Coffee and Tattoos


Yamamoto Kaicho lies motionless, silently enduring the pain. Sensei Hori applies the tattoo manually, according to ancient traditions, and with his own prepared colors.

Although it is said to be less painful than a modern tattoo, the sheer size and complexity of the artwork is daunting. The skill set involved is immense: at precisely 120 stabs a minute with hand-made needles, and at an exact angle and depth, depending on the skin thickness in that particular area, the artist applies his design. Any mistake will show up immediately, and permanently, as an imperfection.


Early morning. A long row of cars stops in front of the hotel. When we enter the bar in the lobby, i notice that the place has been cleared completely. As a security measure. The bosses are having a meeting and a coffee. Other family members, sitting at surrounding tables at a different positions, form a physical barrier. I am the closest i can go, in front of a someone staring right at me. Souichirou tells me the man at my table has been in prison for the past 23 years, and recently released. He doesn't tell me why, but i'm guessing that it wasn't for shoplifting.


Anything below the heart is painful, Souichirou tells me, while we watch Yamamoto Kaicho's tattoo being completed. Personally, recalling his own tattoo, the inside of the upper leg hurts the most, Souichirou says. Yamamoto Kaicho was once the proud owner of a full body suit tattoo, and had it removed several years later, only to have this new one made. Once complete, he will have spent about 100 hours, in sessions of 2 hours at a time, to get this tattoo.


In the hotel bar I am only slowly starting to understand the minutial social order that is continuously happening within the Yakuza, the micro-expressions on the faces, the gestures, the voices and intonations, the body language. Everything seems to be strictly organized but at the same time seems to come naturally: strangely, I don't need anyone to tell me what to do, where to sit, when to talk or when to shut up... it's like I feel the boundaries, the implicit expectations, and I am slowly learning when I can do, and when to best hold back.


As much as they are allowing me to photograph, it as well seems to me that Souichirou is trying to teach me about the subtle Japanese cultural intricacies, and the relation of their family to society. It's clear to me that they are most definitely not operating completely "outside" of society. They are, so to speak, one leg in, one leg out. Why is this? How is this possible?