Tattoo you and Japan’s gyms

2006-10-23

Original Photo by : tdenham
Original Photo by : tdenham

Whether training hard or hardly training, more people in Japan are finessing their physiques with tattoos. They're also learning those tribal motifs, elaborate illustrations and stylized kanji are like scarlet letters marking them for life as unfit for most fitness clubs. Modern gyms may abound but so do old-world ideas about who can use them.

"I was working out at a branch of Tipness (Fitness Club) and one of the attendants strolled up to me and told me tattoos were no longer allowed and asked me to leave," says Marc Tats, 37. The owner of Tokyo Body Art adds he often hears such tales from tattooed clients. In this case, he says he was given 10 minutes to leave before the police were called. "It would have been nice of them to give me time to catch a quick shower." Even conditional acceptance of tattoos can cause some to throw in the towel.

Original Photo by : TheMAXX81
Original Photo by : TheMAXX81

"I used to belong to the Tipness chain but I quit because it was such a pain - and costly - to put large bandages over my tattoos," says Robert Haak, 38. It seems the club did not share his esthetic appreciation for the Viking warrior on his left shoulder, cartoon coyote on his right and two other tattoos on his arm and ankle. "Even in the shower they want you to cover them up."

Tipness confirms its no-visible-tattoo policy, and like other gyms queried for this article staff declined to let their names be used. As the indelibly marked will tell you, there's no need to single out one chain of gyms. Tats, Haak and others say they're often denied service at public and private facilities, including bars and massage shops.

It should come as no surprise. While Hokkaido's indigenous Ainu and others on this archipelago once tattooed for beauty, religion or identification, authorities during Japan's Edo Period put it to another use: Marking those convicted of crimes. It wasn't long before specialists immerged to ink over the unholy stigmata with elaborate designs. It caught on as an art form but unfortunately one largely donned by criminals and later yakuza (organized crime gangs). Society is only now starting to shake the association as more ex-pats and locals sport tattoos. But many gyms have been slow to catch on.

"We cannot allow tattoos," says a staffer at one of several Tokyo-area gyms recently queried. "In Japan, tattoos are a gangster symbol." Another offered a firm "no" but relented under the pressure of feigned dismay: "If it's in one spot and small then if it's covered with tape, OK." Answers from most others were similar and their reasoning no more plausible. When asked why tattoo-toting potential patrons are banned, the employee at one gym summed it up succinctly: "It is a Japanese tradition."

Luckily it's not one that all gyms adhere to. "We have many foreigners here and a few have tattoos, so it's OK," a Bridgestone Sports Arena staffer says. Izumi at Inkrat Tattoo says, "We do not know any customers who have had that kind of problem," and even plugs a branch of one of Japan's newest gym chain across the hall, Quick Shape. Its Tokyo HQ says all branches are tattoo-friendly.

An increase in tattooed patrons and fear of loosing them has prompted many businesses to read the writing on the wall - as well as their customers, says Dali Rau, 33, "tribal chief" of Graphic Tribe Tattoos. He says in the past decade local attitudes have, "definitely changed for the better. On the other hand, sports gyms are still as rigid as before; both Japanese and foreigners with tattoos have a hard time getting in." While some gyms have traded outright bans for mandates to tape over tattoos, many inked patrons find the arbitrary application of, and rationale for, such rules frustrating.

Gold's Gym is no exception: "Their rule is 'no tattoos allowed for cultural reasons,'" says an anonymous local member. "So they have members cover them with tape, which makes no sense as everybody knows what the tape means. According to them, Japanese people are not ready to see people with tattoos in the gym." But the source who only occasionally covers his tattoo when training at local branches adds, "They have another rule: 'professional athletes with tattoos are allowed to train without covering their tattoos after approval.'" The source says the rule, which a Gold's worker confirms, is likely to ensure the high-profile PR that pro athletes can bring to a gym.

The logic behind fearing tattoos is flawed in more ways the one. Rau concedes the concern over gangsters but notes traditional Japanese tattoos favored by yakuza are clearly distinct from the Western and tribal styles popular with the average Joe or Mayumi. That's not all. "When it comes to why non-Japanese customers (who have less chances of joining the yakuza than a gym) are also affected by this reasoning, I fail to understand it," he says, adding it's likely due to blind adherence to the status quo. Tats admits proprietors may have legitimate concerns that, "a yakuza may 'slip' and use his subsequent faked injury as an excuse to shake down the establishment for a bit of quick cash." But he points out, "The stupid thing is that, for the most part, younger yakuza are no longer allowed to get tattoos. They've wised up ... It makes them identifiable to the police."

Nonetheless, it appears that people sporting tattoos in the Land of the Rising Sun will continue to be limited to where they can work up a sweat, swim or soak in an onsen for some time to come. But tattoo friendly gyms are available. Checkout Bridgestone Sports Arena at: http://www.bssa.co.jp/kodaira/index.html or Quick Shape at: http://www.quickshape.jp/ for starters.

Those interested in getting their skin illustrated can start by visiting Graphic Tribe Tattoos (http://graphictribe.com), Inkrat Tattoos (http://www.inkrattattoo.com/main.html) or Tokyo Body Art at: http://www.tokyobodyart.com.



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