Baxter's Blog


Posted in Letters, Road Trip Stuff by misterroadtripper on July 21, 2010

I thought it might be fun to look back through the archives and reprint a letter from Aaron Bell.


April 28, 2004

I’ve just come back from a several week trip to Japan. I recommend bringing along an English-speaking friend or two, so you don’t go insane. Fortunately, I had Mario Barth (if Mario counts as English-speaking) and my co-worker, John Fitzgerald. We were also fortunate enough to meet our friend Junji, who is bilingual. This made our trip much smoother. During our stay, we would guest spot at Horiryu Tattoo and work a tattoo event. We would be staying and working in the Koku-Bun-Cho area of Sendai in Northern Japan, which is full of Yakuza-owned bars and social clubs. It’s not much in the daytime but, in the evening, it springs to life. The main street through this section of town is narrow, lined with lanterns, bicycles and flashy neon signs. Many of the buildings on the street had multiple levels of small neighborhood bars and restaurants. The bars bore the names of characters popular in Japanese-style tattooing, such as Kintaro, the Nine Tails, etc.

When we first arrived there was a torrential downpour. Beautiful women lined the street with umbrellas. They were beckoning men to patronize their “social club.” Once inside, you would choose a hostess who would join you for conversation. She would pour your drinks and light your cigarettes. She would even follow you to the bathroom and wait outside where, upon your exit, she would hand you a hot washcloth to wipe your hands.

We strolled past these ladies, side stepping the occasional vehicle which attempted to squeeze through the narrow street, and entered an elevator. We took it up several floors to the Nine Tails bar. It was dark and the entrance had a Zen-like vibe. There were pictures of nine-tailed foxes on the walls, along with various kabuki masks, tattoo flash and what not. Behind the bar was a large flat-screen TV with state-of-the-art surround sound. At the back of the bar was a small room/tattoo shop. This was where we would be guest spotting.

Once we were settled in, Horiryu took us to some of the social clubs in the neighborhood. These clubs are for drink and conversation. Funny, I don’t drink and I can’t speak Japanese. However, with some help from Horiryu, Junji, and my handy pocket language converter we managed to have some pretty good times as well as some good laughs. On one occasion I looked over and saw a businessman passed out drunk, face down in the lap of his hostess. She just sat there, straight postured, looking confused. In Japanese culture, to do anything else would have been rude. I looked at Mario and said, “She must be a hell of a conversationalist!”

The tattoo event was at one of these social clubs. Tattoo events in Japan differ from the conventions here in the states. First off, they are only for one day, but, boy, is that day long. We got there about 2 p.m., as the event staff was setting up for the show. The room was less than 2,000 square feet, which was kind of a shock. I have become used to the large venues like Mario’s show which is about 60,000 square feet. But, the difference is, there are only about eight booths. The other booths consisted of artists from various regions of northern Japan. All of them were pretty talented. Psyten from Sapporro, especially caught my eye. His work was really great.

You don’t get a real booth like in the states; it’s more just an area to work in. Mario and John began drawing for their appointments. Mario had a Tibetan skull backpiece to do (which, to my amazement, he would knock out in a few hours). John was preparing to do a skull tattoo. After this, he would work on his soon-to-be Japanese girlfriend. Love is universal; who needs to speak the same language? I was setting up for a sleeve and chest panel collaboration project that Horiryu had arranged for us to do together.

People started rolling in around 4 o’clock and, by evening, the place was jammed. We all had appointments set for us and the crowd didn’t seem to expect to be tattooed. They were there to watch tattooing and the other events. Horiryu brought in a topless Japanese girl for us to paint on a bodysuit. We had no idea how we were going to do this. We found out about this the day before, so we stopped by an art store and grabbed pens and paint, but had no idea if they were ultimately going to work on the skin or not. It took us about an hour to complete the bodysuit, as the crowd watched. After this, we would finish tattooing and then do some art fusion (collaborative drawing as performance art). The event closed at 4 a.m. and we were still there at 5, hanging out, doing interviews with Kawasaki, the owner of Japan’s Tattoo Burst, and drinking coffee from the vending machines downstairs (there are cans of coffee both hot and cold available in vending machines everywhere in Japan).

At about 6:00 a.m., we proceeded to the bar across the street to meet others from the event. After many nights of this same routine the sleep depravation finally hit me. It was about 9 a.m. when I informed Horiryu that I was “beginning to lose my mind.” I insisted on being directed to our new hotel. We had checked out of our last hotel the day prior and all of our luggage was locked in the Nine Tails bar! Finally, at 10 a.m., we were taken there. It was only a few hundred yards around the corner. Upon checking in, we discovered that the room was reserved for the night before and that we would have to pay for that night. I thought to myself, What the f%&# ? I had a room around the corner the whole time, and I could have been sleeping hours ago! Oh well, I decided to chalk the incident up to being lost in translation.

After a good afternoon’s sleep, we arrived back at the Nine Tails for our tattoo appointments. There were a few scheduling problems, so we decided to go out on the town. After visiting a few more social clubs, we ended up at a bar called Kintaro. Kintaro is named after the Golden Boy, a character commonly depicted in tattoos wrestling the giant carp. The owner and bartender sported an impressive dragon sleeve by D.E. Hardy that was done in five hours! The bar was about the size of my dining room and had a very cozy atmosphere. There were two workers on shift and they were thrilled to have some American tattoo artists that they were familiar with in their bar. They had a print of mine hanging on their wall, which they pulled down and had me sign. They took lots of photos of us and about had a stroke when John gave them his nautical star beanie. I have never witnessed so many bows and thank-yous.

Mario’s first appointment was one of those bartenders (whom we failed to recognize, because the rain had soaked his half-foot pompadour flat). He wanted a backpiece and Mario did it (like the one a few days earlier) in just a few hours. It looked great. However, Mario hoped this would be the last skull he would be asked to do on this trip.

The next few days were a little strange. Some of the scheduling got kind of screwed up. Nonetheless, we had some good times. On the final day, Horiryu and others gathered at the Nine Tails for a farewell party of sorts. Magumi, one of my clients who was a little short on cash, did our laundry, and Ai (Horiryu’s girlfriend) cleaned our tools, and off to Tokyo we went.

―Aaron Bell (

Slave to the Needle (

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