My one condition to myself on getting tattoos was that any image I’d have engraved permanently on my body had to represent a significant milestone in my personal history. The difficulty, however, was never in thinking of historic life markers to commemorate, but rather in choosing a single image which encapsulated that period in my mind (and, equally pertinently, which I’d be happy wearing on my skin for the rest of my life).

Chief among these struggles was finding something emblematic of my years in Japan which didn’t fall into the category of a cliché or, worse, something that I’d judge someone else for having. (See: every white person with a kanji tattoo they’ve mistranslated.) The one image I kept coming back to, however, was the dotwork designs of my favourite Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama – who I discovered quite accidentally when I was headed to work one day and found a giant, polkadot pumpkin planted outside the train station in Akita.

She cropped up further afield again when I was travelling through the city of Matsumoto; which turned out to not only be Yayoi Kusama’s hometown, but the host of an entire museum dedicated to her work.

From that day forward, she was also a constant presence in my home, with a plastic replica of her work living in the equally plastic houseplant I’d adorned with souvenirs from my travels throughout the country.

Yayoi Kusama’s unique visual language is one of dots and repetition, influenced by the nervous disorders and hallucinations she’s experienced since childhood. A contemporary of Andy Warhol, Kusama’s work emerged as an eschewal of Nihonga – the traditional Japanese painting styles she studied in her youth – and she moved to New York in 1958 where she became a key figure in the avant-garde movement of the ‘60s. She’s spent the last 38 years living (voluntarily) in a Tokyo psychiatric hospital, opposite which is the studio she still travels to every day to produce her work.

Quite apart from the ability of Kusama’s art to encompass so many aspects of my life in Japan, however, was my particular affinity for the breed of squash which recurs throughout her work. My final choice seemed especially fitting since I’d begun a love affair with Japanese pumpkins (or kabocha) from the moment I entered the country: my favourite restaurant (and indeed, favourite meal in the whole of Japan) being Savina’s kabocha and coconut soup-curry, which I would invariably order with extra kabocha and coconut milk. (So much so in fact that the waitresses stopped asking for my order and would enquire instead as to whether I’d like “the usual”.)

And ultimately, the tattoo is emblematic of that same idea – how the unusual became my usual, and how a place so far from home became exactly that.

(Tattoo by the very talented Gillian Turner – who was, I suspect, seeing dots herself by the end of the session.)

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Comments
  1. Markus McD says:

    Very cool!! I like her outdoor artwork you’ve pictured here – still totally jealous you lived in Japan!

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