendly demeanor was more than welcoming. I happily obliged and showed them the artwork on my arms and back., which opened another door for them. They started taking off their jackets, and even their shirts, displaying a splendid array of tattoos, tribal and religious pictures and scriptures, that blanketed their arms and torso. It was so exciting to share this common attribute that they kept so humbly concealed beneath protective layers. By simply exposing our tattoos with one another, it somehow connected strangers from across the world in a moment of commonality and interest. We exchanged emails and phone numbers and they later invited me out for drinks with them. Out of all the new friends I made in Japan, who would have thought that ink on our bodies would be responsible for a new relationship?

Aron writes at

#4 in a series of written perspectives on how the urban and the body manifest in the other, in a running accompaniment to the visual art exhibition called, well, urban body. Nine artists will present visual provocations—in a bid to expose and make tangible the cityscapes of our formed selves.

A published compilation of both art and essay will be available at the exhibition.

urban body opens on 2 august 2012, 6:30pm at the Orange Thimble, in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s first housing estate. For details and updates, check out the event page on facebook.

Copyright © 2012 Author. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the site in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form.

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This entry was posted on July 23, 2012 by in Others.

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